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

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Animita Cartonera (Chile)


Animita Cartonera is a publishing house with a social, cultural, and artistic purpose. Young people lead the production in our workshop and make our artisan books. We buy cardboard from independent collectors and we reuse it as a support (cover) for books that are then manufactured by hand.  With this method the book is transformed into an original and unique piece of art. With the author's permission to publish a certain number of photocopied or printed copies we achieve the publication of texts that form part of a solid catalog of important authors and works. This process helps keep costs low and allows us to sell the books at a low price. We also hold artists' workshops for different age groups that are focused on literature. All of the work comes together in the promotion of reading and books. We're turning what was once just the vague idea of a group of friends into a cultural and social project.

Our manifesto attempts to gather the different voices that run the project by bringing them together while simultaneously respecting their individuality. This is why there are three texts written by each one of the coordinators and administrators of Animita Cartonera: Ximena Ramos Wettling, Tanya Núñez Grandón and Mauricio Mena Iturriaga. Finally, there are testimonies from Carol, Nathaly and Alyson, three great women who create books from cardboard.


“The last time I saw my dad he told me about Kamchatka, and that time I understood.
Every time I played, dad was with me. And when the party went bad, I stayed
with him and I survived, because Kamchatka is a place for resisting.”

Harry, in the Argentinian movie Kamchatka.

The animitas (little souls) are constructions in the form of miniature houses, set up on both sides of the street in Chile. They are the reminders of the exact spot where there was a violent, unjust death. They are refuges for the soul in pain, for those who cry, bring flowers, and light little candles until the wax that runs from them is mixed with the wax and petals of many years before. It's like trying to alleviate a feeling of loss, to help some unfortunate soul. They also represent hope that at any moment the spirit will stop wandering and will be able to go to a place that isn't exactly that same place, but a better one.

Some even ask animitas for favors, giving them divine characteristics. They don't only give hope to the living, but they represent hope itself.  They are born from death and they are death's joke. Although there have been motions to destroy them and to put in their place more highway lanes or buildings, resistance to expropriation is strong. As time passes they're still there, insolent, immune to suspicions, and to death itself. They are pure resistance.

Animita Cartonera shares much of this spirit, above all because it has resistance tattooed all over it: it sticks out its tongue at the transnational publishaing houses and its cardboard books rub shoulders with conventional books on the same shelves. It makes a statement about high prices by imposing low book prices. It raises our voices and opposes the distance from culture, reading, and art. It creates opportunities and generates real links to those that have been relegated to a minimal space of cultural diffusion, spit on by officials everywhere.

To us, the exact place of these injustices is no longer a certain street, sidewalk, or lost corner, but an entire country: a remote Chile that straightens up and that is divided when it comes to dealing with culture. This is why Animita Cartonera wants to reach the marginalized communities and to include relegated sectors with decentralized projects like our literary competition or workshops held in various locations. This brings culture and social work to the places that are beyond the reach of official initiatives. Just like the animitas running from top to bottom and from East to West of real and metaphorical territories.

Promoting reading and the access to books, culture, and art is part of our leitmotiv. It is one that must resist the pendulum swings of a market that doesn't leave room for projects not designed for profit. It must also resist the doors closed in our faces and when we are unable to make our plans a reality. Nobody said that it was easy. It's a leitmotiv supported by fellow cartoneras that have been great examples of resistance, as working teams united in the face of adversity, by the cartoneros who pedal through the streets to bring us cardboard, by the kids who make each book, by the authors who believe in the project, by the booksellers who accept fixed prices and promote us, by the students of the workshops and by those readers who have picked up a book once or twice in their lives and have discovered literature in a book bound by cardboard and made by hand,  by a neighbor, or maybe even made by themselves. To see their eyes devour the cover and the pages gives us the strength to create spaces and opportunities and to say, “here we are; we can do it.”

We realize that this project existed before we began and that the necessity, although hidden, was already there. In fewer than two years Animita Cartonera has become like one of the animitas on the street, like a “Kamchatka” located at the end of the world, with its own life and falling off of the map, winking as it does its own thing.

And it keeps fighting, resisting.


“It's a restless hungry feeling
That don't mean no one no good
When ev'rything I'm saying
You can say it just as good.
You're right from your side,
I'm right from mine,
We're both just one too many mornings
An' a thousand miles behind.”

Bob Dylan, “One Too Many Mornings.”

Latin America is living through a striking phenomenon: cartonera publishing houses are appearing in its countries. I have often heard and read that people think that the cartonera publishing houses are a phenomenon. Taking into account that we make books from cardboard, that our work system pays cardboard collectors more than market value per kilo, gives jobs to young people of modest means, and is an idea that unites recycling, literature, art and culture at a low price, then, yes, it's true: we are a phenomenon.

