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

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Yerba Mala Cartonera (Bolivia)


If we are talking about cardboard the subject has nothing to do with stuffy attitudes and even less with academic titles. We are talking about a living, natural material that is converted by industrial means: it contains objects, but it is never contained. It is a case, a cardboard box, not a product. Cardboard lives a short life as a container until the case is thrown out and the ephemeral container becomes garbage. Cardboard costs as much as wrapping paper, it is a bonus attached to a main object (a Christmas toy, a microwave, a porcelain vase). Cardboard holds an object; it is peripheral and central at once, it is a side agent but a necessary one. Even though it participates in the process of buying and selling, its role is not solely related to commercial transaction. Cardboard is an object of civilization: as paper once was, cardboard is today's mark of urban consumption and unnecessary waste (consider the seas of cardboard on the trashed beaches of large cities). Its origin is not so complicated (chips and optic fibers require higher chemical manipulation). We are talking about a kind of paper, one that comes from the leftover woodchips of paper factories and goes through a process of alchemy and water in different states until the cardboard is constructed. Cardboard comes from trees with textures as varied as human skin and it radiates the heat so often missing from the majority of objects made in the twenty-first century.

A cartonera aesthetic would have to be connected to the inevitable relationship of container/content. Cardboard and paper have been created as open spaces: materials that do not exhibit identity or feelings. If they are given expression and shape, they become spaces that offer life and they hold things, intangible things (like words), or ones that are tactile to the extreme (as in electrical appliances). For example, paper makes a state constitution accessible, communicates sentiments, spreads information, or proposes laws. Paper and cardboard are thought of as unfinished products, ever unfinished, until they complete their function, and even then they remain incomplete. A book made of cardboard assumes not only an attitude of environmental awareness (recycling thrown-out material), but also, by the same measure, a real openness toward diverse voices, inks, and products. As an incomplete product, it is thought of as a medium for words, a wrapper for objects, and a material for letters. Cardboard and paper require and reclaim that “other” which compliments it, thus its cyclical nature demands constant change.

As odd as it could to imagine an object packaged forever, it would be just as absurd to read a letter the same way one hundred times. In the same way, a totalitarian or dogmatic stance (that does not receive nor recognize the value of the complimentary other) would become unthinkable. The cartonera aesthetic 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. A cartonera copy does not flaunt gold borders or raised lettering. However, in no way does it neglect the aesthetics, even though it may consider some aesthetic elements to be superfluous. Or rather, it disregards an unnecessary rhetoric in the times of material and artistic minimalism. A cartonera book sets aside these excessive figures in order to concentrate on the primordial, on the paper of which it is made, period. Or, to keep the debate open, let's say three periods...


Our urban/natural habitat has imparted us with wisdom and severity, an ethical obligation toward the use of our available resources. This is in no way a disadvantage. On the contrary, it serves as an effective exercise in creativity, invention, and appreciation. From the beginning, a cardboard book is a simple gesture that lodges a question in the human consciousness. (Not the answer. Not even a hint of truth.) Is any waste necessary? Isn't excess just as bad as having nothing at all? Is a product invaluable to the existence of humankind, one that constantly flaunts new materials, that is chemically or genetically processed so that it looks impeccable. Is this worth the polluted air, the density of our lakes, or mental/genetic deformations?

We speak of human nature: Prometheus, Eustace, Icarus or the mythical equivalents in any culture, and we are not making value judgments or moral charges. Far from that, we speak of an act that carries within itself the intention of reaching equilibrium on a path of premeditated self-destruction. It is an act that sticks a finger into the ozone hole, and casts the reflection of human recycling before our limited wildlife.

We should admit that within our alternative aesthetic that is often marginal and irreverent, we prefer sectors that are neither more nor less important than others, and that complete their function in an invisible way within the collective. As literary art free of preference, it is the words that operate autonomously, in deep complicity with a pair of attentive eyes. Words do not need explanation and much less an atmospheric frame.


Reality operates from a dimension so unknown to fiction that one distances him/herself from the other in the same way that the Earth and Sun do during an eclipse. Their paths both repel and seduce each other, in an erasing of limits that fuels the desire to define one within the other. Likewise and in direct relation to unlimited spaces, binary oppositions or dialectics are as incomprehensible to us as unnecessary rules. We operate in the ignored gaps, where walls have been invented in places that are actually open spaces. We assume complete otherness like our own belly-buttons and we should recognize that laughter invades us, in a sincere and naïve act, whenever it is even insinuated that there is a categorical separation between light and dark, man and woman, or life and death.

Within the Yerba Mala Cartonera publishing house we have battled news of false limits or strange disappearances disguised as deaths of friends and colleagues.[1] We understand death as similar to the process that cardboard undergoes before becoming a tree once again. Somewhat free of schizophrenia and imaginary lines, we have blurred the barriers that used to make us believe the tales about genders, classes, or ghettos. We do not believe in heaven and hell as separate from one another. We do not believe in the end of existence, nor do we believe in the symbolic R.I.P. which is pure fiction on a ridiculous tombstone. Nor do we search for a single rational answer to this macro and moral unification that we set out; the soundness of our path is rooted more in ancient wisdom than in partial conclusions that science offers. This vision challenges us to skim the non-existent borders and to freely move through margins, center, periphery, and any other unclassifiable realms.


