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(cover picture) Livon-Grosman, Ernesto
2006 Cartoneros. Watertown, MA: Documentary Educational Resources.

Notes: DVD, 60 minutes
Reviewed 6 Jun 2010 by:
Hingson, Jesse <>
Jacksonville University, Department of History, 2800 University Boulevard North, Jacksonville, Florida 32211-3394
Medium: Film/Video
Recycling (Waste, etc.) - Argentina - Buenos Aires
Buenos Aires (Argentina) - Economic conditions - 21st century
Buenos Aires (Argentina) - Social conditions - 21st century

ABSTRACT:    Set in Buenos Aires, Argentina in the wake of the country’s economic crisis of 2001, this documentary is an in depth examination of the lives of the ‘cartoneros,’ or the working poor, who sift through the city’s garbage in order to find recyclable materials to sell on the open market in order to survive.

In December 2001, Argentina experienced one of the worst economic crises in its history. Its export earnings fell to record lows, its currency had to be devalued, and millions of depositors lost their life savings as numerous banks failed. The situation spun out of control when the government defaulted on billions of dollars in loans from the International Monetary Fund, its largest creditor. Consequently, its political system was thrown into chaos as its president, Fernando de la Rúa, resigned from office. Since that time, the Argentine economy has gradually improved, but the trauma of the recent past remains. Evidence of this may be seen in the proliferation of documentary films attempting to explain why the crisis happened and how ordinary Argentines, in particular, responded. Fernando “Pino” Solanas, one of Argentina’s most prolific filmmakers, focused on street protests in “Memoria de Saqueo” (2004) and “La Dignidad de los Nadies” (2005). As far as what caused the economic meltdown, he blamed the International Monetary Fund’s disastrous austerity measures but also corruption among Argentina’s political elites, who profited from the country’s neo-liberal economic policies. Canadian activists, Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein, in their film, “The Take” (2004), spotlighted the experiences of skilled workers, who took to the streets and sued in the courts in wrestling control of the factories away from speculative owners. Lewis and Klein argue that this Occupied Factory Movement forms the basis of a broader cooperative movement in Argentina but is also evidence of grass-roots resistance against the forces of unchecked globalization. Indeed, what these filmmakers share in common is their belief that free-market policies adopted by Argentina’s government since the early 1990s have largely hurt the working classes but that ordinary Argentines have been able to weather various economic crises by adopting extraordinarily imaginative survival strategies and alternatives.

In a similar vein, Ernesto Livon-Grosman provides a fascinating account of the struggles of largely “invisible” lower-class working peoples in his documentary “Cartoneros.” Shot entirely in and around Buenos Aires in 2003, Livon-Grosman, currently an Associate Professor of Hispanic Studies at Boston College, follows the story of lower-class workers who collect and sell recyclable materials to wholesalers so that they can eke out a modest living. The narrator, Cristina Banegas, a famous Argentine actress, plays the role of an imaginary exile who marvels at the “intensity” of Buenos Aires and how the “people” have “changed” since the economic crisis. The title of the film suggests that it will focus solely on those who collect cardboard; however, Livon-Grosman includes those, either individually or as families, who collect all recyclable materials, including plastics, tin, copper, and glass. Indeed, the cover of the DVD features a stack of bottles.

Interviewing a number of prominent scholars, Livon-Grosman links the long history of scavenging in Argentina and Latin America, in general, with the origins of the ‘cartoneros.’ Called ‘cirujas’ (or ‘surgeons’) in Argentine slang during the 1950s, the poor were relegated to sifting through trash in landfills on the outskirts of Argentina’s towns and cities. Fernando Birri’s “Tire Dié” (1959), one of the first documentary films to examine the plight of Argentina’s working poor, serves as a testament to this impoverished existence. By the end of the twentieth century, many working class poor could sell recyclable materials to wholesale buyers. By 2001, two types of ‘cartoneros’ emerged: those who had always sold recycled materials for a living and the growing ranks of the newly unemployed, many of whom were members of the middle class. Among the latter, one fiercely independent woman, named La Colo, a college-educated divorced mother of two, is featured. Like many Argentines, she looked down on the ‘cartoneros,’ but she was forced into the business after losing her job and was forced to make a living when no work was available. Like many others in her position, the rise in the price of commodities, especially paper, made recycling even more lucrative. More importantly, for Livon-Grosman, La Colo is symbolic of a proud yet declining middle class.

Livon-Grosman interviews a broad range of ‘cartoneros’ in order to understand their world. Most arrive by packed trains primarily from the industrial outskirts of the city. One, in particular, is called “Tren Blanco,” or White Train, because of how the ‘cartoneros’ are seen: as “ghosts” who are marginalized or invisible. Indeed, the strength of Livon-Grosman’s documentary is that it reveals an entire underworld of exceptionally skilled, talented, and organized people with their own practices, territories, and “codes” that govern how they relate to one another. Although most ‘cartoneros’ prefer to work independently, some have formed cooperatives. We are introduced to Nuevos Rumbos, El Ceibo, and Bajo Flores, which have established their own radio stations, schools, soccer leagues, and self-help programs. Even a Museum of Recycling has been established.

Although their numbers have gradually declined since the economy has recovered, the ranks of the ‘cartoneros’ swelled to more than 40,000 in Buenos Aires alone at the height of the economic crisis. In the process, many porteños, who had stereotyped the ‘cartoneros’ as vagabonds prior to the economic crisis, gradually accepted what they did as a legitimate form of work. Even the city of Buenos Aires showed some sympathy to the plight of the ‘cartoneros’ when it passed Act 992, which de-criminalized scavenging. Still, in recent years, the ‘cartoneros’ have continued to face problems of discrimination and more stiff competition. For instance, during the economic crisis, private companies were gladly willing to allow the ‘cartoneros’ to rummage through their dumpsters or arrange for the regular collection of recyclable materials. In fact, we learn that many ‘cartoneros’ viewed businesses as “clients”. Gradually, however, these firms began to see that profits could be made from selling their waste, and many now enter into private agreements with buyers. As La Colo makes clear, this increased competition has forced the ‘cartoneros’ to work that much harder for fewer materials. Instead of nurturing these grassroots organizations, political leaders in charge of the city of Buenos Aires, as many ‘cartoneros’ see it, have grown increasingly hostile to them. Both cooperatives and independents accuse local politicians of colluding with privately held companies by shutting them out of government contracts.

Indeed, interviewees make it a point to blame “politicians” for many of their problems, but Livon-Grosman hesitates to explore this issue. They mention one politician by name: Mauricio Macri, the mayor of Buenos Aires (who is currently under indictment for a spy scandal). Yet, for the uninformed viewer, no explanation is given about who exactly Macri is. According to the interviewees, Macri plays a key role in their relationship with the government because in passing a series of regulations that favored his own recycling business venture while also declaring that “cartoneros should all go to jail.” Devoting more attention to these apparent conflicts of interest would have shed considerable light on the relative strength of the ‘cartoneros’ in local politics. We know that cooperatives have increased their political influence during the presidency of Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007) but that his government had all but ceased sending representatives to meet with these organizations.

This minor criticism should not take anything away from what is an extraordinary documentary that sensitively portrays the ‘cartoneros’ and their struggle to survive the odds. This film is clearly a welcome and much needed addition to the growing list of films on Argentina’s economic crisis. It is suitable for a variety of audiences at the secondary and post-secondary levels, although instructors will need to provide more background information. The film may be incorporated into anthropology, sociology, political science, history, and area studies courses, especially when discussing specific themes, such as poverty, development, and globalization.