Sunday, May 16, 2010

Cardboard Creations: Homemade Libros from the Hood

by Olga García and tatiana de la tierra

Cardboard boxes, those that transport Cambodian candy, office supplies and Florida oranges, now have a higher purpose: poetry. Thanks to la necesidad, the mother of all inventions, poets and writers till the earth, pick through piles of trash, and stretch the imagination.Despite the circumstance—a writing retreat with creature comforts, a four-hour flight with a two-year old grunt stomping across the isle, or time stolen before work and during the spin cycle—an artist creates. Despite the mood—drunken elation, heartbroken madness or blank boredom—an artist creates. Likewise, by any means necessary, an artist publishes.

So it is that poems and pieces of cardboard eyed other to end up in holy unity as books.

The first cardboard books we ever saw came from Matanzas, Cuba, where Ediciones Vigía took root in 1985 amidst humid heat and material scarcity. Handmade with cardboard, scrap paper and found objects such as buttons, textile remnants, tissue paper, lace, and flower petals, these books are works of art published in limited editions. We later came to know books from Eloisa Cartonera, a press in Buenos Aires that was founded by a collective of artists and writers after Argentina’s economic collapse in 2001. These books are raw, colorful and imperfect, with photocopied inserts glued to the cover. Simple, yet charming.

So charming that we wanted to make our own. In our case, la necesidad is the poems we write that take up residence in piles of paper, filing cabinets, notebooks, digital files and who knows where else. Unruly poems and stories that we give birth to, only to have them walk around and get lost in folders and clutter. We wanted to select them, put them in one place, have them handy to share at events and poetry readings. And because we are of the species of Chicana/Latina bilingual bicultural queer bisexual marginal writers, we know that our best bet in getting published is to do it ourselves. Over the years, we’ve self-published our poetry and prose in a variety of chapbooks. But this time, following the tradition of Ediciones Vigía, Eloisa Cartonera and other cardboard publishers from Latin America—Sarita Cartonera from Peru, Yerba Mala Cartonera from Paraguay, Animita Cartonera from Chile, Santa Muerte Cartonera from Mexico, and others—we had our sights set on cardboard.

The task has been more laborious than anticipated, but it has also been highly addictive. With cardboard as the object of desire, every box that crosses our paths is a potential candidate for a cover or two. The Korean ginseng tea box glitters like gold. Negro Modelo boxes neatly stacked at a Mexican restaurant compete with green enchiladas for our attention. We visit the Cambodian market down the street repeatedly, hoping to score an empty lychee gelatin box. We put in a request for a Kettle potato chip box at the deli. We are in awe of the circular pattern left at the base of the box of canned cat food. Wherever we go, we take a second look at every box that shows up along the way.

Thinking of cardboard as canvas, our visual sense is heightened. We cut out words that pop out at us from newspapers and magazines. We look through old post cards. The box of Nutter Butter cookies has potential, along with the bird nest in Audubon, blueberries from the mochi frozen yogurt business card, and parrots and butterflies from the Butterfly World brochure. We walk into a Colombian bakery in search of pan de bono and walk out with the pink menu. These images, combined our colorful markers and brush strokes, will somehow end up as the covers of our chapbooks.

Once in our hands, the cardboard speaks to us. It gives, it bends, it breathes. It’s the perfect barrio canvas that gets cut, scored, painted, glued, reborn. Born again cardboard.

Each book takes hours and hours of envisioning and crafting. We make mistakes along the way—nick the dining table with the tip of the utility knife while cutting out the cover, discover typos in the text after the insert has been printed, collated, stapled and cut. We deal with pages that stick to each other from so much gluing, accept that some of the lines we draw are crooked because of the cardboard ridges, discover that the azo yellow acrylic paint doesn’t look quite so lemony on brown cardboard. We are hunched over a lot, cutting, pasting and coloring like grown up kindergarteners. We find ourselves having to explain the meaning of the word “chapbook” to our family and friends: a mini-collection of a poet’s work, often self-published in small batches. We debate about how much we should sell them for, and accept that, at this point, our manual labor will be underpaid. We find that, after a lot of work, we only have 7 finished copies.

But this doesn’t stop us. Because all around us, there is cardboard. The boxesthat look forlorn on the floor of the Dollar Tree, destined for the trash bin, will now honor our words, shield them, give them a spine.Each cover that emerges is unique but they all have something in common—they give testimony to an aesthetic that is our own. This is our counter mass production, homemade libros from the hood. We know that some people won’t approve of our recycled, imperfect creations. But we are charmed.


  1. tatiana, you're the best cartonera ever. thanks for documenting our cardboard experience(s) and for putting all of this together so wonderfully.

  2. As the Chicano poet Keats reminds, "A thing of beauty is a joy for ever". As for those tipos who fail to find the joy, pues, their loss. And never forget nor fail to experience Keats' closing lines:
    And now at once, adventuresome, I send
    My herald thought into a wilderness:
    There let its trumpet blow, and quickly dress
    My uncertain path with green, that I may speed
    Easily onward, thorough flowers and weed.

  3. Where can we purchase these libros de carton?

  4. If you're interested in our libros you can contact Olga at and me (tatiana) at The first edition of the books we're working on now has a 50-print run. We still have a ways to go!


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