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Akademia Cartonera: A Primer of Latin American Cartonera Publishers (2009)

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The Nomadic Carto(nera)graphy of the
Latin American Cartonera Publishing Houses

“To arrive at the word without words (how far, how improbable).”

Julio Cortázar. Hopscotch.

Like all histories, history of the Latin American cartonera publishing is made up of fact and fiction. Its origins romantically reside in the folds of a memory that evokes protagonists who arrived on “a yellow afternoon, riding a pink bicycle and wearing a green skirt, like the spring.” At the same time, it is rooted in the beginning of this millennium, a very concrete time marked by the emergence of alternative paradigms of social and political organizing: picketing, barter-clubs, neighborhood assemblies and public demonstrations. The foundational texts gathered here reveal a similar tension: each one underscores singularity, independence, and originality. However, they also highlight social responsibility, solidarity, and protagonists who are determined to create a model that is different from the one that has resulted from years of globalization and neoliberal culture.

And so, there is a story and there is history, a difference somewhat silenced in Spanish language as they are both contained in the letters and sounds of historia. It is a hi/story that is to be told, written, read and remembered. With an additional, slight distinction also particular to the Spanish language: one of those letters, the first one of the word historia, the H always remains silent, yet visually present. So, when memory tells stories and histories, the unspeakable and the unutterable are embedded in it merely resounding in the materiality of the sign. The H stands for the stories that never find their way into histories, the versions that continue multiplying never allow a final one to fully replace those voiceless, but not speechless, stories.  

The history that is told on these pages, much like the cartography of the cartonera publishing houses that it traces, crosses the borders of Latin America to situate itself in the emblematic space of a university library in the United States. On the ninth floor of the Memorial Library at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in the section designated for rare and special books, there are some 360 books made of cardboard pulled from the garbage of Latin American cities, residing together with Bibles and other sacred texts of previous centuries. Like the readers who read them, each copy is unique, even those with the same author and title. With their hand-painted covers they rebel against the order of the library that requires books to hide their faces and reveal their title and author's name on the spine. Ironically, this library is the only place in the world where the copies from Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, Mexico, Peru and Chile are together. They are objects that escaped from their destiny of becoming garbage, and also from being transformed into the pulp of recycled paper. Yerba Mala Cartonera's manifesto explains, “a book made of cardboard is something that is repeated, a material that returns, and a thing that becones transformed.” What began as a tree trunk and then turned into cardboard, transformed into a box to transport bottles of wine, detergents, or chocolates, now has a prolonged life because people with no other way to make a living collected it to sell to the recycling factories. Thanks to an idea and much determination, garbage became a book.

The identity of the cartoneros, people forced to find subsistence in the garbage of others, was not invented in the new millennium, but their numbers multiplied after Argentina's economic crisis in 2001. Their growing presence is what prompted the idea in conversations between the poet Washington Cucurto and the artist Javier Barilaro on a bus from Santiago to Buenos Aires – a trip the two travelers read as an Odyssean journey. These discussions were the necessary sparks for Eloísa Cartonera, the first cartonera publishing house, founded in 2003. In an article for La Nación, Tomás Eloy Martínez described Eloísa Cartonera as, “an artistic and social community that has done much more for the people at the margins of a society of consumption than municipal and national politics since the economic cataclysm of 2001 […].”[1]  

Books made with cardboard covers are not new. Luisa Valenzuela remembers the books of poetry published by Ediciones El Mendrugo in the 1970s. They also had bindings of corrugated cardboard and were made in Mexico by her Argentine friend, the poet Elena Jordana, and distributed in New York and Buenos Aires. The pages of a copy titled El amigo del alma are held together with twine thread and their covers stamped with the print run (300), the publishing house address, and the information that the book won the National Prize for Poetry and Theater in Mexico. There is no date of publication on this or another publication of the same collection, which contains the poetry of Estela Calloni. The manifesto of Yerba Mala Cartonera, among others, explicitly reiterates this particular aspect of the cartonera aesthetic, which “is closer to the ongoing than to the certain, to the current than to the eternal, to the unfinished than to the perfect, luxury, hardcover edition.” The majority of the cartonera publishers do not mark the years of publication in their catalogues, and when it is printed on the individual copies the dates are inconsistent. It is as if time were not eternity but an instant.

