Buenos Aires, June 2007
The White Train carries us.
We racket from side to side on warped steel tracks, our nostrils burning with the odor of aged brakes and wearied engines in winter’s brittle, fog-laced air. Above us cars hurtle along a freeway in the last minutes of rush hour, golden in the glare of sunset glinting off the glass high-rises of downtown Buenos Aires, and we—cartoneros, collectors of cardboard, black as chimney sweeps striped in pink light and motes of dust—stare out broken windows covered with grilled steel plates that chime from rocks thrown at us by fleeting figures on the ground.
Puto! one of us shouts at them and laughs.
Only minutes ago, we sat amid the ruined decadence of Victoria station, its colonial archways cracked and mildewed from decades of neglect. We smoked cigarettes between our carts that held the jumbled, leaning masses of flattened cardboard and heaps of nylon strips and sacks of newspaper and every other piled-high bit of scrap we had collected. Hunched and bristling, dogs rushed beneath our towers of discard, so fearful were they of collapse. There in the exposed dirt we waited for the White Train; what little warmth we had came from small fires over which we rubbed our hands, shared mugs of mate, and the hot breath of our worried conversation awash in blowing ash.
They want to take us out of circulation.
When I was a truck driver, I didn’t like the cartoneros. I didn’t think much of them. Now look at me. Perhaps this is justice for my previous life.
Last Friday, a train went off the rails and we couldn’t get transportation for the day. Imagine if they take the train away and it’s like that all the time.
The White Train, blue and white and wet with dew, pulled in just when we had nearly lost all hope. Cats scattered and we hefted our loads. Cardboard scratched the pavement.
I don’t like this, a woman said, but it’s the only way to make ends meet.
Drinking from bottles of soda mixed with wine, we set about loading the train. Dust swirled around us and stuck to our wet lips. We shuffled past car batteries, refrigerator grilles, abandoned tvs, and always cardboard and paper—the echoing clatter of our boarding consumed finally by the slow rising grind of the train’s wheels as it pushed forward once more and now, lulled into sleep, we dream dreams of ceaseless motion.
* * * *
Most people in downtown Buenos Aires avert their eyes when the White Train rattles past. They pretend not to see it and its trash-scavenging passengers. They may want to believe it doesn’t exist. After all, it has no official timetable, no windowpanes, no doors in the frames, and no seats.
And soon those people who dread its appearance will no longer have to lie to themselves about its existence. No longer will they have to wish it away. The government will remove it for them. This year, Buenos Aires officials intend to eliminate the White Train, one of the most visible signs of the poverty afflicting a city still known as the Paris of South America.
Cartoneros began appearing during the recession of the mid-1990s, when factory workers, maintenance workers, domestic workers, and other marginally employed people began losing their jobs. They found they could make a meager living by collecting recyclable materials, and many resorted to this trash scavenging as a means of temporary support. But in December 2001, Argentina went bankrupt. Mass riots toppled President Fernando de la Rúa, and a 70 percent devaluation of the currency left more than half the population below the poverty line. The new government devalued the currency, with the unintended effect of driving up the price of paper and copper. They became too expensive to import and soon more cartoneros were on the streets looking for anything of recycling value.
Now people who once told themselves that they would do this only long enough to ride out the recession pay welders thirty-five dollars to attach car wheels to a steel frame, creating contraptions that allow a single person to push up to five hundred pounds of scrap down the street, and it seems unlikely that they will find other work any time soon. Argentina’s unemployment rate stands close to 25 percent. Nearly 60 percent of the nation’s 36 million people are poor, and 10 million live in extreme poverty. It will take years to rebuild an economy crushed by mismanagement and a mountain of debt.
The city of Buenos Aires made its own concessions to this reality when it legalized garbage picking and gave commuting cartoneros a train of their own—so they wouldn’t bother “respectable” passengers with their carts of scrap paper, cardboard, cans, and salvaged food. The first train was white, hence its name—but others called it the Ghost Train because of its unofficial status and skeletal appearance. The seats were ripped out to make room for carts. The guts of the cars were recycled along with everything else. Additional cars for the cartoneros were added onto passenger trains until a total of sixteen train cars were devoted to them.
The city also launched a campaign encouraging residents to separate recyclables in green bags so that cartoneros would not have to rifle through rotten food; the city started offering vaccinations to protect against tetanus. The government also established new garbage contracts to include cartoneros, who were accused of “stealing” garbage from the waste-management companies paid by volume for the amount of rubbish they bury. Under the new rules, companies were paid according to how clean they keep their areas—a task for which the cartoneros proved helpful. Indeed, the cartoneros have reduced the amount of solid waste going into landfills by 25 percent, and they have proved a boon to the economy as well.
