By Thomas Lee-Steere
It’s obvious that the minds behind the Eloisa Cartonera collective are not of the static variety. Born in the wake of Argentina’s economic ruin seven years ago, this collective publishing project leaps over the hurdles faced by many writers while providing a platform for Latin-American literature. This is only one branch of the Eloisa tree. The collective also involves cartoneros (cardboard collectors) who remain perhaps the most visible testimony to the financial hardships faced by many Argentines. The project eludes clear-cut definition though because its vision and focus is constantly evolving- it is well and truly alive and kicking. For now, the final product you may hold in your hands is a book made with a recycled cardboard, colorfully hand-painted cover but the ongoing story behind the books is perhaps as read-worthy as the books themselves. I got together with Juan Gomez, one of the co-operative members, to find out where they are at and where they are going.
In your mind, what ways has Eloisa Cartonera changed since it was first created in 2003?
At the beginning it was only an aesthetic project, an artistic project, or a writers project and involved the cartoneros only with the buying of the cardboard but several years later, three or four years ago, we began to involve them in other ways, not only “sell me your cardboard and we will pay you a little more than usual but become more involved and work for us too if you want to”. Eloisa has developed more of a social direction.
For example, we want to buy some land and first of all sew the land with vegetables and have people working there. The other plan is to build a school on the land too, a small school that can offer non-formal education. We want to help people learn. High schools are not the only way. There are other ways of learning than formal education like just the simple things: reading, writing and mathematics, improving the levels of these without going too far.
As well as providing opportunities for cartoneros, Eloisa can also provide opportunities for unknown authors, how does Eloisa decide who to publish?
Well Cucurto (Washington Cucurto: writer and one of Eloisa’s founders) is a writer, he knows many writers, some who are unknown but he says “we must publish them, one or two tales, but we must give them an opportunity”. For example Diego Arbit, the organiser of the FLIA independent book fair on Sunday.
Most of the authors we publish are well-known writers and they give us a little tale or a poetry book that they want to be published by Eloisa and new authors. Yes, we sometimes publish them but not as much as we want to. We are trying to find ways to publish unknown authors such as a year book…we are planning a year book of about 200 pages with several contributions, a compilation of different authors in one book. We can’t publish five hundred books by an unknown author because they are unknown so there is no guarantee for us to sell but they have an opportunity in this yearbook to diffuse their ideas.
Apart from independent book fairs such as FLIA, what other literature events is Eloisa involved with?
We are hoping to participate in the Buenos Aires International Book Fair (Spanish: Feria Internacional del Libro de Buenos Aires) but it isn’t easy to participate in because the stands are so expensive. Three years ago we had a stand because we had support from the Brazilian government. I wasn’t there, my partners told me, maybe this year we are going to have a stand with several of our children’s books. We have a section of children’s books, they are our bestsellers, everyone loves the children’s books, they are very nice, with lots of colours and they have exercises for writing and grammar… foreigners are also interested in the children’s books because they can do the Spanish exercises. Ernesto Camille the author is an Argentinean writer, he is an educator, he was well known in the sixties and seventies as a pedagogue, a teacher of children, he was forgotten and forty years later he met us and decided to republish his books again with us. It was a nice union and worked out well for both of us.
Are there any other particular authors you would like to mention that Eloisa has plans to publish in the near future?
We have some plans to publish an American writer called Richard Brautigan who’s like an underground writer from the sixties. I think we can be open to other languages and other authors. We also plan to translate more Argentinean writers into English.
Also a Uruguayan, Horacio Quiroga, he used to write tales supposedly for children but they were so violent, like wild animals in the forest, very hard topic no? Like frightening topics like a bat in your pillow or something like that, or a person lost in the forest with crows flying above them but for children, children understand it, we’re going to publish it in a children-sized book, a big one with colours and pictures and exercises for writing.
Has the Eloisa workshop produced covers for anything other than books?
We have sold CDs. We made a party in November with an organisation from the United States called “haudenschildGarage”. There were pictures and a tale of misery and suspense, Cucurto was the curator, we finished the cultural presentation at the workshop with a Cumbia band, we sold the book with Cucurto’s tale and the illustrations of the painters’, such as Fernanda Laguna who was one of the pioneers of the Eloisa project, also with a CD of Cumbia music.
Of Eloisa Cartonera, the writer Ricardo Piglia pointed out that “It’s not about making a cult of poverty, but rather, not allowing oneself to be intimidated by it.” What sort of role do you think Eloisa plays in this relationship?
Nice question. We don’t want to make poverty fashionable, like we don’t want to appear as some project, that was born from Christ only to fight poverty, maybe some people are attracted to that idea but basically we are for our work, to work and learn without it being important if you are poor or rich, where you came from, how your parents are, there are different ways of organisation… it goes beyond fashion.
And do you think the products themselves have the similar effect as being a part of a co-operative? Do you think the books can affect opinions about poverty?
It depends on the buyer, their ideas, we receive visits from many people, some just want to buy, some just want to ask about how we work, if we are so lonely, what we think about this… poverty or wealth or how we work this way to fight for these kind of ideas…our project is able to answer different questions because we are a co-operative and we can compliment each other’s ideas to present a better idea of what we are doing. The books have their own speech but sometimes it’s our purpose to have to explain how we think about certain things. It’s not just an economic product, it goes beyond that, it’s a cultural product, it’s not just the economic product of poor people. I think that the main idea is to forget about that and show to the people that these are ideas, this work comes from people writing from all kinds of backgrounds too.
Eloisa seems to make a lot from a little by engaging those in need to facilitate the exchange of ideas all while proving to be quite sustainable, do you think this is a new kind of project?
I think this is new, to show people that no matter where they came from whether they are students, cartoneros or professionals… we are all involved in a working process, we all get our hands dirty, we all compromise for the main idea: our work, people’s ideas change about poverty if they see several people working even if there from whichever economic cycle of the world, everyone can be engaged, we sacrifice individual ideas for the group idea- it’s not so easy for me also sometimes but I’ve learned that it’s also not so hard to do it. We help each other. Different people have different experiences and when everybody contributes then different backgrounds are often erased.
What advice would you give to others interested in starting a similar sustainable co-operative?
Try to do it alone or with a few people, if you receive support, that can be later, but the main thing is to start alone, in your garage, cutting cardboard whatever, without expectations of receiving support, follow your individual ideas, if support comes then of course its welcome but if you can begin alone I think it will come for the better.
The best way to pick up a book is to head to the workshop-bookshop at Brandsen 647, La Boca, which is open Monday to Saturday, 2-6pm. This is where you’ll find most of their catalogue and you can also see how it all comes together.
More links for the eyes and ears:
The folk: Washington Curcurto (Author and Founder) and others talk about Eloisa
The art: Photos of Eloisa Artwork at the 27th Sao Paulo Biennial, Sao Paulo
The books: An Eloisa-made video of how they make ‘em