Sitting on the Canal St. Martin lends itself to a kind of loitering that only takes place in the public eye of Paris, where the noun flâneur—meaning “lounger” or “idler”—comes to life. It’s summer, and I have reading to do for my class, so I pick a not-so-grimy bit of concrete along the canal and settle into my book. A man approaches me, speaking French. It’s clear that he is trying to sell me something. I politely listen, picking up words here and there, trying not to make it terribly obvious that I’m an American tourist.
He struggles to express what he is selling, so I eventually cave and speak in English. We fumble in English before a friend begins translating in Spanish, and we awkwardly navigate the three languages. Wary of being pick-pocketed, I draw my tote bag nearer to me.
He pulls out a book and my concerns begin to dissipate. My interest now outweighs any concerns about pickpocketing—I’ve devoted most of my free time to making books and studying their history.
His book is a collection of poetry, written in Spanish. It is printed on recycled paper, bound in a cardboard cover that was collaged by hand and sewn with (probably recycled) string. Books like these are called cartoneras, and they are DIY in every sense of the word.
The word cartonera refers both to the books themselves and to the larger movement of cartonera publishers and their nontraditional publishing houses. The movement began in Argentina in 2003, following the 2001 Argentine economic crisis, when the peso’s value plummeted by two-thirds. Within a week, the unemployed population quadrupled. People seeking income began searching the streets for cardboard to resell to recycling plants. These people became known as cartoneros—the term comes from cartón, the Spanish word for cardboard.
By purchasing cardboard from cartoneros, cartonera publishing houses provided economic opportunity in a time of dire economic instability. But more than this, they took book production out of the commercial publishing industry and into the streets. Most cartonera publishing consists of informal workshops made up of editors, cardboard collectors, local artists, and volunteers from the community, all working together to fold pages, paint covers, and bind books.
As the cartonera movement has spread across Latin America, it has adapted to the varying circumstances of each region’s market and population. A few components tend to remain the same: the use of cardboard as cover material, digitally printed writing and photos, and community publishing workshops. But the formula for cartonera publishing is constantly evolving. Sometimes, as in the case of Julio, the same person completes the whole process: making the cover, writing the book, and selling it on the street.
When I met Julio, he had just moved to Paris, and was living near Republique, a politically active neighborhood fitting for a cartonera publisher. He had recently published a second printing of his latest cartonera, “la nouvelle poésie.” Not all cartoneras are filled with poetry, as Julio’s are. Some are photobooks, others cookbooks, and many are also made for children.
After fumbling through French and back to English again, Julio and I eventually exchanged information, and would meet a few times afterwards to continue discussing cartoneras. The last time we talked, he brought several cartoneras to show me—even gifting me a copy of “la nouvelle poésie.” My copy is number 42. To date, Julio has printed over 700 copies, each handbound, each cover hand-designed.
Julio is from Uruguay, but travels between France and Spain to share his cartoneras and promote DIY book-making communities—while cartoneras are pervasive in South American countries, only a handful of cartonera publishers live in Europe. Before France, Julio lived in Argentina, the hub of cartonera publishing. He first learned about cartoneras at the “Feria del Libro de Buenos Aires” (“Buenos Aires Book Fair”), which began in 2011, the same year Argentina was named UNESCO World Book Capital. At that time, Julio’s poetry was being published by an independent publisher, which publishes industrially printed books that are often only sold at book fairs.
Although Julio had already found success in commercially publishing his poetry, he was drawn to cartoneras for the freedom they provided. Cartoneras work without the copyrights on which traditional commercial publishers depend—they’re often called “copyleft.” So they give self-publishers like Julio a chance to break the publishing rules to which they would ordinarily be bound. The cartonera is, in effect, not owned by anyone; it belongs to the community. The liberty of publishing without license grants anyone the ability to be a publisher.
Since cartoneras circumvent the traditional publishing scene, they grant access to literature—a leisure normally reserved for the educated elite—to people who ordinarily do not have the time or money to read. This is how the cartonera has become a democratizing agent for social and political change. Because the books cater to the specific communities they are made in (often lower-class) and made with the help of that community, they close the gap between creator and consumer. However, despite its remarkable adaptability, the cartonera’s ability to enact social change has varied by region.
It was highly successful in Peru, taking a more direct and community-based approach than the Peruvian government had. According to the Peruvian Book Chamber, Peruvians read an average of only one book per year. The Peruvian Law of Book Democratization and Promotion of Reading attempts to improve literacy by expanding the market availability of books. At Sarita Cartonera, a publishing house fittingly named after the Peruvian patron saint of outcasts, the publishers teach the cartoneras supplying the cardboard how to read. The cartoneras are also trained in binding and painting the books, giving them a more prominent and active role in the process of book-making.
The collaborative nature of cartonera-making encouraged Julio to write a new kind of poetry: his first cartonera was filled with collaborative poems, adapted from a game in which one person writes a few words and then another person writes a few words, and together they stumble on something like poetry.
Julio moved to France last spring after the changing political climate in Argentina compelled him to leave. These days, he spends his time publishing work for his editorial group, Sin Licencia, meaning, “without a license.” He makes between 30 and 100 book copies at a time during weekend workshops, selling them with his friends at poetry readings in cafes.
When he isn’t sharing cartoneras on the streets of Paris, he’s organizing gatherings reminiscent of early French Salons. He and a few friends meet at Parisian bistros, where they talk and write over coffee or beer. These gatherings generate content for future cartonera workshops.
While listening to Julio’s story, I found myself wondering how effective the cartonera, an “art of crisis,” born of the economic instability in Latin America, could be in Paris. In places like Argentina and Peru, it was a powerful tool for improving literacy and giving social agency to the poor. Here, as physically beautiful as the book was, it was difficult to see Julio’s cartonera as much more than a recycled cardboard book. What place could cartoneras have as agents of social change in Europe?
Julio believes that no matter where it travels, the cartonera brings a much-needed sense of material connection to readers. He complains of a lack of diversity, color, and personality in the book covers in Europe, saying that they have a “plastic appearance,” not even featuring relevant cover art. Julio is confident that handmade books provide a sense of ownership that is often lost as a result of mass production.
Hearing this, I was brought back to the day Julio first handed me a copy of “la nouvelle poésie,” fashioned from cardboard and printer paper. Even without the context of crisis, or a sense of need for the book, holding an intentionally crafted object made of humble materials challenged my own assumptions about bookmaking. I had always assumed that the most beautiful books would have to be made with the finest, most expensive materials available. But there I was, looking at a little strung-together thing made of cardboard, thinking it was one of the more beautiful, carefully crafted books I’d ever seen.