The physical act of recycling raw materials or finished products cannot be separated from a recycling of consciousness that intervenes with the very thoughts of every reader. No difference exists between the material and the impalpable. The air and the earth are necessary and nurture one another. Nor is it possible to separate an object from its content. By the same token, every cartonero book possesses the same paper format, even though no two books are alike either in appearance or content. The same goes for people, trees, light poles, cities, or any mold that tries to restrict individuality. Whether it is a work of art made from trash or a lucid thought taken from waste, recycling works through a logical movement of harmony to transform the refuse of human life. There is more waste than nutrients, more smog than clean air, more junk than tools. The basic and natural circle of life has been forgotten in the pursuit of a fake premise that positions humans away from its natural environment, turning mankind into a predatory machine or the center of the universe.

The old phrase cogito ergo sum served as an abrupt step between darkness and another era of supposed light. Today it is useless. In its place, existence is understood as an excessive use of instinct, sensation, feeling, and everything that brings us back to the natural cycle. In this setting polarizations are like separating walls. They are unnecessary to participate in a logical, random, and if you will, cosmic cycle. There is no great difference between here and there. Above easily becomes below. The algebraic formula does not often intervene in sensitive contact with the universe but this is only one way to reach it. The instinctual course results as a shortcut for those who still follow the congested path full of arrows, orders, hierarchies and never-ending lines. But there is no obligation to believe in the imposed system just because it is being repeated in classrooms, chapels, and gardens.


The desire to throw out the ceremonial gesture of a book as an object of knowledge (literal/lettered) is born from direct contact with experience, with the simple facts far from the tedious protocol of hardcover books. No one is forbidden to write and no one intends to discover a unique path. The simplicity of a book made of cardboard allows for a variety of voices, each one equally valid for its originality. These voices emphasize the value of difference and show that forgotten gap from which we speak.

We launch some principles (a random selection), that do not imply an established course or sage advice (in the streets they pray: no one feels with an alien mind), but are meant to turn into momentous paths for us to follow throughout this delirium. We do not pretend to outline truths, to insinuate legacies or anything of the kind. These are merely facts from the wisdom of the community imprinted on our minds. With no single motive other than a certain ethical and aesthetic joy (whose relation is as complex as that of solar masses and black holes), and just as they offer fruit to audience members at the entrance of folk shows, we offer some points that we consider important for the understanding of our motivations:

Section No. 25: We consider that the book is a valuable object that everyone should be able to own and acquire with the highest level of convenience and with the least possible trouble. We offer a simple formula (See our manual: How to make a book in three steps) to anyone who has something to say, narrate, or share, so that they may express it independent of sophisticated audiences or luxury publishers.

Original mandate: A cartonero book warns against and denounces the total voluptuousness of books. Cardboard comes from the richest part of nature: the muscle of the tree. This is not an innocent act. Cardboard becomes (in reaction to the frigid state of man and the world) a life filled ember, a holder of a variable temperature and an organic character: just like a human being.

Penultimate article: A book made of cardboard is something that is repeated, a material that returns and a thing that becomes transformed, like fallen flakes of skin, the seeds that fall from trees, or the minds of those who do not die in order to turn into new beings. The recycling of materials comes from ancient cyclical traditions predating writing as we know now. They have shown us the other side of things. In other words, they show a partial reality in which the discarded coexists with the new, or in more mysterious words, the dead coexist with the living in tense harmony. We emphasize this in order to assure that this belief offers the dead the ability to operate with the living.

Commercial clause: We are not trying to create an industrial production of precise, repeated elements. We have seen people concentrate on choosing which cover design appeals to them most. This deals with the differences among readers, writers, and people in general. The difference bestows oneness and originality to each copy; each is unique, just like each person who reads it, writes it, observes it, and makes it. Even though the content may be in many ways the same, the encounter with the cartonero book and the reader is intended to be a unique experience, to reveal something unrepeatable and repeated at the same time, to provide an equilibrium between the individual and the collective, to completely confront otherness while staying true to oneself. Or to restate the ancient question: Being without ceasing to be.
Paraphrasing the writer Jaime Sáenz, we would say that every reader (every writer, every person) is a world in itself, and that various worlds exist within one common world.

Added Asterisk: Without entirely understanding the difference between a dream state and wakefulness, or between fiction and reality, we do not view literature as a world independent and isolated from our own. We nurture ourselves in both dimensions to create, reinvent, and link spaces. In a chameleon-like environment, we are left with the practice of reflection, being the other while still being the one. In this sense, the festivity of change, the requiem of the static, and the exaltation of a continual fluidity take shape within a universal cycle. The eternal celebration that happens whenever a seed germinates or a woman becomes pregnant! We are talking about the human capability to dance, about the discovery of fire, and the melting of heavy glaciers of incomprehension and inhumanity.

