Handcarts among BMWs: The Cartoneros of Buenos Aires

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“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” –Luke 6:24

I have seen poverty in the country where I was born. Argentina is one of the richest and most progressive nations of South America, yet I have seen the destitute come out at night, carrying handcarts as if they were Mormon pioneers. In Argentina they are called cartoneros.

The word cartonero could be translated as “cardboard picker,” but they will pick up anything that can be sold to be recycled. They receive only pennies for their finds, but when you have been fired from the factory where you used to work, and especially if you have a family to feed, those pennies help your family survive. For the most part, cartoneros are a result of Argentina’s financial crises. Every time the financial system crashes, cartoneros reappear by the thousands. Many cartoneros have a high school diploma; some may even have a college degree.

The cartoneros are generally adult men; some take their children with them and teach them the job. Cartoneros have to be strong enough to carry their carts for miles, although some own a horse who does the heavy pulling. Traditionally, in Argentina, official garbage collectors do their rounds at night. Therefore, cartoneros have a small window of opportunity: They must find their goods after they are thrown away, but before they are picked by the official garbage collectors.

Cartoneros are the visible sign of extreme poverty; their mere existence represents a national embarrassment. In the ritziest neighborhoods of Buenos Aires (Retiro, Recoleta, and Palermo), the BMWs and Mercedes of the neighbors stand in stark contrast with the humble carts pulled by the cartoneros.

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God,” says Jesus. “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”

[Photo Credit: MagicalUrbanism.com]

Today’s writer is Hugo Olaiz, associate editor for Latino/Hispanic resources at Forward Movement. Originally from Argentina, he moved to the U.S. to pursue graduate studies in Spanish, linguistics, and translation. He lives in Oxford, Ohio, with his husband John-Charles Duffy and an aging beagle mix named Patches.



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