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Akademia Cartonera: Academic Articles, Cartonera Publications Catalog and Bibliography /Artículos académicos, Catálogo de publicaciones cartoneras y Bibliografía available in original text on CD (2009)

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Notes on the Expansion of the Latin American
Cardboard Publishers: Reporting Live From the Field

Six years. Ten countries. Twenty initiatives with the same “surname” (or what the market research specialists would call “brand name” or even “branding”). I am not talking about McDonald’s, which promotes an automatic replication wherever it installs its franchises, nor am I willing to discuss the H1N1 global pandemic’s expansion that was quick, international, with apparent no pattern, uncontrolled, and unexpected. Instead I am referring to the spread of the Latin American “cardboard publishers,”[1] a social initiative that is promoted mainly by independent writers and artists from the region. To summarize their often dissimilar actions and goals within a few general statements, the cardboard publishers buy cardboard from cardboard collectors at a rate higher than the trade value and then use this cardboard for the covers of their books. Most hire current or former cardboard collectors or their children and work within a process that encourages young people from different social backgrounds to acquire writing and reading habits through various innovative educational initiatives.

They have managed to expand across ten countries in just six years time and to found twenty different cardboard publishers. Surprisingly enough, there is not a main editorial house that controls and regulates the others or that has planned the houses’ regional expansion. Having been launched in Argentina, the initial idea has been adopted with adaptations in Peru, Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Paraguay, Ecuador, El Salvador, Colombia, and Bolivia. The pioneering idea has not been mechanically replicated nor executed in any of the countries in the way often suggested by “the steps of implementation” in the fixed guidelines developed by the northern “headquarters” of some social enterprises, NGOs or international aid cooperation agencies.[2] Rather, each cardboard publishing house is locally tailored, follows a few principles that are shared by the others, and adapts to local circumstances and needs: One publisher is based in prisons and another in a deaf children’s learning center; some work with street cardboard pickers; others establish alliances with social movements, a few with marginalized youngsters and another with housewives; some provide literacy training or literature workshops; some organize alternative book fairs or “counter-power” responses to important literature awards, others are part of the official book fairs; some receive funding from local governments or international aid agencies, others are organized as cooperatives; some have invented a “new language”; one has tried to de-centralize the access to literature by taking it to marginal regions of the country; that same publisher has organized workshops at schools so as to make students realize that literature is “non sacrilegious”… The cardboard publishers do not follow a specific model but they do share a work methodology and the basic material used in the manufacture of books, cardboard, in order to make “the book”, and to challenge and question the books’ symbolism and implications of the book in Latin America (reflections on the use and role of the book, and the meaning of literature in the region). As I conduct field work for my dissertation’s research,[3] it becomes more difficult to picture the essence that they all share. Today I could tentatively say that they all share the long term goal of democratizing access to literature and publishing possibilities and, of course, that they all make books out of re-used cardboard. As Tania Silva from Sarita Cartonera puts it, “we all share the love for literature and the intention to make people think about what the value of books is.”[4]

In the next section, I will describe the history, project and mission of each cartonera; then I will consider some common principles and differences among the publishers. Afterwards, I will discuss possible causes for the creation and expansion of the presses in the last six years. Then, I will consider whether or not they are the sole “revolutionaries” of the regional editorial market or if they find themselves as part of an alternative editorial generation of publishers. Next, I will ask if there is a regional network or a movement of cardboard publishers. Finally, I will reflect upon the geographical expansion of the cartoneras and the role of the media and the academic world in shaping the publishers’ identity as a “network” and as a “phenomenon” and also encouraging the group’s inner knowledge, communications, and expansion. I will try to explain briefly the main points of each section as this article is intended to be a short introduction to my deeper research project on the expansion and creation of the cardboard publishers.


Eloísa Cartonera, in Argentina, was the pioneering project of cartonera publishers, created and promoted by a young writer and two visual artists in 2003, less than two years after the Argentine economic collapse that caused urban cardboard-pickers (cartoneros) to become a symbol of the suddenly increased poverty rates and urban marginality and vulnerability levels. Cardboard is purchased from cardboard-pickers at a price higher than the value that cardboard-pickers usually receive on the market. That cardboard is then used as book covers, which are decorated with colorful stencil techniques by youngsters[6] ; inside, the photocopied pages of the books are hand-bound containing stories and poems. Acknowledged Argentine and Latin American authors grant permission for the publishing house to edit their books without asking for benefits. This has given great visibility to the project. In addition, by publishing the texts of young avant-garde Latin American writers, Eloísa Cartonera also provides a means of expression for authors who would otherwise struggle to have their voices heard. All the books are sold at an affordable price and thus promote “democratic” access to Latin American literature and to reading in general. The publishing house is self-managed, works as a cooperative, and is maintained by means of its own production.[7]

One of the founders of the Peruvian publisher, Sarita Cartonera, discovered the Argentine books in a Chilean book store in 2004. Sarita’s books have been manufactured by youngsters of a family of cardboard sellers who receive payment for each book they produce. Reviews about the publishing house’s texts appear regularly in major national newspapers next to those of multinational publishers.[8]