Cartonera books are sold at the price of production costs and accumulate readers instead of capital. They are, in the words of Mandrágora Cartonera, “without lucrative ends, and therefore a business so stressed that it is nearly quixotic.” The expansion of the publishing industry in Latin America over the past neoliberal decade has not been accompanied by an increment of new readers. Thanks to marketing and publicity, the traditional publishers have identified niches within the readership already inclined to buy books. The cartonera publishing houses create new readers with literacy campaigns, democratization, and other methods to bring the book closer to a public previously unable to obtain books because of their excessive prices. “We wanted reading to become a daily act for all,” writes Sarita Cartonera in her manifesto. The community based publishing projects employ young readers from marginalized and poor families in the process of cartonera bookmaking, thereby familiarizing them with the world of reading. As the members of Mandrágora Cartonera emphasize, “with the reduced cost of our books, we want literature to become something for everyone.” This statement has revolutionary echoes if one bears in mind that, for example, in Bolivia books are sold for 80-150 bolivianos when the average salary is 600 bol., and that Lima, a city of 9 million inhabitants, had fewer than 20 bookstores in 2004.

The alternative dissemination of cartonera books is twofold: on the one hand they are distributed among new readers, and on the other, the texts that are wrapped by the recycled cardboard covers are written by novice, unknown, and iconoclast authors. This is not to say that cartoneras have not published –especially at the beginning– renowned authors. These include Ricardo Piglia, César Aira, Luisa Valenzuela, Fogwill, Edmundo Paz Soldán, Enrique Lihn, Mario Bellatin, Haroldo de Campos, among others. The desire to distribute Latin American literature is explicitly stated in all the manifestos including the picturesque portunhol selvagem, “the strange mix of Portuguese, Spanish, and Paraguayan Guaraní,” of Yiyi Jambo: “spread the word on sudaka literature, spread the word  on Amerindian poetiks, spread the word on triborder Portuguaranholism umía kuera.”

The cartonera publishers celebrate the idea of the collective. “Cooperativism showed us The Force. This is how we've learned all that we know and now we are much more,” writes Eloísa Cartonera. All of the cartonera publishers insist in their interviews, blogs, and manifestos that there is nothing more fascinating than to sit together, listen to music, sing, cut cardboard, fold it, insert the pages of a story or a poem recently printed or photocopied, paint the covers, and finish up with a book in hand. And all of them have fought hard to find a physical space, a workshop, where they can meet to make the books. Perhaps the contagious energy that they sometimes try to translate into words comes from the materiality of human contact that has become somewhat loose in the age of the Internet. The word has shed its body. And so has the book. In Argentina, the president of the International Union of Editors, Ana María Cabanellas, recently complained, “it pains me that the publishing market of our countries hasn't yet invested in electronic editions, in e-books.”[2]  

Once upon a time, public places like cafés, resounded with voices competing to be heard, but these voices are becoming rare and it is not uncommon to see people alone wearing headphones, in front of their computer screens, smiling absentmindedly as they gloss over something that just arrived from some other solitary Macbook. The letters on the screen are not letters but pictographic elements, electronic dots that create in the retina the image of letters, and the bodiless texts that travel between these machines are not measured in pages. This is the difference between an imaginary reality and the one that is physically experienced. The machines speak to one another but their owners are becoming lonelier. One can see the icons of scissors, papers, archives, but these are ultimately nothing but representations that serve to help the transition between referents and signs. The scissors on the screens will never cut someone nor make a body bleed, but the ones that are used in the workshops of the cartoneras could. The colors on the screen never leave spots on hands. The temperas of the cartoneras always do. To work together, to pass glue, brushes, inks from hand to hand, to touch the body, human or textual, to hear the voice of a friend, these experiences are what all of the members of the cartoneras identify as invaluable, unique, precious. It is what brings the constant sensation of festivity, passion, the carnivalesque spirit that transgresses authoritarian, economic, social, and political injustices.

As Animita Cartonera's manifesto succinctly expresses, “the basis for all the cartoneras is the same. Just as we created a Chilean cartonera others have created theirs, according to their own ideas, needs and idiosyncrasies. We grew from the same source, wandering around in order to adapt to the social and cultural realities of each country. That's Latin America: a neverending clash of identities that harmonize to make us who we are.” This difference is expressed in the names of each cartonera: Eloísa, Sarita, Animita, Yerba Mala, Mandrágora, Dulcinéia… while the common bases will be in the family name: Cartonera. In November of 2008, La Cartonera in Mexico coordinated the publication of the unedited poem Respiración del laberinto by the Mexican poet and precursor of Infrarrealismo, Mario Santiago Papasquiaro (1953-1998), also known as Ulises Lima in Roberto Bolaño's Los detectives salvajes. All of the cartonera houses published Papasquiaro's poems, but each included a different prologue.