They only earn about forty-five centavos per kilo for white paper, seventeen to twenty centavos for cardboard, twelve centavos for newsprint, twenty-five to thirty for plastic bottles, and seven to ten centavos for glass—which is to say pennies to the pound. But the materials they gather feed Argentina’s recycling industry. Neighborhood bosses add 20 percent to the price paid the cartoneros before they sell the bulk to larger recycling collectors, who add another 100 percent before they sell it to mills as raw material, who themselves sextuple the price when they turn it into finished products that they sell into the public market.
All of Argentina, it seemed, was benefiting.
That changed, however, this June when Mauricio Macri was elected mayor of Buenos Aires. He belongs to one the wealthiest business families in the country and is the president of one of the biggest football clubs, Boca Juniors. Given the city’s budget of some three billion dollars and a population of nearly three million, the post of Buenos Aires mayor is seen as the third most important political office in Argentina, after the country’s president and the governor of the province of Buenos Aires. Macri’s election as mayor has now turned him into one of the main political figures in the country, and many believe this is a step in his bid to become president of Argentina.
Macri, whose family has a city sanitation contract, has vowed to find “a definitive solution to the problem of the cartoneros.” He has renewed the accusation of stealing. He accuses them of not paying taxes and ruining the city landscape. Since the train does not officially exist, the new city government can say what it wants, do with it as it pleases. He reminds everyone that the White Train was never a service officially sanctioned by city government or transportation officials. It was meant as a temporary remedy for the employment crisis. The White Train never existed on company records—and Macri does not believe in ghosts.
* * * *
- The debris of shredded pesos blows around a man picking through garbage at the recycling cooperative, El Ceibo.
From beneath the freeway we watch Buenos Aires rush past us in blurs of sagging clotheslines, tin roofs weighted with rocks, grazing horses . . .
Macri puts us all under the same label: thief, homeless—that’s not the case, Cora says. You know what it feels like to wake up with a fever, to know you have to collect cardboard anyway? If you don’t work, you have no money. That’s what happened two days ago. It was raining and I had to go out and work anyway.
. . . families huddled under bridges, dirt roads, crumbling brick buildings, pools of stagnant water, boys playing soccer and the dust rising around their feet until they too disappear from the gaping hole where once doors opened and closed and from which we stare out . . .
I have done this for seven years, Cora continues. I worked at a supermarket. It ended and I started doing this. Motherfuckers. This week, I already made forty pesos. I work every day but Saturday. My cart is the one I used in the garden of my house when times were better.
. . . past faded yellow campaign posters of a smiling Macri, all through the barred windows.
In the beginning, I felt bad, Cora’s husband, Omar, tells us. Like a huge bird, when it is ashamed, it puts its head in the ground. I never thought I’d be doing this. For eighteen years I was a truck driver before the company was sold and I lost my job. Maybe things will get better. The last thing you lose is your faith.
We slow to a stop at Garín station, unload in a confusion of rolling bale-size bundles of cardboard and scrap metal and metal tubing and grubby toddlers being passed overhead hand to outstretched hand . . .
Over here! This way! Lift, lift!
. . . until we fill the station platform with our carts and the discard we have collected. We wait for trucks from the depósito where fourteen-year-old Franco has already delivered his load except for a stuffed toy chicken he found in the garbage. He gives it now to his younger sister.
It looks like you, she tells him, holding the filthy toy close to her chest.
They live with their mother in a squat one-story brick house only a block away, cold with winter dampness, the thin rugs beneath their feet having already absorbed all the moisture possible from the mud floors. Two dogs and a cat run in and out of the house. Broken radios and televisions collected by Franco add to the clutter atop a chest of drawers also found on the street. As if these abandoned possessions, the attainment of others, lend respectability to this sorry hovel. Franco has been a cartonero since he was seven.
I live only in the present, not the future, he says. I just push myself so I have the energy to do this. If they stop the trains, there will be blood.
* * * *
Few in the government will take seriously the warnings of a boy. Franco may have revolutionary fervor, but no one has yet emerged from the ranks of the cartoneros to spark a proletarian revolt.
“With a few exceptions, they are not organized,” says Pablo J. Schamber, professor of anthropology and social research at the Universidad Nacional de Lan’s in Buenos Aires Province. He has studied the cartoneros since 1999. “Maybe when the decision to stop the train occurs, that will be the time an organization becomes established.”