Bolivia, a country with one of the smallest publishing markets of Latin America, has already developed three cardboard publishing houses. In a place where the value of a book can be one-fifth of an average monthly wage, Yerba Mala was created in 2006 in El Alto and La Paz and offers cheap literature written by young writers in the urban jargon of the street and the local low-income sectors. It has participated in the creation of the counter-book-fair and now takes part in the official one. It has also published the countercultural Des-tamayados anthology that gathers all the stories that participated in the National Literature Prize Franz Tamayo that was declared “void” as its jury considered the entries just “mediocre.”[9]  Yerba Mala decided to publish these entries so that the readers could judge their quality after such a controversial decision. The press does not have its own workshop, and although they began hiring cardboard-pickers in order to produce the books, now the members of Yerba Mala manufacture the books themselves before a book’s presentation or upon request. Mandragora Cartonera was founded in 2005, in Cochabamba, Bolivia, is devoted to acclaimed writers and produces books mainly for university students who order their course’s syllabi wrapped in cardboard covers. Deaf children manufacture and paint the books as part of an artistic activity in the specialized center they attend. Nicotina Cartonera was founded in April 2009 in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Its creator was inspired after watching a documentary film about Yerba Mala in a local cultural center. Yerba Mala advised and helped the members of Nicotina so as to create the publishing house.[10]

In 2006, Animita Cartonera was the first Chilean cardboard press. It does not work directly with cardboard pickers but instead with at risk youth and with housewives. Canita[11] Cartonera was born in May 2009 in Iquique, in the North of Chile. It is defined as an editorial project within the frame of the creative resources associated with the community of interns from Alto Hospicio Detention Centre.[12] In October 2008, they met the people from Bolivia’s Yerba Mala, who had published the works of the Chilean poets Danitza Fuentelzar and Juan Malebrán, the two creators of Canita. The press has received support from various regional institutions.

Dulcineia Catadora,[13] is based in São Paulo, Brazil and was founded in 2007. In their foundational process Javier Barilaro, one of the creators and a former member of Argentine Eloísa Cartonera, was a very important influence. Dulcineia is a cooperative that gathers artists, writers, and cardboard-pickers. The publisher is partly sponsored by the National Movement of Recyclable Materials’ Collectors and by the Street Population National Movement, whose members help in the production of books. Katarina Cartonera is based in Florianópolis, Brazil, and was created in September 2008. They consider themselves the “sister” of Douglas Diegues’ Paraguayan Yiyi Jambo because the publishing house was founded after meeting Diegues in “Semana Ousada de Arte” (Daring Art Week), promoted by the local university Universidade Federal de Florianópolis, where Evandro Rodrigues, the press founder, is a graduate student. Cardboard-pickers do not manufacture the books in this case.

Paraguay’s Yiyi Jambo began work in 2007, publishes books whose writing is inspired by oral traditions, and uses a language free from the rules of spelling and grammar called portunhol selvagem.[14] Felicita Cartonera, Mamacha Kartonera and MBurukujarami Kartonéra were founded at the end of 2008 and are “bifurcations” from Yiyi Jambo and also work with texts in portunhol selvagem.

La Cartonera was created in February 2008 in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Its aim is to publish books without having a powerful financial and administrative machine. For La Cartonera, the “undertaking of craft projects in current digital times is an act that commits itself to the future.”[15] They do not work with cardboard-pickers for the production of the books. Santa Muerte Cartonera was created in the Mexican capital city at the end of 2008 and proposes “to make books as a design object in relationship with its contents. That is why every design is very different to the rest.”[16]

Matapalo Cartonera in Riobamba, Ecuador, started publishing at the beginning of 2009. A young writer and anthropology student, a visual artist, a craftsman and a young editor decided to create a cartonera after hearing about Eloísa Cartonera. Some of Matapalo’s goals are to become “a publisher of cardboard books that works with low income youth; to open a space where those youngsters could learn alternative trades so as to help them make ends meet; to count on an alternative space of publication that is not located in the biggest cities of the country and that could articulate an inexistent cultural movement in a small city like Riobamba; to create networks with other cartoneras so as to help spread Ecuatorian literature in the region; and to disseminate Latin American literature that does not reach Ecuador.”[17]

Textos de Cartón is the second Argentine cardboard-publisher and was created in 2009 in Cordoba province. The founder read about other cartoneras over the internet, he liked the format and the social task that they had undertaken. The members of the press make the books themselves and when they have financial resources they buy cardboard from cardboard-pickers; if not, they try to get cardboard for free.[18] They have communicated with Cristino Bogado from Paraguayan Felicita Cartonera, but surprisingly they have not been in touch with the people from Eloísa Cartonera, the other Argentine Cartonera and the most mediagenic of all because it was the pioneering project. Cartonerita Solar is composed of students of Literature and Psychology from Universidad Nacional del Comahue (Neuquen, Argentine Patagonia). It started in June 2009 and they intend to make the books themselves, as there are no cardboard-pickers in their region. They want to publish the things that they write but that the “big” publishers look down. Their objective is to publish young authors from the Patagonia region. As they have stated, the only means for publishing in the region is to befriend the people from the local government so that they can help to fund publications or publish in the official publishing house. However, the local government “only publishes the piece-of-junk-authors that are good for that press, who are the same people that run the publishing house.”[19] Since they do not have a workshop, they plan to sell their books within universities, as they believe their most probable clients will be university students. Cristino Bogado, from Paraguay’s Felicita Cartonera sent them some examples of books through the post so that they could learn how to edit and design more cartonera books. This has been the only contact they have had with the rest of the cartoneras.

