Buenos Aires publishing collective Eloísa Cartonera prints beautiful books with hand painted cardboard covers.

Buenos Aires publishing collective Eloísa Cartonera prints beautiful books with hand painted cardboard covers.

In the shadow of La Bombonera, the world famous stadium of Boca Juniors in Buenos Aires, there sits a quiet street corner and a dishevelled looking store. Inside are small pots of paint, piles of cardboard and paper, two old-school printers and shelves full of handmade books. This is the workshop of Eloísa Cartonera, the cooperative publishing house set up in 2003 by writer Washington Cucurto to maintain the growth of literary culture following the catastrophic economic crisis of 2001.

Using the cheapest resource available, Cucurto began purchasing cardboard from street collectors to create books to be sold at extremely low prices; at once supporting those working on the streets and facilitating access to literature in the disaster-struck nation. Eleven years later, Eloísa Cartonera’s distinctive hand-painted editions are sold nation-wide and include works by globally respected authors as well as new works by unpublished writers. Huck went along to one of their monthly reading events to find out more.

Social Conscience

Everything about the work of Eloísa Cartonera pulses with political and social awareness, from the texts they publish to the covers these texts sit between. The cardboard for the covers is bought from a number of workers from the street – cartoneros – who collect cardboard to be sold and recycled. Over their eleven years of existence, Eloísa Cartonera have gathered a team of regular cartoneros who bring the best quality cardboard to the workshop to be turned into literary gems. The publishers pay twenty-five cents per box, which is considerably more than the cartoneros can expect to receive at the regular recycling plants, where a kilo of cardboard will earn them one peso.

The team behind Eloísa Cartonera is made up of eleven people, among them former cartoneros as well as literary legends like Cucurto. The editorial is run on an entirely cooperative basis. Everybody contributes equally in choosing the texts, printing the pages, painting the covers and constructing the books; and everyone is paid equally. All of the profits from the books go back into the next round of editions, a business model that has seen them grown considerably in their eleven years of existence. The group recently purchased a second printing machine and will soon bring out a new collection of better quality books, using more sturdy materials and binding processes. Don’t expect this to change their DIY principles; a step into their shop/factory is a step into a business based on human values and is as much a social space as it is a workshop.

Great Literature

Eloísa Cartonera sell their books for between ten and fifty argentine pesos, which is about one to three pounds or two to five dollars. Books at this price are almost impossible to come by and especially not from the writers of the quality that Eloísa Cartonera are sharing. Among the writers they have published are modern greats such as Rodolfo Walsh, Alan Pauls and Tomás Eloy Martínez. Through the work of the Eloísa team these writers’ works are reaching audiences that would never had previously had access to this literature. Cucurto sees one of the aims of the editorial as undermining some of the elitism inherent in literary circles. On top of this, the writers’ texts are donated in a gesture of support for the project. Tomás Eloy Martinez visited the workshop shortly before his death in 2010, donating his short Cazán and writing an article in praise of the group in the national media.

New Writers

Not only are Eloísa Cartonera sharing reputable Latin American authors, they are also providing a platform for unpublished writers to gain exposure that was previously unimaginable. The editorial recently held their third competition for new writers and presented four new books by the winners. Among these was ‘Soy Villero’ by Walter Hidalgo, an anthology of viscerally powerful poems relating the daily struggles of Argentina’s most marginalised members of society. An educator in one of the roughest ‘villas’ (slums) in Buenos Aires, Hidalgo came across the competition through a friend. One day he turned up at the editorial’s space and began reciting his poetry, bringing those present to tears. His work is now published between the distinctive cardboard covers of Eloísa Cartonera’s books.

Pushing Literary Boundaries

As well as promoting new writers, Eloísa Cartonera is pushing new or marginalised forms of literature such as trash, punk and queer. Facundo Soto, a poet and regular collaborator with the editorial has recently put together an anthology of queer writers from Buenos Aires and argues that one of the main strengths of Eloísa Cartonera is the diversity of the books they are bringing out, eschewing ideas of conventional literature and promoting new forms of expression. Their monthly events are a showcase of writing talents in the city, where readings are held in the street outside the workshop and you’re as likely to stumble across a literary legend as the newest form of literature under the Buenos Aires skies.

Find out more about Eloísa Cartonera and head down to one of their regular readings.