We shall see. Shortly after Macri’s election, Trenes de Buenos Aires (TBA) and Comisión Nacional de Regulación del Transporte (CNRT) confirmed that the White Train would be eliminated by the end of 2007. The train cars in use by the cartoneros will be reconverted to add to the normal passenger trains; in exchange, some trucks will be assigned to transport the cartoneros’ carts to recycling centers.
The trucks would travel parallel to the tracks—the cartoneros would ride the train like any other passenger while the trucks drive alongside. When the train stops, the trucks will also stop. That way, the thinking goes, the cartonero and his cart will reach every destination at the same time. Another plan calls for the city to provide warehouses where the cartoneros could store what they collect, so they wouldn’t have to transport it to dump sites outside Buenos Aires. Whatever the final plan, officials agree that the White Train can be replaced.
“It’s just another train,” says Gonzalo Covatto, train station operator at Retiro station in downtown Buenos Aires. “It’s a train of workers, like a regular train but for people who don’t have money.”
Few here believe, however, that simply substituting trucks for trains will work. They question whether enough trucks will be allocated for the task. More importantly, they doubt the government’s motives.
“Even if they create more dump sites I doubt the cartoneros will go, because there would be no trust,” says Gonzalo Rodríguez, manager of a recycling center used by the cartoneros. “They are used to dealing with one person now, and that person respects them even though they might be ignorant or idiots. The cartoneros are like animals. They don’t trust.”
Does Macri want to create a more efficient and humane system for the cartoneros or is he instead protecting the interests of companies with sanitation contracts—companies such as his own? So far, no cartonero—or anyone else for that matter—has demanded answers to this and a much larger question: Is it Macri’s hope to eliminate the cartoneros all together?
“I don’t think my job will be affected one way or the other because garbage will exist forever,” Rodríguez says. “But it’s going to be a problem for the cartoneros. The problem is that if [the politicians] want to get rid of the train, they will want to get rid of the trucks another day. I think it’s more of a political problem than anything else. Garbage is a real good business.”
* * * *
Every day new rumors spread.
The train will be shut down in two months.
No, no, two weeks.
No, no, two days.
I heard next week.
Estelle Maris Gómez lurches within the jolting rush of a White Train and listens to the worried gossip. She has been a cartonero since 1995, when she lost her maintenance job. She works four p.m. to four a.m. every day. When Estelle first started collecting cardboard, she was surprised at the amount of good clothing she found. She washed the pants, dresses, and shirts and clothed her twelve children.
Since 2002, she has been trying to organize her fellow scavengers. She calls herself the president of Friends of the Train, a fifteen-hundred-member union, she asserts, before conceding that only a few, if any, attend irregularly scheduled membership meetings.
Today, no one seems interested in the union. Only the future of the White Train concerns them.
There was an accident at another station.
The train is not shut down, just delayed.
Yesterday it was really late.
Estelle, bundled in a corduroy coat and a wool cap that conceals her short black hair, carries a clipboard with petitions to save the White Trains. She tells the cartoneros their concerns should energize them to act. She urges them to sign the petitions.
Together we can do things, she says. One alone cannot.
What are we going to do if they take the train in two weeks?
We’re going to fight.
Every one of us will be damaged by this.
Fight until the last moment.
We should burn the trains.
But then what would be left for us to use? Estelle asks.
The train stops at Lisandro de la Torre station where several cartoneros get off. They push out their carts sagging with the accumulation of a night’s work. Estelle follows them, clipboard in hand, and works the platform. Most of the cartoneros ignore her. Instead, they continue their idle conversations.
Is it cold in the United States?
No. Our winters are their summers.
Let’s go to the United States so we don’t have to live with this piece-of-shit government.
In a park behind the station, police handcuff a cartonero. Around them, families lounge in the grass and watch, temporarily distracted from whatever had previously held their attention. Crostas, they call the cartoneros. Scrap. Bottom of the barrel.
Go back home, puto, a cartonero near Estelle shouts at the police.
No, no, Estelle cautions him. Don’t say that.
She boards another White Train headed back toward Victoria station and continues pushing her petition. Estelle has collected one hundred twenty signatures. She does not know how much money she has lost recruiting signatures instead of collecting cardboard herself. But if she doesn’t do this and the trains stop running, she’ll be screwed just like everyone else. Someone, she reasons, must collect the signatures. What good they will do, she can’t say, but she feels a sense of accomplishment looking at the filled sheets of paper, the names scrawled on thin blue lines. We are nothing if not the names our fathers have given us, she reasons. She decides she enjoys doing this because it is necessary.
