EVERY night the streets of Buenos Aires fill with those who, before Argentina’s economic collapse, did not exist. These ‘new’ visitors are the cartoneros, the men, women and children who sift through the city’s garbage and at dawn take the paper and cardboard to sell in exchange for cash. In 2002, one of the biggest currency devaluations in history attracted foreign tourists and tens of thousands of cartoneros to the city. Tourists compare Buenos Aires with Paris – though for the cartoneros, recruited by unemployment and an astronomical rise in the price of paper, the place is more an inferno of poverty. But it could be that the collapse has engendered, as well as poor people, creative alternatives inside the inferno.
‘It will become the most important publisher in the country, I’m sure of it.’ This doesn’t seem improbable when Washington Cucurto, writer and one of three founders of Eloísa Cartonera, says it. This is the ? rst publisher to produce books with covers of cardboard, collected and hand-painted by cartoneros. Eloísa is autogestionado, a ‘self-start’ undertaking that has already published more than 20 titles, some by unpublished authors, others by well-established ones.
Ricardo Piglia, one of the most important living Argentinean writers, has donated a story for Eloísa to publish, as has César Aira, whose Mil Gotas, an unedited nouvelle, has already sold 800 copies – considerably exceeding the average sales of local authors by major publishers in Argentina.
The publishing experiment – made up of four cartoneros turned- artisans and three artists – has had extraordinary results. Their books break the boundary that separates intellectual production from the street and poverty, for Eloísa Cartonera links up those who rarely meet: the cartonero and the writer.
‘That is an historic alliance,’ explains Piglia. ‘New networks are being created in Argentina, and writers are ? nding ways to connect themselves to the new social situation. It’s not about making a cult of poverty, but rather, not allowing oneself to be intimidated by it.’
Writers report with words, but Eloísa converts those words into a working tool to give to someone who’s unemployed.
Without access to credit – scarce since the economic collapse – nor help from the state; without a formal distribution system or publicity, but with hand-painted covers which make every book unique, with the artisanal work of four cartoneros who until a few months before were scouring the city at night in search of cardboard, few people now doubt that Eloísa Cartonera is the cultural event of the year in Argentina.
Piglia echoes this when he says: ‘Literature is a strange industry that shifts a lot of money… but impoverishes the writers. A very modern factory that sustains itself on the archaic work of those who write in a room. Eloísa is closer to that [archaic] location.’ And, distanced from the big business of publishing, it is enlarging the circle of readers with the cheapest books on the market, selling in the most popular bookshops for a dollar apiece.
Washington Cucurto – known for his portrayals of the Buenos Aires underworld – divides his time between the municipal library where he works, and the workshop where the books are produced. Here, on one of the shelves, is Eloísa’s latest gem: the posthumous work of the Brazilian poet Haroldo de Campos, a bilingual edition of a previously unpublished work in two volumes. Cucurto says with pride: ‘It’s our best book; not yet published in Brazil.’
Fixing the photocopied pages of a book to the cardboard cover, Cucurto explains how they pay five times what the recycling companies pay for the materials that the cartoneros bring.
All the books are made with photocopied pages. ‘We have a dream of buying a press to bring down costs, but we don’t yet have enough money,’ he says.
Here there are no plans to take over the means of production, nor to abolish waged work; what’s at stake is subsistence, the daily plate of food. For unemployment, in a state that prioritizes the payment of debt to Japanese or Italian bondholders, means hunger.
‘The project comes out of necessity,’ explains Cucurto, whose small publishing house crumbled when the devaluation of 2002 increased the price of imported paper by 300 per cent in a few months. ‘Would that many Eloísas might appear so that people might live a little better,’ he adds.
Every evening at six a train arrives in Buenos Aires from the suburbs. That’s how the cartoneros travel: on the Tren Blanco (‘White Train’) which the rail company – privatized, like everything else, in the neoliberal feast of the 1990s – puts on for the use of the ‘new’ visitors. Some mothers leave their children in special kindergartens for cartonero kids; other children follow their parents and collect cardboard. The return train leaves every day after midnight. As I am about to go, I ask Cucurto about the future of Eloísa. ‘I can’t think about the future,’ he replies. ‘I only think about the work of today, from one day to the next.’
Eloísa Cartonera talked with Tomás Bril
To contact Eloísa Cartonera, email [email protected]