Although the aforementioned points support the idea of these publishing houses as a phenomenon, they leave out what makes them truly unique, which is the identity of each cartonera. While these Latin American publishing houses all share features of a common Latin American identity, they also have unique and inimitable characteristics, like each Latin American country. This has been the driving force behind the birth of these publishing houses and their staying power.

Animita Cartonera is a publishing house that responds to the foundation layed by our Argentine counterpart. That was our jumping off point and from there we built Animita according to our visions of literature, cultural development, and consistent social discourse. At Animita Cartonera we shape our work to contribute to our country's culture, and to develop social spaces where our creativity and work will benefit the community.

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.

Many other countries could replicate this Bolivarian idea, as Washington Cucurto once said. Many others could take this project to promote reading, creation and social participation. This is what generates real movement and not just spectacles in galleries, literary cafes, and libraries. But, doing so is a difficult task that often strays from the idea of seeing it through to the end.

The opening quotation is a line from “One Too Many Mornings” by Bob Dylan. It is gratifying to hear and read that the cartoneras are a phenomenon, something atypical, but it's frustrating to see that this is said in a way that means that it's something that others do. “It's a restless hungry feeling / That don't mean no one no good / When ev'rything I'm saying / You can say it just as good.” If we are doing it, you can do it as well if not better than us. If Latin Americans work outside of the norm and make culture economically accessible with people outcast from cultural and social projects and from politics it must be possible to do this anywhere. We will find development and permanence in dreamtime when Latin American countries unite beyond politics or beliefs.

All the cartoneras have different points of view because they are separated by mountain ranges, deserts, and kilometers that form social identities. Even though I could speak at length about other points that factor into the construction of identity regardless of all sociological, anthropological, and cultural factors, we fundamentally share an identity as American people. In the same way, among the cartoneras we share an identity that values our community and the creation of spaces for interaction.  

Those that see us from the outside see us as something that should be replicated as an altruistic cause, but they see it as something that others do. Herein lies the difference between the identity of the cartoneras and the people who see us: experience, time, what moves us, how we see our society, and what prompted our decision to form and work in a cartonera publishing house. Not everyone dares to look and work for their dreams.

In this book we see different opinions, conclusions, and ways of seeing a cartonera, and as Dylan says, “You're right from your side, / I'm right from mine. / We're both just one too many mornings / An' a thousand miles behind”. We should be working toward a common idea, according to our common experiences, for culture and its people becoming something universal.


I live Animita Cartonera like one of those few spaces for literature in its most pure expression, far from morbid profits and the narrow criteria of many of the commercial publishing houses. They enjoy the profound commitment of the work team in the production of books, from the manufacture of the object to the quality of its content. I've always thought that one of the fundamental pillars of a country's construction was education and that literature is one of the instruments of instruction for its people. An educated nation is inconceivable in a place where the citizens' access to culture is determined by wealth. A tax on books is the worst policy that could possibly be instituted in a country seeking to prosper. It gives me hope to see low-cost books made out of cardboard that “decorated” the sidewalks of our avenues, fashioned by young people who hardly ever have access to books. When I see the work done in our publishing house workshop, I think that not all is lost and that there are still ways for literature to reach a greater number of people.

I remember my first cartonera experience. Back then I was asked to do some research that would be published by Animita. The chosen author was Alberto Rojas Jiménez, a Chilean poet and intellectual from the beginning of the twentieth century. Those who knew him say that the night often got in the way of his poems, drawings, paper figurines and monologues. His art expressed itself through him, since he was never one of those artists out of touch with reality, shielded behind their books or hidden in secret gatherings of armchair intellectuals. Once I decided which of his texts to select, I had to give the book a title. It wasn't hard to see that the main trait of Rojas Jiménez's work was its boundless vitality  for which the most appropriate title would be Life. I write this because this is how it is with Animita Cartonera. I've been fascinated by the vitality of the work in the publishing house. Those committed to the project live for book production. The fact that all of our books are unique objects, give each cover made by hand with a unique design, grants each book its own particular identity. At the same time, the history behind the materials we use is a little galaxy of stories from the hours each of the cardboard collectors who supply us spend in the street to the private life of the young people who design the book covers of each publication. Animita Cartonera is more than a publishing house. We've formed family ties. Literature has been transformed into what it always should have been, a tapestry of experiences, passions and ideas.

