The term ‘cartonera’ refers to the Spanish word ‘cartón’, cardboard in English. ‘Cartonera’ books originate in the iconic La Boca district of Buenos Aires, Argentina, around 2001, when the country was plunged into a deep financial crisis. The challenging economic climate led to a rise in the number of street cardboard hand-pickers (‘cartoneros’) who sold their wares to recycling plants.
Social and political turbulence also resulted in people taking to the streets, protesting, gathering in neighbourhood assemblies, the barter clubs, and establishing communal and collaborative endeavours. It was against this climate of protest that Argentinian writers and activists Santiago Vega, (aka Washington Cucurto) and Javier Barilaro came across the cardboard hand-pickers and decided to start a new publishing venture that involved the re-use of discarded materials to make books of poetry, prose and fiction at very low prices and accessible to most people.
What started as a small bookselling adventure soon inspired similar initiatives across Latin America, the US, and in some African and European countries as well. Today the ‘cartonera’ publishers are a global grassroots movement with strong elements of social, ecological and digital activism that challenges the larger publishing houses and their dominating position in the publishing market