Recycling Literary Culture: A Conversation with Lúcia Rosa

Over the past decade, a new style of publishing has emerged as a response to the economic and environmental conditions facing twenty-first-century Latin America. Cardboard books, colorfully hand ...

Over the past decade, a new style of publishing has emerged as a response to the economic and environmental conditions facing twenty-first-century Latin America. Cardboard books, colorfully hand-painted and assembled by workshop collectives, are now bought and sold in nearly every major Latin American city. The “cartonera” publishing collectives take their name from cartoneros: urbanites who earn their living by collecting recyclable materials from the streets of Latin America’s sprawling cities.

Most of the collectives are based on Eloísa Cartonera, the model established by writers and artists in Buenos Aires in 2003 during the aftermath of Argentina’s 2001 debt crisis and default. The cartoneras invite cartoneros, authors, neighbors, and visitors to participate in painting the covers of books. Although the specific operations of each cartonera vary by city, the general idea is the same: unite form and content in the task of making heard the voices of the marginal, the emerging, the poor, the other.

The cartoneras highlight the plight of the masses of jobless and homeless urban dwellers in contemporary Latin America. They also call attention to the environmental effects of globalization. Trade pacts that ultimately spelled the relocation of Northern manufacturing to points South also exported industrial pollution beyond the view and concern of Northern consumers, as well as beyond the strictures of Northern environmental protection standards. The cartonera books signal the compromises of consumer capitalism by bearing signs of their origin: the bar codes, logos, decals, and writing on their cardboard covers are often incorporated into the covers’ design, or remain visible through layers of paint.

The cartonera initiative also addresses the persistence of the colonial relationship inscribed in the structure of the Spanish-language publishing industry. Dominated by large publishing conglomerates in Madrid and Barcelona, the industry’s bureaucratic tastemakers continue to determine which Latin American writers are read, and which are consigned to oblivion. Cartoneras tend to publish unknown and unpublished writers, experimental prose and verse stylists who would otherwise remain out of print, as well as established writers who lend their names and writing to the cause of democratizing literary culture.

Founded in São Paulo in 2007, Dulcinéia Catadora (“Catador” is the Brazilian Portuguese term for “cartonero”) is one of the most productive and politically active of the cartoneras. In addition to publishing books, the Brazilian collective also performs street demonstrations and maintains close ties with the syndicates formed by Brazilian catadores to protect the rights and safety of urban gatherers. Lúcia Rosa, a sculptor based in São Paulo, is one of the collective’s founders and longtime participants.

Adam Morris (AM): How did a cartonera project develop in São Paulo?


Lúcia Rosa (LR): There was a period when I used a lot of iron scrap metal in my sculpture, so I was always visiting the catadores’ cooperatives looking for material to use in my work. Then, in 2006, I was invited by a group of artists to participate in the artists’ occupation of the Biblioteca de Pari, an exhibition that brought local art directly to the public at a library in central São Paulo. I ended up making a sculpture out of cardboard as a reflection on the tremendous quantity of cardboard and catadores in the neighborhood. My sculpture caught the attention of other artists who knew about Eloísa Cartonera in Buenos Aires. A group of us initiated contact with Eloísa, and the collaboration resulted in their invitation to participate in the 27th Biennial in São Paulo, whose theme was “How to Live Together.” Eloísa Cartonera’s idea was to assemble a publishing workshop as an installation piece, with daily participation of the catadores in São Paulo. I was asked to make contact with the catadores for the production of the Biennial installation, as I was already working with them. I put together a team, and when Javier Barilaro, the artist and Eloísa Cartonera co-founder, arrived in Brazil, I collaborated on the creation and assemblage of the installation. For the next two months the workshop was functioning daily, until December. In January 2007, we started Dulcinéia Catadora. I was determined to start a Brazilian branch.


AM: Why is the idea of the cardboard press important in contemporary Latin America?


LR: All of Latin America confronts a similar situation in the literary world: there’s a shortage of publishing houses and a surplus of authors. And a lack of readers. The majority of the population doesn’t have the purchasing power to buy books. The Internet has proven itself as an alternative medium for displaying contemporary literary production, which is abundant but mostly unexplored. But the book on paper is still alive, indispensable to a reader’s experience. The cartonera books emerge as an instrument of resistance: a method of disseminating authors’ work and of making literature that follows other paths, against the grain of the publishing market. There isn’t the same commercial objective of selling easy literature that pleases the average reader. All sorts of experimentation with the written word are welcome. I think that we’re undertaking a project of mapping new tendencies in literature. The books are sold at a minimum price so that the maximum number of people will be able to buy them. And our books, made artisanally with discarded cardboard that has been gathered by the catadores, testify to an omnipresent condition in Latin American countries—the number of people without adequate housing, and of catadores, is immense. They are people who have lost their jobs, people without access to the labor market, people with few qualifications, who survive on what they make from recycling.