Cabuda Cartonera was born in April 2009 in El Salvador. Héctor Hernández Montesinos, from the Mexican Santa Muerte Cartonera, explained the cartonera project to them. Patasola Cartonera is based in Bogota, Colombia. Maggie Torres, one of its founders, worked with Felicita Cartonera in Paraguay and decided to create her own press when she went to study in Colombia. They have also been in contact with Santa Muerte Cartonera.


It is difficult not to think that twenty initiatives across Latin America—most of them with the same surname or that share the feeling of belonging to a family larger than their own local one—must all have something in common. However, as I continue to conduct fieldwork, it becomes more difficult to figure out what they all share exactly, other than the use of cardboard to make their books. I believe that there is something else, but it does not seem immediatly evident. For example, not all of the cartonera publishers work with cardboard-pickers. Just one former cardboard-picker works in Eloisa; relatives from cardboard-sellers work in Sarita; Dulcineia works with an acknowledged and institutionalized Cardboard-pickers National Movement; deaf children manufacture the books from Mandragora; the members from Yerba Mala, Textos de Cartón, Katarina Kartonera, Nicotina, La Cabuda, Felicita and Cartonerita Solar make the books themselves; Animita works with at-risk youth and housewives; Matapalo with low-income youngsters; and Canita with prisoners from a detention center. I do not consider this to be a failure in any way. Rather, I believe that the diversity of experiences is what enriches the cartoneras case. It would be unrealistic to expect the rest of the cardboard presses to follow the nonexistent cardboard-publishers creation guidelines that Eloísa Cartonera never wrote nor gave as an oral or formal piece of advice. It is not easy to lump the publishers together.

Among their goals, some presses emphasize the social role of the initiative; others the artistic (or aesthetic) side of the project; some focus on the editorial or literary issues; a few on the political or ideological position of their work; others on their role towards educational practices; and a number could easily be related to charity or NGO initiatives in how they act and manage their projects. Some publishers are funded by international aid agencies or NGOs; others are sponsored by local governments or institutions or the national state; at least one works as a formally constituted cooperative; quite a few are self-managed where the editors have made the initial investment and have reinvested profits in new books.

Some cardboard publishers want to leave the cardboard material from the books’ covers quite visible and with a rustic style when painting the books’ covers so that the reader will be conscious of the ethical and political implications of reading in this format. Other presses make book-objects. At some cardboard publishers, anyone visiting the workshop can paint the books; in others, only low-income youngsters can do so; and in quite a few the editors produce the books. Some publishers produce only upon request or before a book presentation or to restock sold titles. One press makes books every time they get a “project” funded by an institution. Another produces books on a daily basis.

Academic literary critics have had different reactions to the projects. Some have complimented the work of some presses and consider them to be innovative, while others have said that the cartoneras “are not making literature because it is just cardboard.”

Mandragora Cartonera in Bolivia “does not take the fact of participating in a cartonera as a quest for utopia”[20] ; which is just the opposite of Yerba Mala, which defines its mission quite close to that idea. Mandragora and Sarita publish acknowledged authors; Yerba Mala publishes young, avant-garde writers; Eloísa and Matapalo publish a mixture of both. Some publishers feel that they have a sort of counter-hegemonic role against big multinational publishers; others are very comfortable as “part of the system.” This is why I do not consider all of the cartonera publishers to be a form of cultural resistance or counter-cultural initiatives as a whole, nor do I think that every cartonera re-appropriates the so-called popular aesthetics in the literature they publish. I agree only in part with Jaime Vargas Luna who said: “the common background is related to the need to bring literature closer to the street and to show the street in literature […] the catalogues of every cartonera have their own explorations, but there is a more or less anarchic spirit, a de-sacrilegious spirit that embraces all of us.”[21] He is correct in regard  to the desacralizing the Book (yes, with a capital letter), for example in the presentation of new titles. At some of those events, actors, storytellers, mimes or cumbia bands have taken part. Book presentations have taken place many at non-conventional sites like rough port bars or the city halls of poor municipalities. On such occasions cartoneras have offered pisco,[22] beer or other popular[23] beverages or foods (like choripan[24] ) instead of the traditional wine or champagne cocktails. Many have a common “alternative” approach toward the sale of books. Sarita, for example, had a stand in the International Book Fair in Lima that was made out of cardboard. Additionally, all of the cardboard publishers state that they share a love for books and they are non-profit initiatives. Projects like Matapalo, Cartonerita Solar, Canita, Yerba Mala and Sarita—with its Cool-tour[25] —have expressed a common intention to decentralize literature: to make literature spread in alternative spaces (like a detention center) or to peripheral cities.

Many of the publishers have declared among their goals an objectives to democratize the access to literature. Cartoneras generally sell books at a price that is lower than the market price for “traditional books.” However, buyers are mostly university students and professors, writers, journalists, and other middle class professionals, that is to say people who would usually have access to “traditional books.” It is also important to consider whether or not there is a kind of cool-ture in buying cardboard books: a certain BoBo[26] habit, or fashion that is a product of an un-desired underground marketing machine; or is it just curiosity or morbid fascination with the material of the books or with those who “theoretically”[27] make the books or who are being helped with the sales of the books, more than toward the text itself? There is nothing especially negative about this possibility. I am simply pointing out that the low-income sectors that usually do not have access to literature have yet to come closer to literature with the cartoneras initiatives. Sarita’s project LUMPA [28] has shown how education that encourages the love for reading and the loss of fear for the book object is more important than the price (access) of the book itself. Nevertheless, as Eduardo Yumisaca from Matapalo put it, cartonera publishers are not “interested in results, as […they] are not an NGO.”[29] The principal achievement of the cardboard publishers would then be to reveal the importance of the symbolic power of the cardboard books: the opportunity to show that it is possible for many people to write, edit and make books themselves and also to re-think the meaning and the role of the Book.