There is something nomadic about this new sociability, created by the intersection of cardboard boxes-to-garbage-to-books. It is a dual voyage of the traveler and the traveled, a journey marked by physical and symbolic mobility, the one that originates from the cartoneros, victims of transnational capitalism who travel nightly the length of the mega-cities in search of recyclables. They defy urban limits and deterritorialize city spaces once they've descended from their white train into the many neighborhoods of Buenos Aires. The history of the cartonera publishers follows this journey through the imagination of two artists on a bus ride between Santiago and Buenos Aires, to where the idea of books made from and by the wasted becomes, in the words of the cultural critic Rosi Braidotti, “a global action that can be nothing but local.”[3]  

The cartonera publishers are collective and local all at once. They believe in unfixed identities that go beyond national borders. “It is a collective of people united by their differences; people with a diverse ethnic heritage as well as diverse creeds, backgrounds and ways of life.” writes Dulcinéia Catadora. Sustainability and not-for-profit production are essential to all of these publishers. “The diversity among its members encourages discussion and respect of difference, which are recognized, though not considered inequalities, opening room for an intense sharing of experience and establishing a string of effects. It is this group's configuration that guides the activities developed in-studio, which are marked not only by the complexity of the work, but also by the heterogeneity of the ‘product' book” offers the Brazilian cartonera. Perhaps this explains why all so passionately entice the imaginations of the many who come into contact with them, to the point where the latter wish to found their own cartonera publishing house. “In May 2007, in Lima (Peru),” relates La Cartonera about its birth, “at the Sarita Cartonera workshop,  a question was posed: why not set up a cartonera press in Cuernavaca? […] Naturally, like birth itself, nine months after that invitation, in February 2008, La Cartonera came into the world: without life insurance, without a fellowship or patrons, with no other impetus than that of concentrating on the mysterious experience of birth.” The cartonera publishers share Washington Cucurto's view of social recomposition: “If we can do it, a bunch of cartoneros –six of one, a half dozen of the other– why can't the State, which has everything, which has presses, and which could sell books at half the price because they could produce 20 thousand in one run? With zero investment you could change the culture of Argentina. Who is not going to buy a book at a peso and a half in the street? It is just a matter of not making a profit. And you change everything.”[4] This is precisely what Rosi Braidotti, the theorist who postulated the term “nomadic subject,” suggests, that “in order to revisit the imaginary and to transform it, we need to be many. If the vision is that these many who are together are, each one of them, subdivided, nomadic […] then we do not need fifty million to bring about a change.”[5]

The texts that are published by the cartonera publishers, written by budding writers as well as by established authors, share the nomadic consciousness or “way of resisting the assimilation or the homogenization of dominant forms that represent the ‘I’.”[6]  Indeed, some of the writers published by cartoneras seem to have successfully neutralized the great narratives of their literary fathers and grandfathers: Macondo as well as McOndo. The pleasure that this iconoclastic gesture generates –and one must never forget the pleasure–, is both ethic and aesthetic, as defined in the manifesto of Yerba Mala.

Years ago in 1941, Borges conceived of the universe as a library. Without a doubt, this became one of his favorite topics. “The Library of Babel” tells a tale of generations of readers who have enjoyed the sensation of being mentally lost while searching for the meaning of life within neatly organized real and metaphorical books. Everything, –their past, present, and future– will at some point be written down in one of those volumes. Readers of the twenty-first century continue to search through these books, although the playing field has changed a bit with the arrival of the Internet. The Borgesian tale promised that, “[O]n some shelf in some hexagon, it was argued, there must exist a book that is the cipher and perfect compendium of all other books […].”[7] It seems that no one has yet found this book. I suppose that the search will continue for years if not centuries, but it makes me hopeful to know that the library is now also housing the cartonera books. And these books enclose a truth that wasn't in the borgesian volumes: destiny can be changed and is not subject to what has been written.


[1] Tomás Eloy Martínez, “Eloísa Cartonera: Creadores ante la crisis,” La Nación, February 28, 2009, (accessed May 20, 2009).

[2] Guido Carelli Lynch, “Me da pena el mercado editorial latinoamericano,” Ñ, February 27, 2009, (accessed May 30, 2009).

[3] Rutvica Andrijašević, “Europa no nos hace soñar: Rosi Braidotti, entrevistada por Rutvica Andrijašević,” DeriveApprodi 22, 2002, pp. 137-143,

[4] Pedro Pablo Guerrero, [Cited on 26 December, 2006]

[5] Braidotti as quoted in Andrijašević.

[6] Rosi Braidotti, Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory, (New York: Columbia UP, 1994) p. 25.

[7] Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions “The Library of Babel,” translated by Andrew Hurley, (New York: Penguin, 1999) p. 116.

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