This year’s 35th International Book Fair held annually in Buenos Aires, the largest of its kind in Latin America, drew over million visitors. The fair’s size is astounding— rows upon rows of vendor stands punctuated by mini cafés full of frenzied, coffee-sipping readers. Editors and distributors mull about the seven main pavilions, plugging their best sellers and competing for customers. Lines of eager visitors wrap around the auditoriums, waiting to hear their favorite authors speak. The most prominent, well-established publishing houses set up their stands, as well as the relevant embassies, media groups, and public and private institutions. It’s Disneyland for the literary inclined. However, an emerging house, one who could not afford the steep vendor fee was missing: Eloísa Cartonera.
Founded in 2003 as a product of Argentina’s 2001 economic collapse by writer Washington Curcuto and artists Javier Barilaro and Fernanda Laguna, Eloísa Cartonera has discovered a new way “to bring literature to the people.” Though they began using photocopied paper, attention from prominent writers and little overhead has led to unexpected success. The publishing house sells poetry, prose, theater and children’s books by Latin American writers—one-of-a-kind editions for five pesos each (a dollar & 30 cents). Printed on a German press right there in the two room workshop, the texts are then cut, bound and covered by painted rectangles of recycled cardboard. They have nearly 200 titles in print, including works by Piglia, Saer, Casas, Bellatín, among numerous other classic authors, as well as young writers just emerging on the literary scene.
Between the exposed rafters and tiled floors of their studio, the team combines two worlds that could not be more different: the poverty-plagued street dwellers who make their living collecting cardboard, with the privileged literary elite. While Eloisa may not vie for attention in the colossal book fair, the small house has found its own unique, philanthropic way to connect with its readers. Cheap prices make the texts universally accessible and Eloisa’s connection with the Cartoneros takes their work into the social sector.
The cardboard (cartón) with which the books are bound is bought directly from the "cartoneros" of Buenos Aires: men and women who live in the periphery of Capital Federal who labor all day and into the night, wandering the streets collecting cardboard that they sell for cash, in what is literally, “dirty work.” They fish through garbage bags that line sidewalks and gather what they can in massive canvas rickshaws. Eloisa pays them five times more than other buyers and encourages them to come into the studio to paint the cardboard they’ve collected.
Nestled deep in La Boca, a block from the Boca Juniors fútbol stadium, lies the publishing house. While the rest of the street is painted the ubiquitous navy and gold (the fútbol teams colors), Eloisa Cartonera’s store windows are decorated with whimsical neon swirls and dancing block lettering. One enters the workshop is immediately enticed by the scent— notes of tempera paint, burning incense, dulce de leche. The room itself is in a state of paradoxically soothing chaos where paint licks every surface and an eclectic assortment of images decorates the walls. The eye moves from mountainous stacks of paper to the lone mate gourd, a skeptical Che Guevara sucking a Cuban to a can of brushes. The walls are, or rather once were, a mustard yellow there is a prominently displayed poster with a quote by Jose Martí: “Ser culto es el unico modo de ser libre” or “Being educated is the only way to be free.”
One afternoon in the workshop, Cucurto explains, ¨It was more of a way of integrating the marginalized people of our society into the world of art and culture.¨ With the profits from the cooperative, each is able to live off of his or her work. Cucurto remarks, “We didn’t think it would be so successful. But then big writers got involved,” and 6 years later they are still printing. Mirium, a young woman originally from La Plata worked as a cartonera for the 5 years before joining the Eloísa team. She recalls, “I would always look inside the workshop when I passed by on my route.” She now makes books in the shop and has found a means for subsistence.
Argentine writer Ricardo Piglia once remarked, “This is a historic alliance. New networks are being created in Argentina and writers are finding new 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.” Eloisa proves the possibility of success in the publishing world without glossy covers or high costs. Perhaps one day they’ll take up a stand at the book fair, though that would deprive readers of the rich sensory experience that is a trip to their workshop. Until then, one can find Eloísa’s team in La Boca, painting cardboard, turning garbage into books.