Regarding the surname cartonero, it has been quite remarkable to discover that many editors from the Latin American cardboard publishers do not know what the term cartonero implies in Argentina, where it was initially used by the original cartonera. After Argentina’s economic meltdown, hundreds of low-income families in cities like Buenos Aires were forced to rummage through the trash in search of recyclable materials such as cardboard that they could then re-sell. These people were named cartoneros and collectively became one of the main symbols of the 2001 social and economic crisis.[30] The cartonera surname of the pioneering Eloisa was inspired by the cartoneros or cardboard collectors, and this surname had a very special symbolic, social and political power. The rest of the publishers have employed that surname more generally because they were either using cardboard for the making of the books or because they associated the word with the “literary movement they wanted to be part of, which was named in that way.”[31] I have asked some of the cardboard publishers’ editors and managers if they worked with cartoneros and they have said “we are cartoneros!” I used the word in its original Argentine meaning (“cardboard collectors”) and they understood it as “members of the cardboard presses.”

Finally, I want to mention a peculiar myth that was developed regarding the “first name” of each cardboard press. As Sarita Cartonera was named after a popular Peruvian saint, someone in Mexico thought that the “rule” was to name the cartoneras after local saints and used the name “Santa Muerte.” Others believed that the “trend”[32] was to name the publishers after popular icons or using local jargon as in the case of Animita,[33] Yerba Mala,[34] La Cabuda,[35] and Matapalo.[36] The pioneering Eloisa, however, was neither an Argentine saint, nor a popular icon or local jargon word. She is supposed to be a Bolivian model that one of the press’ creators had a crush on. This proves again the lack of actual communication between the publishers and of any kind of guideline that would help to define what a cardboard publisher is.


Some analysts, media or even a few publishers have related the creation and expansion of the Latin American cardboard publishers, which started in 2003, with the election of so-called left or post-neoliberal governments in the region. But so-called left-wing administrations do not govern in all ten countries where the presses are found (Peru, Mexico, or Colombia). Moreover not all of the other countries (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Bolivia, Ecuador, El Salvador) share presidents with post-neoliberal policies, as a single Latin American xxist century left has been widely discussed as non-existent.[37] Thus, there is not a deterministic relationship between a supposedly left-wing-government and the opening of a cardboard publisher.[38] There is a relationship between the symbolic influence of some historical party politics getting into office like the case of Evo Morales[39] and the creation of the Bolivian Yerba Mala. The founders of Yerba Mala have openly declared that having a president like Morales helped them realize that they “could also make their dreams come true.”[40] But again, I don’t want to establish this line of thinking as a generalization for all the presses. If I continue to analyze the Bolivian scenario, I could erroneously conclude that the Santa Cruz region’s cardboard press, located in an area where Morales and La Paz region are not widely appreciated, would not befriend the members of Yerba Mala, a conclusion that could not be less true. Yerba Mala from La Paz advised and helped found Nicotina from Santa Cruz. This case shows how party politics and regional politics are not deterministically related to the opening of the cardboard presses.

Another explanation for the creation and expansion of the cardboard publishers is that they are a response to the editing, publishing, and selling criteria of neoliberal multinational publishing houses. This could be the reason for the opening of some presses, but not for all, as many have stated that they are more a response to local needs or stakes in their cities’ cultural spheres than to transnational business influences. Another theory suggests that the publishers are a response to the Latin American economic crisis. However, one could easily ask: when has this region not been undergoing a crisis? The same could be said about the price of books in Latin America. Often, the creators of the presses are motivated to sell books at a lower price but they are not the first publishers in history with this purpose (for instance Populibros Peruanos and Centro Editor de América Latina, CEAL). Furthermore, the price of books in the region was high for low-income sectors many years before the cardboard publishers were created. Additionally, pirated books allow texts to be sold cheaply and in an industry that has widely developed in the last years in the region and theoretically could have discouraged the founding of the cartoneras.

I believe that the creation and expansion of these presses is a result of the Information Technologies (I.T.) that have really made the editing and designing of books accessible to a more people willing to participate in the editing process. I.T. have spread across the region (and worldwide) at the same time as the cardboard publishers. As I will explain in the section that follows, these technologies allowed the founding and expansion of many other alternative publishers in the region.

Besides the massive use of Desktop Publishing programs like Quark Xpress, the internet has worked as a vehicle for the transmission of news about the creation and activities of the cardboard publishers, as well as their blogs, Facebook pages and web pages. Many newer presses have declared that they were “inspired” to create their own cardboard press after reading the blog of a cartonera or a piece of news about them online. However, these tools have not favored communication between the presses, as most of them did not even have the others’ email addresses until recently. The few instances when advice was given for opening a new cartonera were face to face, in casual encounters, for example during meetings between Latin American students or writers.


Even if some people have considered the case of the cardboard publishers as a kind of isolated and “revolutionary” story of a small David against the giant Goliath of the multinational publishers, I believe that they are in many cases part of a bigger alternative publishing trend in the region.

