A “cartonero” is somebody who works in the street, separating trash to find cardboard and other recyclable goods for a living. Buenos Aires has seen a rising number of people working as cartoneros, many coming from the province and trying to find a job.
Camille Ayral met with some of them to learn more about their daily lives.
Rodrigo Ruben Romero, 28, from Chaco province lives in San Francisco Solano. Coming from a big family of 13 children, he has been a cartonero for the past 12 years.
He commutes every day into the capital. “I take the bus, train, and subway everyday. It takes me an hour and a half,” he says.
At first, Rodrigo walked with his carro (big trolley) all around the central district of the capital.
“I started with my mother and two of my brothers,” he says. “But now my mother receives benefits and my brothers and I decided to work independently, that way we receive more money.
“From Constitución I used to walk more than 25 blocks a day,” he says. “I was walking all around town until they opened the cooperative.”
Rodrigo has been working for the cooperative for the last seven years. He now covers the same one or two blocks each day, where he collects cardboard, papers, and recyclable from offices, restaurants and shops on his patch. “I work alone, and I’ve got my independence. Before they forced me to walk a lot for very little money,” he said. “Now I can come whenever I want, I stay in one place and it is easier. Also I leave earlier and have time to go back home every night.”
The process is simple: you take the bags, fill them, separate the cardboard, paper, and plastic, bring them to the cooperative, weigh them, and get your money at the end of the day.
“We also receive a monthly salary of $2,500,” he says. “We used to receive $3,000 but with the new president, the wages went down. He was the one who created the recycling centres when he was mayor, but now that he is president he wants us out of the streets.”
Apart from his recycling job, Rodrigo sometimes helps with odd jobs in construction, among other things.
“For six months I worked in a kitchen and I loved it. But as I was also doing my recycling job, I didn’t have time to sleep and it was too hard,” he says.
Every night, Rodrigo has to take his bags full of merchandise in a big community truck to take them to the recycling centre. Sometimes bags can weight over 100kg. Everyone helps each other with this hard task, although not all cartoneros have the same solidarity.
“People often steal my merchandise,” he says. “Or if you go outside your patch, they can get pissed and get into a fight. Before there were codes, and a lot of respect between cartoneros but not anymore as prices rise.”
However, Rodrigo mostly works surrounded by friends, chatting, and often shares a meal with other cartoneros.
“I love sitting with people, having a chat, sharing lunch. I like being around people, sometimes people in the neighbourhood bring me clothes, and there is a lot of comradeship.
“The greatest memory I have while working was when my ex-wife and my daughter came to surprise me,” he says. “I was happy to see them but also ashamed because I did not want them to see me like this, working with garbage.”
Rodrigo’s dream is to one day have his own place where he can live with his seven-year-old daughter.
“When I broke up with my girlfriend I went back to my family home,” he says. “After buying a house I would like to travel around, visit a nice place, see what it’s like to live in another country, know another environment.
“I know that one day I will manage to do it. Why wouldn’t I?” he says smiling.
Diego Romero, 27, is Rodrigo’s brother. They live together with their mother and some of their brothers and sisters.
Aged seven, Diego started to sell flowers with his mother, a job he did until he was 14 years old.
“I don’t have nice memories from when I was a kid,” he said. “I only remember sleeping at school because I was tired from the work I did.
“After that I started to work as cartonero, it was more for me as selling flowers did not pay enough.”
Diego now works at Banco Nación, in front of the Casa Rosada in the centre of the city. He works inside the building, separating recycled goods. He receives a weekly wage of $900 and works with two other men.
“Everyone in the building is nice, all the staff help me, we all are friends now,” he says.
“Two years ago we all went fishing for Semana Santa in La Plata. There were about 15 of us, and we stayed there for four days. It’s a lovely memory, they are a little family for me. I prefer working here than in the street like my brother, it is safer and more peaceful, I am in contact with a lot of people.”
Before fully working for the bank, Diego worked three years in a restaurant as an assistant chef. It was his favourite job.
“If I can find a cooking job again it would be great. I love cooking for many people,” he says. “There are a lot of us in my family and I often cook. But I had to leave that job because I fell into drugs, I lost everything.”
For two years Diego hit hard times and lived on the streets because of drugs.
“Those things happened, I was in the ghetto all day smoking marijuana and I was sleeping where Rodrigo works,” he says. “Sometimes he would bring me clean clothes from home, he helped me a lot and he is the one who found me the job at the bank.”
One day Diego decided to take back the control of his life and stop using.
“When I came back home four years ago, it was like I came back to life. It was really hard, but I was in the ghetto with bad people, it was very dangerous, and I realised that it wasn’t a life.”
Drugs also affected his private life. He is the father of three children who he can’t see at the moment.
“I broke up with my girlfriend because of the drugs, I haven’t seen my kids for the last two months, but everything will be solved soon, I am working on it right now,” he says.
His dream is pretty similar to his brother’s: owning his own house and being with his children: Sebastián, 5, Ian, 4, and Tania, 2.
“I called my son Sebastián after a friend of mine who died before my eyes during the 2001 protests,” he says. “We were in Plaza de Mayo and they were killing everybody. I am still scared because it could’ve been me. I am also pissed, but what could’ve we done? Nothing but flee to not be killed.”
