Beyond the Bombonera, in the heart of La Boca, lives Eloisa Cartonera. A whirlwind of colour and cardboard, she is not a person, but the headquarters of a tiny book publishing outfit – ‘the most colourful editorial in the world’.
Every night, tens of thousands of people walk the streets of Buenos Aires going through your rubbish. They come in from the slums or the outskirts, on foot, or on the special trains the city provides for them. They are the cartoneros – the box-collectors – the city’s unofficial recycling system.
When Argentina’s economy crashed in 2001, the number of cartoneros doubled – now, up to 40,000 people trawl the neighbourhoods looking for saleable junk to shift at the recycling stations. Children trudge alongside their parents – there’s often nowhere safe to leave them – with the toddlers jammed onto the heavy carts amongst the piles of paper and boxes.
It’s tough, dirty work, and most cartoneros just barely make enough to live on. The going rate is 50 centavos per kilo of cardboard (around 20 boxes), and each night, a collector can expect to make between $10 and $20 selling his hoard to recycling middlemen.
But now, there’s one place in the city where good quality cardboard fetches higher prices – and instead of ending up as pulp, it is transformed into a fusion of art and literature.
Since writer Washington Cucurto and artist Javier Barilaro set up the not-for-profit publishing house in 2003, Eloisa Cartonera has been buying cardboard from the cartoneros at three times the normal rate, and turning it into unique, hand-made editions of Latin American poetry, short stories and novels.
At number 647 Brandsen street, La Boca, cartoneros mix with artists, writers, and customers in a one-room shop-cum-factory.
Behind the decorated glass windows, the room glows with colour and activity. Multihued cardboard boxes and books line the walls, and fluorescent stars hang from the ceiling. Giant pots of glue and paint litter the room. A life-size poster of Bolivian president Evo Morales peers out from behind stacks of paper.
Three young people sit around a paint-splashed table, working, chatting, listening to music. Carolina Portillo cuts cardboard boxes into neat covers and glues photocopied pages to them. Miriam Merlo uses a stencil to paint the book’s title on the cover, and Celeste Portillo adds the colours of the rainbow to the letters.
One month ago, 23-year-old Miriam was a cartonera, travelling an hour and a half from Buenos Aires province every night to work the streets of La Boca. “I’ve been working in the street for four years, the whole of La Boca knows me!” she boasts.
“I used to come past the shop every day, and they gave me leftover cardboard, and one day I told them that I was really into painting, and they said I could come and work here. I had to think about it a lot – I didn’t want to just leave my cart in the street.”
Miriam’s husband is still working as a cartonero – every day, he collects Miriam from the shop and they go together to the recycling station to sell his finds. Speaking from experience, Miriam says it’s hard to find cardboard that’s good enough to use for the book covers. “It can’t be dirty, or have holes. The best stuff you find outside supermarkets, but there’s lots of competition,” she says.
Balancing her 11-month-old daughter on her knee as she paints, Celeste, 18, says she has been working at Eloisa since she left school, nearly three years ago. She loves the cooperative nature of the work, and the money helps her raise her daughter. But she’s also learning skills: “We do everything ourselves, from making the books to selling them. Before, I didn’t even know the names of all the colours. Now, I know how to make a book,” she says.
Celeste’s older brother used to work in the shop too, but he has since got a job in a commercial printing company, thanks to the skills he learnt at Eloisa.
Carolina, just 17, expertly wields a craft knife as she describes the origins of the collective’s name. “Javier Barilaro wanted to win the heart of a woman, who was called Eloisa – so he named the project after her,” she says.
“But it didn’t work!” interjects Celeste. “She wasn’t impressed.”
Eloisa Cartonera now publishes 130 titles, donated by authors from Argentina, Chile, México, Costa Rica, Uruguay, Brazil and Perú. Best sellers include Roberto Walsh’s ‘Esa Mujer’, Jorge Mautner’s ‘Susi’ and ‘Evita Vive’, by Néstor Perlongher. They sell for just $4 in the shop and at book fairs and markets, and for around $10 at the commercial bookshops which order copies from the miniature factory.
This is a key part of Eloisa’s philosophy – making Latin American literature accessible and available to all. “The same stories that bookshops sell for $20 or $30, we sell for four,” says Celeste. This is the most important thing – many people don’t read because they can’t afford to buy books – now, anyone can have access to literature.”
The message is now going international. Inspired by the Argentine version, a similar project – Sarita Cartonera – has been operating in Lima, Perú, since 2004. In August, the collective toured an exhibition of books and artwork to the Newlyn Gallery in Cornwall in the UK, and Washington Cucurto is currently promoting a bilingual Spanish-German edition of one of the books in Germany.
It’s a project with a broad social impact – giving the cartoneros a few extra pesos for their product, providing meaningful and creative work for a handful of those who most need it, bringing people together to produce art and literature, and publishing emerging authors.
Turning the detritus of a city into books, creating something beautiful out of junk, Eloisa Cartonera seems to epitomise an Argentine speciality: creativity out of crisis.
‘No Hay Cuchillo Sin Rosas’, Eloisa Cartonera’s La Boca workshop and bookshop, is open from 2-6pm Monday to Saturday, on Brandsen 647.