It would be interesting to analyse fanzine production in Latin America as well as the publishers around the scene of Feria del Libro Independiente y (A) (F.L.I.A.), whose events usually take place in seized factories in Argentina; and Estruendomudo, Matalamanga, Álbum del Universo Bakterial, [sic], and many other presses related to Alianza Peruana de Editoriales (ALPE) and Punche Editores Asociados in Peru. Writers who publish with these alternative presses emphasize that these publishing houses give opportunities to novel or “risky” authors and that the editors are “warmer” than the ones of big publishing houses and don’t just think about sales. They tend to humanize the figure of the writer, and don’t present him as an isolated god or movie star. The consumption circuit of these publishers’ books is focused on universities, counter-book-fairs, neighbourhood cultural centers or community radios, regional meetings of writers, political demonstrations, or at the presentations of new and un-conventional titles. Many of these publishers are used to establishing alliances among themselves for different purposes. Cardboard publishers are part of this trend of alternative presses that, as I have stated, have multiplied thanks to the help of I.T. for editing and designing. Also,  they are not the first to make books out of cardboard, as the cases of Ediciones Embalaje (Colombia) and Mexico’s Ediciones El Mendrugo show.


Some cardboard publishers, media, or analysts have defined the group of the twenty cardboard presses as a network or a movement. Of course, this is more or less true depending on the definition of those concepts. I recall the opportunity when I found out that there was a new press in Ecuador and I went to Eloisa’s workshop in Argentina only to discover that they were uninformed about it. Additionally, the people from Eloisa told me that they want to publish a regional anthology of all the cardboard publishers but they have had trouble achieving this because they did not have the other publishers’ email addresses or a fluid method of contact with them.[42] Until very recently, they did not even know what the others were publishing or about their activities. Knowing this, can one talk about a “network”?

On the other hand, I should mention that the Mexican newcomers, La Cartonera, managed to organize a simultaneous launch of Mario Santiago Papasquiaro poems at several of the cardboard publishers in December 2008.[43] Some presses have also exchanged texts to publish. Dulcineia Catadora is now organizing a collective edition of a children’s book that will be translated into Spanish and published by several other cartoneras.

There is a cardboard publisher network but it is still being developed, slowly and not institutionally. In a way, there are two generations of publishers. The first generation found out about Eloisa from a distance and in a very uncertain way, and these publishers were focused on adapting to their local context (Dulcineia, Sarita, Yiyi Jambo, Mandragora, Yerba Mala, Animita). They have shared texts for publishing, but they have never had a lot of contact among themselves nor thought of themselves as a network. The newer, second generation discovered the first by reading about it in the media. News articles have described the cartoneras as a “phenomenon” and a network.[44] Santa Muerte, Matapalo, La Cartonera, Katarina, Textos de Cartón, Cartonerita Solar, Canita, Nicotina, La Cabuda and Patasola were created because they wanted to “be part” of the movement whose identity has been built and described by the media. They started organizing collective activities for the “network” and establishing stronger bonds of communication. Several of the second generation publishers share a goal of “creating networks with other cartoneras.” This situation is like having parents who don’t know that they have a family, and children who desperately want to be part of it.


Some media outlets have described the group of cardboard presses as a “phenomenon” or as a network, which has affected the construction of the cardboard publishers’ collective identity. Regarding this issue, Jaime Vargas Luna, former member of Sarita, mentioned: “what I ask myself is not why there are [eight] cardboard publishers in Latin America but what they see in us, why we are a symbol or a symptom of something for someone. I have the feeling that the “cartonero phenomenon” is not something that we are actually doing but a label put from the outside and I think that it would be very interesting to find out why.”[45]

The media has also often emphasized the “social role” of the publishers without highlighting the fact that they are actually publishing houses and present the publishers more as NGOs. The “social role” is less important to some presses, as they do not work with cardboard-collectors or with at-risk youth or prisoners. They are simply editors and writers who make the books themselves in order to sell what they write or to publish what they consider valuable. However, the media, and even some scholars, tend to highlight this “social side.” Perhaps this occurs because they “fell in love” with the cartoneras, and they tend to romanticize the projects’ goals and to generalize when talking about all of the presses. Diego Muñoz, a member of a family of cardboard sellers who works in Sarita making books said: “in El Comercioa newspaper an article was written saying that we were cardboard collectors, implying that we were kids with no family, that we did not have anything to eat, that we were poor. That is not true. We have a family and a place to eat. I am not saying that there is something wrong in being a cardboard collector, but we do not do that. Newspapers try to encourage a morbid fascination so that the people will continue reading.”[46] As a former journalist and current academic researcher, I know that both the perversity of the media and of the academic system obliges many professionals to “sell” their articles’ ideas or research topics to their editors, research grant-makers or directors as completely new, exotic, fascinating and unseen. I believe that the cardboard publishers are creative, smart, and striking initiatives, but I find myself with the ethical obligation of situating them within a certain historical and social context, following what I actually hear from its creators. Through my research, I have come to the conclusion that sometimes insightful projects are more the byproduct of imagination, effort, anarchy, and friendship bonds (between the publishers, in this case) than the result of romantic and revolutionary heroic motivations.