I think it's also necessary to say a few words about the role of the literary workshops that we offer as a publishing house. One of the fundamental pillars of Animita is its social commitment, which is what makes it different from others. As a publishing house we don't only bring literature closer to people by making books and selling them for a discount in our bookstore; we share the world of literary creation with those who are curious enough to take a look. Given the utilitarian way of life we lead in this day and age, we often miss the deeper meaning of things, for example, when we use a computer. We sit in front of it an average of four hours a day and we don't fully understand the processes that make its functioning possible. The same thing happens with literature. We tend to read a book and completely ignore the technical and formal elements that create the world on its pages.

When we read the statistics about the low rate of readership in our country, I recall how little reading motivated us in primary and secondary education. Many say that it isn't really like that, given that the Ministry of Education's planning instituted a sizeable mandatory bibliography. When I mention the lack of motivation for reading I'm not only talking about the number of books reads per year by the average student, but also about how students are motivated. When literature is taught with passion, without leaving behind the beauty of its technique and structure, our enjoyment upon turning the pages of a book grows enormously. I think that this will bring literature and writing back to the place where they belong in human civilization. The possibility that our publishing house offers is unique considering the high cost of books in our country. In our workshops participants are taught how to make their own cartonera books. Therefore, the work that we do at Animita Cartonera is a real contribution to society, not only because of our book production but also because of artistic creation and literature's integral role.

I think we can expect that the cartonera spirit will spread not only across the American continent but around the world. I have the unwavering hope that the imitation of the cartonera experience on our continent and beyond our borders will allow literature to come down, like good old Nicanor said, from Mount Olympus. I have no doubt that soon you will see a cartonera book on the bookshelves of many American houses.  


The following are testimonies written by the three women who work on every book cover at Animita Cartonera: Carol Aránguis, Nathaly Sáez and Alyson Peña. We've respected their original manner of expression by leaving their discourse intact, with all their colloquialisms and intonations.

Carol Aránguiz

I arrived at Animita because I needed work. I didn't even know what the project was called until I walked in and they told me to paint and I said “cool, just painting – easy,” because I like painting and it helps me express myself and blow off some steam. And when I got there I realized that as much as it was my project, it was also cultural, and that was interesting.

I feel that we shoot straight up like a rocket, that we're doing great, that it's something for everyone, you know?  Not just for those of us that know what Animita is, but that there are people that can approach reading through this project, because you can reach the readers more easily with some kind of social involvement, for example like in my neighborhood, ‘cause I live in one of the poblaciones, the poor neighborhoods, and there you don't really have so much access to books, so for the same reason that you don't have access to reading, you don't know anything beyond what's commonplace for us.  I myself have read tons of books made here, I mean, not all of them.  I have Monólogos en fuga, which is the only one I have at home and I lent it to everybody so they could read it, and I told them about Animita and tons of people were interested.

Now I have a job, and they've given me the possibility to set my own hours. I don't come for the money, but because I like it, I feel good here. I want to keep painting and making books, making what I like. Here I've learned tons of things that I didn't know before like how to make a book. And I had no idea about that.

Nathaly Sáez

I never liked painting. Here was where I learned to do different things that I didn't do before. The work isn't forced upon me and it's been a good way to keep from feeling boxed in because I don't like being stuck in my house; so this helps me tons and it clears my mind.  Now I say I'm a painter ‘cause now I do like painting and even though it's hard to find drawings and new stuff I try to do it and make them look good.

I wasn't into literature before coming here. Now I try to read the books right here and I like it, you know? I don't know, maybe I've changed a lot from how I was before, and I want to stay here and learn more.

I've talked a lot about it to the people that are close to me and they used to ask me “what is it that you do?” and I told them that I worked in a bookstore but they didn't get that. “But what do you do?” they'd say again and I'd tell them “I make books out of cardboard, book covers out of boxes.” I've shown them the work so they understand and they like it. They've told me that it's really original because there in my neighborhood you don't see this kind of thing and I think that with something like that they could really get into it.

Alyson Peña

What I knew about Animita was that it was a publishing house that worked on cardboard books that were available, in some of the bookstores; but I didn't know how they did it or who the people in charge were. I thought it was an exclusive project because I saw it in a magazine, and I didn't realize that everything, right down to the environment there, is different from what I had imagined. I had workmates that live near me, there's one really close, really independent, everyone is focused on what they have to do, everyone works on their own.

Now people know that the books are made of cardboard and they are the ones the books should get to, the people who can't afford to buy traditional books. The books are interesting and it's good that they are cheap, above all because literature can teach people. I think Animita Cartonera is well on its way and one day I would also like to promote the books. In my neighborhood there is a need and Animita would help to address it. There is so much creativity here, so much perseverance and passion because the people I work with are really passionate.




[1] In English in the original.

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