AM: What makes Dulcinéia distinct among the cartoneras?


LR: When we began our activities, we chose Dulcinéia because it was the name of a catadora who worked in Coopamare, a woman from Maranhão who was nearly fifty, a strong woman, hardworking, who struggled to survive and to raise her daughter. She’s always smiling, in spite of the difficulties. She’s an example of courage and strength. And Dulcinéia is also a literary allusion to Dulcinea del Toboso, the village girl that Don Quixote sees as his true love and knightly patroness and to whom he dedicates his “heroics.” She represents the dreamer’s idealism. It has a lot to do with the project.

Dulcinéia Catadora is very close to the catadores. We’re working inside one of the recycled-materials cooperatives, Cooperglicério, right in downtown São Paulo. The catadores come together on Saturdays, their day off, to paint the covers and assemble the books.

We also include catadores among our authors, in addition to marginalized poets, the poets of the periphery. We want to work with difference on all levels: in the constitution of the group participating in the workshops, as well as in the selection of the authors. We’re starting a series of illustrated books pairing authors with specific visual artists. They create content together and then the members of the collective paint the covers. It clearly shows the collaborative character of the work—different languages add up to compose a book.

AM: Dulcinéia Catadora functions in a “self-sustainable fashion.” Why is this important?


LR: Selling what we produce and dividing the income represents a way of having autonomy, of not depending on sponsorships, of not being linked to institutions, NGOs, nonprofits. Anyway, this reinforces the character of resistance; it affirms artistic work with political roots.


AM: How does Dulcinéia approach making artwork?

The collective environment of our activities is fundamental. It would bore us to death to make art just for galleries.

LR: We act as a collective, performing urban interventions. We go to the street with the cardboard books, always with the catadores. This demonstrates an active artistic posture, of being present in public space, and not locked up in a white cube. We want to be troublesome, to force the visibility of something that people pretend every day not to see, to speak about inequalities. That’s why we work with cardboard and catadores. The collective environment of our activities is fundamental. It would bore us to death to make art just for galleries.

Acting in public space permits us to work with more freedom. It’s much different to exhibit work in a gallery, which depends on the judgment of curators, on an evaluation that is linked to a product, a piece. The relation of a work to the public at large is different. The segment of the public that frequents galleries and spaces for art isn’t the same as the public at large. In general they are artists or art enthusiasts. And even when a work or installation assembled in a gallery invites the participation of the public, surveillance cameras inhibit people’s reactions in the space. Continuous control is exercised to preserve property. There’s a certain code of behavior that is followed in a private space. When we’re in the street, we concern ourselves with developing a work with the public, with the population. This is the point. The exchange, the contact with the passerby, provokes ruptures in people’s daily routines. To break automatisms. To open spaces for reflection. Everything is process. Improvisation. We don’t go into the streets trying to control everything that could happen. We aren’t prisoners to an expected result. The photos and videos that we make of our interventions are intended to register the moment, this process. That’s it. They don’t inhibit our acts in any way, or affect our spontaneity.

AM: How does the collective recognize individuality of expression?


LR: As a collective, we have common objectives; we always act in a group. But around the work table, everyone paints their covers however they want, and little by little develops their style. We manage to distinguish who painted which cover. The result is an affirmation of diversity. Last year we had some graffiti artists in the group. Their language clearly informed the visual results of the covers. A single title, on the day it’s being launched, can display infinite visual languages, side by side. This is why we say that individual expression is not suppressed. Nevertheless, we don’t make a point of putting art credits on the books. It’s not something that’s important to the group. Obviously, if at some point one of the members finds it’s necessary to put his or her name on the cover, everyone will accept it. It’s a continuous play between the collective and the individual. There aren’t strict rules for delimiting the fields of action. The authors, on the other hand, are the participants that maintain some control over their creation. But the result—text plus painted cover—translates this sum of individual plus collective.


AM: Could you explain the link the collective has with the National Movement of Gatherers of Recycled Materials (o Movimento Nacional dos Catadores de Materiais Recicláveis)?


LR: We try to spread the word about the existence of the Movement in the workshops we give, and in talks. The general population is unaware of the catador movement. We participate in events promoted by the MNCR, and join them in their struggle for rights to education, health care, and housing. But we don’t participate in any of their decisions.


AM: Is the group’s project utopian?


LR: I wouldn’t describe or qualify the project with a single word. I would say that it’s a project that’s concerned with differences, that speaks of the other, that works with micro-utopias. icon