Some people have pointed out that academic analysis and actions like the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s and my own research have also helped shape a cardboard press identity or to encourage the cartoneras members to think about themselves, the reasons for their creation, connections and expansion. Jaime Vargas Luna, former member of Sarita, spoke about the “Madison effect.” The university might have promoted the presses’ inner-communication and thoughts about their group identity by organizing the cartoneras conference. Regarding my case, far from suffering an egocentric research illness, I believe that I work with subjects of study, human beings, people; not with “objects of study.” And even if it may sound very funny, I share the ethical and political position of thinking that researchers are also human beings who intervene in the social processes that they are studying. According to Gabriela Falconí from Matapalo,[47] my collective emails to all the publishers in order to coordinate my field research helped promote the contact between them and their reflection about who they were and what they had in common. What’s more, as I have a Participatory Research Approach (P.A.R.), I have decided to film videos of every press I visit so that the rest of the publishers can get to know the faces and voices of the often completely unknown cardboard publishers’ fellows. This widely influences the perceptions that the presses have of each other and also the contact between them and the construction of their group identity. I also carry books from one press to the other while I conduct my multi-site field research. All of these actions inevitably affect the perceptions of cartoneras about the other cardboard presses.


I believe that the installation of cardboard publishing houses arises in casual and sporadic encounters between Latin American writers and artists in the region’s cities, where the “cardboard spirit” is informally “learnt” in one afternoon. Alternatively, cardboard publishers-to-be read about older presses over the net and were “inspired” to do something similar in their own cities. The installation of almost every cardboard publishing house lies in the will of its creator and in the local situation and needs of each city where every press is born. That is why the main idea of my project is that the expansion of the Latin American cardboard publishing houses resembles the spread of oral traditional tales: it is transmitted by word of mouth, and it is spontaneous, creative, with freedom, with no hierarchies or strict rules…but preserves the “tale’s” spirit.

Imagine that “A,” a person very concerned with beauty, tells “B” some tales from A Thousand and One Nights. “A” will highlight Scheherazade’s beauty while recalling how she continued to tell king Shahryar tales night after night. Wisdom is very important for “B,” and so when he tells the “same” tale to “C,” he emphasizes Scheherazade’s intelligence for telling tales night after night. In this simple example, both “A” and “B” tell the same tale but they add their own influence or perceptions to it, related to their own interests and needs and also probably to their audience. That is how oral tales, myths, and legends have spread over the centuries and geographies. I believe that the same thing has happened with the spread of cartoneras across the region. As most of them have expanded by word of mouth, they have profited from the flexibility of orality that has allowed them to adapt each initiative to local needs and interests. Both the spread of oral tales and that of the Latin American cartoneras are also a result of spontaneous contacts and actions as there is no scheduled plan behind their expansion. Casual encounters—in villages’ fairs or in writers meetings—are both the context for oral-story-telling and for learning about what a cardboard publisher is.

Victor Vimos, from Matapalo, recalls wondering who he was supposed to ask for permission before creating his own cartonera until he discovered that there was no one with such a bureaucratic function.[48] He consequently did what he and his group wanted to do. Freedom and creativity, as in the case of the oral tales, are part of this process. Pioneering Eloisa could have established fixed rules for the creation of sister initiatives or could have functioned as a cartonera headquarters, organizing projects, internationalizing the idea or granting authorizations. The spread of the cardboard publishers happens the same way as the expansion of the oral tales: there are neither strict rules nor hierarchies for telling the stories, for deciding how to tell them, nor for who can tell them.

Moreover, as oral-story-tellers usually do not maintain contact after hearing the others’ tale, cardboard publishers also have not had shared fluid communication besides the initial spontaneous points of contact (however, this situation has recently begun to change for reasons that I have already explained). Also following the case of A, B and C, it could be mentioned that even if A knows B because A told B the tale, A does not necessarily know C. Few cartoneras publishers have actually ever met.

 Similar analyses to mine have been done on the subject. Jaime Vargas Luna has said: “there are a thousand reasons for explaining the expansion of cartoneras, but if I had to choose one, I would compare their spread to the osmosis process: each one discovered that a cartonero project existed, liked it, realized how easy it would be to put into action a similar project and launched it.”[49] In turn, Juan Gómez, a member of Eloísa, has also compared the expansion to the spread of gossip.[50] Javier Barilaro, a former member of Eloísa, has related it to the Deleuzian concept of the “rhizome.”[51] A rhizome is a model where the organization of the elements does not follow hierarchical lines of subordination, instead it has a base or roots that give rise to multiple branches; anything can affect or influence any other element.[52]

The goal of my work is not only related to the descriptive nature of an interesting case and the context of its emergence. My research will to invite readers to reflect on NGOs, civil society organizations and international aid agencies’ practices, expansion and relevance; or, in more general terms, “development” practices in Latin America. In a recent work (2007) developed by the Association of German Foundations about social franchising,[53] it is explained that “it makes sense to scale up what has already been proven successful. Because the money, time, and energy associated with implementing new projects are reduced, it is a cost-effective means of utilizing scarce resources, while simultaneously achieving greater impact.” Although some of those statements may be true, I find that the automatic replication of a model or a central institution that controls the rest of the “social franchises” or their expansion might prove to be inefficient or even counterproductive, as social initiatives cannot be compared to for-profit-businesses. I hope that the findings of my study will show a group of encouraging “de-franchised”[54] experiences that stress the importance of local knowledge, needs and experience when proposing or adopting solutions for social change projects.