Side note: It would be difficult to remove ourselves from our communal environment, which contains a variety of views and arguments. We are concerned about the variety of differences represented by everlasting voices, neglected cries and spoken crazy languages that are, we assure you, as common as garbanzo beans. In this respect, to categorize ourselves in a literary or political ism would mean to ignore another integral part that at the same time makes us ourselves. The publishing house, Yerba Mala Cartonera does not adhere to a hierarchical power. It is a space for literary/aesthetic representations that are emerging throughout our country, supported by the web that we are part of, for that which is produced all over Latin America. Contrary to what may be concluded quickly, results are not chaotic but rather cohesive.
Without remembering the avant-garde that reached a peak with Finnegan's Wake, these languages are born spontaneously and on every street, market, and corner within tribal associations across the continent. They are born below the code of the margin (the majority) instinctive and distant from Royal Academies. Today they are the fertilizer and the aphrodisiac of our language. No one sees me; I keep a look out for fags to keep from dying. If a cop catches me I conceal myself, I play dumb, I don't reveal myself. I do it like I'm miles away, I know I'll get bent, I know I'll be crushed, even more my love, so much more, I swear to you, I know someday I'll kick it, my love. In a related parody of Leo Dan's song “Sé que te amaré” in the work of Victor Hugo Viscarra, where, love is set aside for talk of robberies, police, and vices. Personal codes are transmitted with a wink (the lie from La Paz is a missile of irony and black humor); they are polysemic languages, of course, though more fun than academic ones.
We speak of everyday languages found in urban decay and its eccentricities. Due to this and our assumed mission, we suggest the following announcement:
There are as many languages and aesthetics as there are beings in this world. Our impossible task consists of creating a space for the chorus and setting up the stage so that their voices can be heard, without measure or conductor.

Added Bonus: As has occurred with innumerable artistic enterprises, the publishing house Yerba Mala Cartonera's name could just as easily have been Indecent Handmade Railway, Bar/Guesthouse The Commune or Repairing Shop & Mattress Factory The Hope. Our activity is not strictly limited to publishing and it includes a more wide-ranging process. Since its creation, the publishing house Yerba Mala Cartonera has been a meeting place for people guided only by the compass of friends and travelers, and has grown along with the disinterested support from artists, thinkers, writers, painters, destroyers, merchants, artisans, academics (not many), phonies (or quacks), readers, spectators, transcribers, among others. In this sense, their contributions have expanded along with the organization of creative writing and artisan workshops, poetry readings in semi-urban sectors, book sales at street markets, presentations at international summits, documentary showings, installations, homages, discussions, and all activity in which jargon and wrestling are at hand. Yerba Mala Cartonera is a literary collective.

Now that we have shared these ideas, we must note that our work is nothing new and, even less so, original. It is as old as legends or papyrus  although until the invention of coated paper there have been detours –delirious ones, of sophisticated monetary marketing. In our immediate context we have the guide regarding the Orkopata Group, who, in the beginning of the last century, in an avant-garde act par excellence, foresaw the capacity of communication between distinct nationalities and ways of being through art and literature, obtaining ties between the region and the rest of the continents.

Today, already battling with unstoppable telecommunication corporations, it is easier to organize a diffused channel of art and reflection. We do not see any disadvantage in this territory full of resources; far from it, we believe that there exists something beneath the surface, undergoing the continuous act of emergence, heavy with power and luminosity that can expand to spaces that have lost this subterranean power. In this space there is a work of magnetic vibration, a life that emerges without permission. It is a wave of energy that meanders invisibly. Good vibes display a rebellious happiness far from the solemn praise to the cap and gown.

We still need to convey existence and the creative act as an eternal festival, like an act of growth and evolution second by second, without denying in any way the other side of things. To accept another space that nurtures and coexists with all of our actions: the night seducing the day, or the underground setting fire to the sky. At the same time, we have to deny simplistic categorical separations as good and evil, masculine and feminine. After all, yerba mala, weed, grows in the corners of chapels. For this same reason and paraphrasing Gamaliel Churata, the light that comes back to life, we postulate the premise: we anticipate the dawn of darkness (fully aware that one is impossible without the other) and  supported by our existence, we trust our intimate internal strength and declare: in Yerba Mala no one believes in death.

Bolivia, Summer of 2009.
Yerba Mala Cartonera: Aldo Medinaceli; Beto Cáceres;
Claudia Michel; Darío Luna; Gabriel Llanos.
Lifelong member: Crispín, “el Torcido” Portugal.




[1] The suicide of Crispín Portugal, integral founder of Yerba Mala and author of Almha la vengadora, occurred in 2007 and was the motive behind Cago pues!, a posthumous publication that unites inedited texts, chronicles, and testimonies from the friends of Críspin “el Torcido” Portugal, in addition to a short autobiography of the Alteño writer.

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