Nowadays, Diego’s life is peaceful. Every weekend he stays home with his family, chats with his younger sisters, plays football with Rodrigo, and debates with him about whether Boca Juniors or River Plate is the best.
“It is a bit hard regarding my children but I have a stable job and security,” he says. “If we had spoken four years ago I am not sure you would’ve found me, it wouldn’t have been the same. I suffered a lot on the streets.”
Adela Quintero, 58, has been a cartonera on Av. Rivadavia for 18 years.
Mother of four and a widow for the last ten years, Adela started to work when she was 11 years old and has had more than 20 jobs: cleaning all over town in Tribunales and the Economy Ministry, working as a childminder, as a cook, in security, and much more.
“I tell my children: You haven’t seen that much for your age. I have worked in every part of Buenos Aires and seen every inch of the city,” she says. “More than 20 jobs in my life and I am always looking for something more, something better.”
Adela has a few good memories from her childhood:
“I grew up with my grandparents in Tucumán,” she says. “When they died I had to move in with my mum in Buenos Aires and work right away in a nursery to help the family. It was hard because I couldn’t attend school anymore unless I took night classes but it was to hard to combine both.”
While unemployed after massive layoffs and looking for a job, Adela saw people picking up cardboard in the street: “I said to myself that this can be a good way to make money and I started recycling the garbage of this street.”
Over 18 years, Adela has seen many changes in her street. “Before all those buildings were full of offices. Now they all left because the rent is too expensive here,” she says.
However, she doesn’t believe that the new recycling centre created four years ago is a good thing.
“Now we earn less money and we have to wait for the truck to pick us up, the truck to pick up our merchandise etc. so we lose a lot of time,” she says. “You know the recycling sector is worth millions and millions of pesos. There is a lot of money at stake and they gave us nothing, a really small percentage.”
As a woman, Adela says she has not faced more difficulties than the men.
“It can be hard for girls but not for me because everyone knows me and respects me,” she says. “People around help me, give me things and right away I met everyone. I never face danger because I come, do my work, and leave right away. Unlike many others, I never stay on the street.”
In the morning, Adela works in a nursery and in the afternoon she comes to Av. Rivadavia to collect cardboard. Sometimes at the weekend she also works in holiday houses in the suburbs, doing some maintenance jobs.
When her husband got cancer, Adela faced hard times.
“For four years I was walking all around town to find as much card as I could possibly find to make more money and be able to buy my husband’s medicine,” she says.
“For me it was a nice memory in his way because I was working to help him, to take care of him. After my work I was going straight to the hospital to be by his side. These are the last moments I have with him.”
Nowadays, Adela is looking for another job as caring lady for old people.
“I want to change. Sometimes our bags can weigh 100kg and at my age I want to find something less physical,” she says. “However at my age and without diplomas I can’t find a job anywhere.”
“My only dream is to get a car,” she says. “Any car! I am waiting for my auto credit, I hope it will work.”
Adela always see the bright side of things going on in her life.
“Nothing depresses me, nothing gets me down I always keep moving forward,” she says. “I always look to the future, if you start to look behind, chau!”
Juan, 50, has worked as a cartonero for more than eight years
“Four years ago, they stole my carro and I couldn’t work anymore. It was too expensive to buy another one so I decided to stay on this street and watch cars.”
“Working as a cartonero was very hard,” he says. “The weight breaks your bones, plus you have to walk, walk, and walk some more and you are never sure you will find something at the end. It is always down to luck.”
Juan is now living on the street near Palermo. Everyone in the neighbourhood knows him and stops for a chat, to give him money, or something to eat.
“I couldn’t live with just the money I earned from my work as a cartonero [around $400 a day]. At least I was working alone because many work in group and have to share the money.”
Thus, like many cartoneros, Juan also worked as a changa, someone who helps to fix up houses, or on construction sites, etc.
“Now because of drugs, there are no longer codes or respect between cartoneros or people in the street,” he says. “They all steal from each other. Before I could’ve slept peacefully without anyone robbing or hitting me, but not anymore.”
Every weekend, Juan leaves the street and goes to Tigre to spend some times with his 16-year-old son who lives there with his grandmother.
“I said to him: ‘If you touch drugs I will break your teeth!’ Those thing mess with your mind. I want him to turn out good, when I go there I give him money so he can buy whatever he needs, we play football, it’s nice.
“His mother died a week after his birth because in the hospital they stitched up the caesarean section badly. It was the hardest moment of my life. I have had a very tormented life, it is not easy to live in the street like that”.
“The government doesn’t want to see us but there are thousands of us on the streets! Thousands! There is one here, one there, and one on this street, everywhere!”
Juan says that some people in the neighbourhood once left some poisoned food because they wanted him out of the street.
“I respect everyone here, I am always nice but still some feel bothered and they tricked me with food,” he says. “I was vomiting and felt really bad, thankfully someone took me to the hospital.”
However, most of the people around help him to survive in the street as the nuns at the church where he can shower, eat, and get new clothes.
“The offered me a cross last time that came from Spain! I am in love with God, I said to them, and in love with the nuns!” He laughs.
Juan lived in an orphanage until he left at 20, he has spent his entire life on the streets of Buenos Aires and has seen a lot. With good times and bad times, Juan always keeps smiling and seeing the positive side of life.