I believe that cardboard publishers have experienced a multiplying expansion, neither planned nor centralized (as the pioneering press has never showed a specific institutionalized interest in promoting or discouraging the spread of its idea). The expansion of the presses has been spontaneous, horizontal, and fast and it has produced heterogeneous initiatives as a result. In contrast, Bradach argues: “Effective replication often depends on having a constant, standardized context within which a program will operate. The consequent tight alignment between the organization’s operating model and the intended beneficiaries makes it difficult to serve other groups unless the model is modified at the same time…Replication requires answers to three critical questions: (1) where and how to grow; (2) what kind of network to build; and (3) what the role of the “center” needs to be. While the right answers require both good data and careful analysis, replication is basically a process of planned evolution.”[55] This has not been the case of the cardboard publishers. They are an example of an anti-franchised kind of expansion. That is why one of the biggest and unmentioned values of the members of Eloísa Cartonera, the first initiative, was not to create guidelines and to give freedom to whoever wanted to create a cartonera, granting a lack of need to ask for any kind of permission or instructions.

As Alabarces explained, one must have a complex reading that cannot be reduced to the surface of the poetic text when analysing an artistic manifestation, but that must include the aesthetic side, the mise en scène, the industrial and commercial circuits, the rituals of consumption, the consumers’ practices, and the institutions and actors involved in the process. It is impossible to analyze a “phenomenon” such as cartonera publishers without an intention to have total look that re-builds the full and thick map of culture in a given society or societies. Otherwise, to deal with these “free areas of culture can lead us to ‘populist autonomization,’ to the celebration of isolated fragments, to the space where the weak becomes strong and celebrates its identity, without seeing the countless times when the powerful marks the boundaries of what is legitimate and enunciable.”[56]

Johana Kunin is an Argentine researcher with a degree in Anthropology (Université Paris 8, France), currently conducting field research about the expansion of the Latin American “cardboard publishers.” She has been a Latin American Social Sciences Council (CLACSO) Research Fellow, working on the subject of Bolivian political and social rap music.


[1] Their name in Spanish is “editorial cartonera” that could mean that books are made out of cardboard (“cartón” in Spanish) or also that they are made by or to help cardboard collectors (“cartonero” in Argentine Spanish). “Cartoneros” are cardboard-pickers or garbage-pickers in more general terms. Throughout Latin America, children, women, and men rummage through trash in search of recyclable materials that can be sold. Because of the economic crisis that devastated Argentina in 2001, garbage pickers have become omnipresent and a symbol of the victims of neo-liberal policies in that country. Most of the cardboard publishers share the surname “Cartonera” in their initiatives’ name: Eloísa Cartonera, Yerba Mala Cartonera, Sarita Cartonera, Santa Muerte Cartonera, etc.

[2] Jeffrey Bradach, “Going to Scale The Challenge of Replicating Social Programs,” Stanford Social Innovation Review, (Spring 2003),; Gregory Dees, Beth Battle Anderson, and Jane Wei-Skillern, “Scaling Social Impact Strategies for Spreading Social Innovations,” Stanford Social Innovation Review, (Spring 2004),; Paul Tracey and Owen Jarvis, “An Enterprising Failure: Why a Promising Social Franchise Collapsed,” Stanford Social Innovation Review, (Spring 2006),

[3] I have started conducting intensive field research on the subject only three months and a half ago and I expect the reader to take this work as a sort of draft of my field notes. My ideas and impressions can change over time and while I keep on getting to know personally the people of the rest of the Latin American cartoneras as well as the writers that have published with them and some other regional alternative publishers. Among the cardboard publishers, I have already worked with Bolivian Yerba Mala and Mandragora, and Peruvian Sarita. I have spent a lot of time with the members of Argentine Eloísa, but still have not conducted field work interviews. I have already contacted and briefly interviewed through email Mexican Santa Muerte Cartonera and La Cartonera; Argentine Cartonerita Solar and Textos de Cartón; Bolivian Nicotina Cartonera; El Salvador’s La Cabuda Cartonera; Chilean Animita Cartonera and Canita Cartonera; Brazilian Dulcineia Catadora and Katarina Kartonera; Ecuatorian Matapalo Cartonera; Paraguayan Yiyi Jambo, Felicita Cartonera, Mamacha Cartonera and MBurukujarami Cartonera; and Colombian Patasola Cartonera. Most of the people from the publishers are aware of my research and are kindly expecting my arrival to their countries. I am using an ethnographic multi-site research method, with a Participatory Action Research (P.A.R.) approach. See G. E. Marcus, “Ethnography in/of the World System: The Emergence of Multi-Sited Ethnography,” Annual Review of Anthropology 24 (1995): 95-117.

[4] Tania Silva in conversation with the author (June 2009).

[5] “Cartón” is cardboard in Spanish.

[6] Initially, they were only young cardboard-pickers, but currently only one of the six permanent members of the cooperative Eloisa Cartonera work or worked also as cartonero.

[7] For more on Eloísa Cartonera, please see Craig Epplin, “New Media, Cardboard, and Community in Contemporary Buenos Aires,” Hispanic Review (Autumn 2007) p. 385-398; Ksenija Bilbija (2008) “What is Left in the World of Books: Washington Cucurto and the Eloísa Cartonera Project in Argentina,” Studies in Latin American Popular Culture 27 (2008): 85-102; Mariano Lopez Seoane and Deymonnaz Santiago, “Sneaking in the Illegal: Notes on Eloísa Cartonera,” (paper presented at Latin American Studies Association, San Juan, Puerto Rico, 15-18 March 2006).

