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Modern Languages and Anthropology researchers champion grassroots publishing in Latin America and the UK

Funding from AHRC’s Research Grants for Early Careers and GCRF schemes has enabled an interdisciplinary team of researchers to investigate how the circular economy, cultural activism and grassroots literature support each other in ‘cardboard publishing’ in Brazil and Mexico. The ‘Cartonera  Publishing in Latin America’ research project, led by Dr Lucy Bell from the University of Surrey, triggered the creation of new library collections and inspired NGOs such as IRMO (the Indoamerican Refugee and Migrant Organization) to run new creative projects for young people and other groups.

Editoriales cartoneras are a recent Latin American grassroots publishing phenomenon: autonomous publishing cooperatives where a common waste material is being given a new life and the people collecting it – often vulnerable or stigmatized groups, from waste-pickers (cartoneros) to prisoners – find a source of income and a new creative outlet through the decoration of hand-made art books. The covers are made of discarded cardboard and the pages are photocopied or cheaply printed, dramatically lowering the cost compared to mainstream publishing. This widens access to literature: it gives the pleasure of reading – and writing – to audiences generally unable to afford books or to set foot in the publishing sector.

Cartonera books arrive at Senate House Library
Cartonera books arrive at Senate House Library. Copyright: Dr Lucy Bell

When Dr Bell bought her first cartonera book on a research trip in 2011, she became aware of a gap in Latin American Studies – and research libraries – in the UK. She set out to investigate the artistic, social and political value of ‘cardboard books’. The project she designed would involve bringing this environmentally-friendly and creative way of engaging communities with literature and social activism to the UK for the first time.

The team consisted of specialists in Anthropology (Co-Investigator Dr Alex Flynn and Postdoctoral Research Fellow Dr Patrick O’Hare) and Modern Languages: Spanish and Portuguese (Dr Lucy Bell). Together they created a unique interdisciplinary methodology, combining innovative post-critical literary analysis with new ethnographic methods.

What Dr Bell brought to the team was an awareness of language-dependent cultural differences, her literary analysis and translation skills, and her ability to understand the cultural politics of language in the context of cartonera publishing. ‘What I’ve learned as a linguist from this project is the value not only of working on the ground, with anthropologists, but also through action-based research methods co-designed with participants – in our case, grassroots publishers and their communities.’ – she describes. ‘Our initial research questions have changed a lot through discussions with our collaborators in local communities in Brazil and Mexico. It has been a transformational learning opportunity for me and, I believe, for the whole team’.

Dulcineia Catadora in the British Library's offices, seeing their books being catalogued
Members of the Dulcineia Catadora cooperative in the British Library's offices, seeing their books being catalogued. Copyright: Dr Lucy Bell

The three researchers carried out fieldwork in Mexico and Brazil, which allowed them to develop long-lasting collaborations with the communities where cartonera books are produced and read. The results have already been published through a number of articles in top journals: Qualitative Research; Anthrovision; City & Society; and International Journal of Cultural Studies.

Strong partnerships with public institutions, non-governmental organisations and local communities allowed the project to widen its original scope and reach non-academic audiences in both Latin America and the UK.  Before this project, UK libraries had experienced great difficulties in accessing cartonera books, particularly those from hard-to-reach communities like rural Minas Gerais. Thanks to the effort of the project team, three high-profile libraries – the British Library, Senate House Library and Cambridge University Library – collaborated to build a collection of around 700 cartonera books and promoted these through public events, culminating in the London Cartonera Book Festival in September 2019.

As a result of the Cartonera Publishing Project’s engagement activities, a number of organizations – from Save Latin Village to the Indoamerican Refugee & Migrant Organisation (IRMO) and Amnesty International UK – have integrated cartonera book-making into their activities with Spanish-speaking minorities and other vulnerable groups.

Events exploring grassroots publishing and linked to Sustainable Development Goals brought further impact in Latin America. They included workshops such as ‘Quality education and the environment’ in a hard-to-reach community in Brazil, where leaf-pickers are a rural counterpart of waste-pickers. The project also helped to open the world of publishing to indigenous communities and languages. Cartonera literature in Guaraní was featured in the largest international exhibition of cartonera to-date in São Paulo and indigenous leaders took part in an accompanying event.

London Cartonera Book Festival BL Story Garden. Photograph by Lucy Bell
The British Library’s Story Garden at the London Cartonera Book Festival. Copyright: Dr Lucy Bell

The project has already become a catalyst for new applied research and started to influence the Ministry of Culture in the state of Jalisco in Mexico, encouraging this institution to promote grassroots and activist literature projects. Supported by UK libraries, Jalisco State established its first collection of cartonera books, and 200 state librarians were trained to run cartonera workshops. The ministry has recently become a key project partner in the new Prisoner Publishing project, led by Dr Bell and Dr Joey Whitfield, which focuses on writing and publishing programmes as a tool for prisoner rehabilitation.

The AHRC-funded Cartonera Publishing Project is an innovative example of how the global South can inspire the global North, reversing the typical flows of knowledge in postcolonial context. It empowers vulnerable and marginalized communities in Latin America but also in the UK, where cartonera books have started being used as an engaging and affordable activist tool. Thanks to such grassroot publishing practices, members of underprivileged groups who wouldn’t normally get published by mainstream publishing houses reach international audiences in and beyond their communities.

Further information

Full title of the original project: ‘Precarious Publishing in Latin America: Relations, meaning and community in movement’

Follow-on projects: ‘Activating the Arts in Latin America’ and ‘Prisoner Publishing’

Read about research aims and objectives on Gateway to Research: https://gtr.ukri.org/projects?ref=AH%2FP005675%2F1

Follow the project on social media https://www.facebook.com/CartoneraProject/

Watch videos http://cartonerapublishing.com/media/