[8] For more about Sarita Cartonera, please see Lauren Pagel, “Sarita Cartonera’s Space Invasion: The Communication Circuit of a Cartonera Publishing House,” Illumination 6, no. 1 (Spring 2009).

[9] W. Camacho, “¿Y qué fue lo que pasó con el Premio Franz Tamayo?” Fondo Negro, 16 November 2008, The translation is mine.

[10] Julio Ricardo Zuna in conversation with the author (May 2009).

[11] Canita means “jail” in Chilean and Bolivian Spanish jargon.

[12] Danitza Fuentelzar in conversation with the author (May 2009).

[13] “Catadora” means “Cartonera” or cardboard-picker in Portuguese.

[14] portunhol selvagem is a mixture of the languages present in the Triple Border of Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil: Spanish, Portuguese and native population languages such as Guaraní.

[15] Members of La Cartonera in conversation with the author (August 2008).

[16] Héctor Hernández Montecinos and Yaxkin Melchy in conversation with the author (December 2008).

[17] Gabriela Falconí Piedra in conversation with the author (January 2009).

[18] Andrés Nieva in conversation with the author (June 2009).

[19] Members from Cartonerita Solar in conversation with the author (June 2009).

[20] Iván Castro Aruzamen in conversation with the author (April 2009).

[21] Silvina Friera, “El homenaje a un autor que escribió en los márgenes,” Página/12 (Buenos Aires, Argentina), Dec. 1, 2008. Translation is mine.

[22] Peruvian grappa.

[23] Meaning not “famous,” but from the “people.”

[24] Argentine sandwich of grilled highly-seasoned pork sausage.

[25] The purpose of the Cool-tour was to connect the non-central-provinces of the country with literature from Lima.

[26] Term refers to bourgeois-bohemians, people often of the corporate upper class, that rarely oppose mainstream society, claim highly tolerant views of others, purchase expensive and exotic items, and believe American society to be meritocratic. David Brooks, Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000).

[27] As many people keep on thinking that mostly cardboard-collectors are the ones that make the books.

[28] “Books, a model for assembling” (LUMPA, in Spanish), was a workshop that took place in primary schools where students hand-bound and wrote a cartonero book, using their own interpretations of the texts they read. In this way, literature was brought closer to young people, rendering it “non sacrilegious.” For more info see Kristel Best Urday, “Libros un Modelo Para Armar: Ediciones Artesanales Itinerantes.”

[29] Eduardo Yumisaca in conversation with the author (June 2009).

[30] Besides probably the “pots and pans” that were used to protest in the streets.

[31] Dulcinéia Catadora would be a clear exception to that case.

[32] La Cabuda in conversation with the author (June 2009).

[33] “Animitas” are the small caves with a shape of little houses that are built in the places where people have accidentally died along the roads. They are supposed to be “accommodations” for the spirits that have unexpectedly left the bodies. Bilbija, “¡Cartoneros de todos los países, uníos!” in this volume.

[34] According to local stories, the “yerba mala” (weed) is supposed to be impossible to be destroyed because even if it is pulled out, it will grow again. Bilbija, “¡Cartoneros de todos los países, uníos!”

[35] In local El Salvador’s jargon “cabuda” means “to cooperate.” La Cabuda in conversation with the author.

[36] Matapalo is a characteristic tree from the warm hills from Ecuador and an element from José de la Cuadra’s Los Sangurimas novel. Its particularity lies in the infinite number of branches that it has. Victor Vimos in conversation with the author (June 2009).

[37] Franklin Ramírez Gallegos, “Mucho más que dos izquierdas,” Nueva Sociedad 205 (2006),

[38] Unless they would have been State-funded initiatives.

[39] Morales is the first indigenous president to be elected in the history of a country whose population is mostly indigenous.

[40] Darío Luna in conversation with the author (April 2009).

[41] “Cartón” means cardboard in Spanish.

[42] That is why, as I have a Participatory Action Research approach on my research, I have agreed with them in helping them to gather the materials so as to publish the anthology.

[43] Animita, Eloísa, Yiyi Jambo, Sarita, Yerba Mala, Mandrágora and La Cartonera participated in that project. One local author wrote the prologue of each local edition of the book.

[44] Friera, “El homenaje a un autor que escribió en los márgenes”; F. Mosquera, “Literatura humilde, pero rebelde,” El Telégrafo (Guayaquil, Ecuador) March 21, 2009.

[45] Jaime Vargas Luna in conversation with the author (September 2008).

[46] Diego Muñoz in conversation with the author (June 2009).

[47] Gabriela Falconí in conversation with the author (May 2009).

[48] Víctor Vimos in conversation with the author (June 2009).

[49] Jaime Vargas Luna in conversation with the author (September 2008).

[50] Juan Gómez in conversation with the author (December 2008).

[51] Javier Barilaro in conversation with the author (July 2008).

[52] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Capitalisme et Schizophrénie (París: Minuit, 1972).

[53] “Franchising” practices for social enterprises.

[54] In the sense of stop behaving as if they would be installing franchises.

[55] Bradach, “Going to Scale The Challenge of Replicating Social Programs.”

[56] Pablo Alabarces and María Graciela Rodríguez, Resistencias y mediaciones: Estudios sobre cultura popular (Buenos Aires: Paidós, 2008), 32, 35.

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