Estelle stands next to an old man who sits, beside his cart, in a cracked plastic chair. You are smart, she tells him, to bring your own chair. He smiles wearily. He injured his left leg. A woman beside him listens to his woes. He rolls up his pants leg and reveals a bruised and swollen thigh. The woman makes a face. She has children in school, and she became a cartonera when she lost her job at a pizzeria. it’s not a fortune, she says, but what she earns as a cartonera is enough to feed them.
We’ve got to organize, Estelle tells them both.
If we lose, we’ve got nothing, the old man agrees.
At Victoria station, young men step out of another White Train bound in the opposite direction from Estelle’s train. She watches them saunter on the platform collecting their carts with belligerent self-assurance. Rebels. Young kids. They don’t want to organize. They think only of themselves. Like dogs, they will move on to something else if Macri stops the trains. They think only of today. Do they not understand that she fights for their rights too? She offers her clipboard to a woman and asks if she has signed the petition.
I am hearing the train will stop in two weeks, the woman tells Estelle.
We don’t know this.
So all these people telling me this, they are liars?
No, says Estelle.
We need the train to keep running so we can keep working.
Yes. They start pressuring us, we respond with protests. If they continue, there will be a national protest with the support of ten thousand people!
The woman signs the clipboard, energized for the seconds her pen scratches across the paper. Estelle watches her, feeling the undertow of exhaustion in her outstretched arm, the weight of the woman’s hand pressing down on the clipboard she holds. Tomorrow, Estelle must put aside the petition drive and go out with her cart. If she had as many pesos as signatures she would not be standing here now.
* * * *
- Commuters leave passenger trains in Retiro, the main station of downtown Buenos Aires, where cartoneros also disembark.
Far from Victoria station in the posh Palermo District, María Cristína Lescano stands in a warehouse, surrounded by bundles of cardboard, and sympathizes with the efforts of women such as Estelle. She knows how difficult it is to organize the cartoneros. She was one herself.
For seven years, burning with shame, she picked through trash. Then she and several other cartoneros realized they made more money when they pooled everything they had collected and sold it as one large parcel, rather than cart by cart. They started a recycling cooperative, El Ceibo, named after a local tree. Today Maria employs fifty-three people. The have an established clientele and walk door-to-door collecting recyclable garbage.
It’s going to be hard to get rid of the cartoneros, she says. Now she’s seated at a desk in the cool shadows cast by ceiling beams. Poor people have always existed.
Julia Navarro, one of her staff and a former cartonero, interrupts, speaking excitedly.
We have government contracts, Julia explains. Before this we also broke into trash bags. But now we are more important than the cartoneros.
Maria glances outside at a swirl of old money that has been discarded and shredded and now waltzes in the clear air, a multicolored flurry spilling from black plastic garbage bags in a bizarre, celebratory tornado.
When we started this, the neighborhoods didn’t want us. Imagine the way we looked at the time, Maria says. She pulls her pink sweatshirt closer to her chest and blows on her cold hands. Her glasses steam and she wipes them. The neighborhoods were scared of us. We went from working at night, when no one saw us, to working in the day. We had to teach our employees how to speak to people. We identified ourselves with uniforms.
From a drawer she withdraws pink invoices, unfurling them like a deck of cards on her desk, a sign of her legitimacy as a businesswoman. Maria sells cardboard and other recyclable goods to eight local companies.
The cartoneros have to organize themselves, she says. The White Train offers them unity. I feel sorry for them because there is no overall big movement. it’s a constant struggle. At El Ceibo we still feel marginalized as workers, but one gets used to being marginalized. One gets used to anything.
* * * *
Under a bright sun, men and women in long winter coats wait for their train at the Martínez station downtown. Shoppers fill the sidewalks, pausing at window displays or ducking into coffee shops. A TBA official paces the platform, notices the light of an incoming train. He watches it approach and then turns to the waiting men and women and urges them to step back. The sound of the train grows louder, the tracks vibrating with the weight of its passage, and it emerges fully into view. A White Train smeared with graffiti “Los Cartoneros, Éste es lo nuestro” hurtles past. Disjointed faces stare out through the barred windows and a blasting backdraft stirs the station into a swirl of paper loosened from overstuffed trash cans. Everyone turns against the sting of biting dust and the train roars otherworldly until it vanishes and the dust settles and the papers fall and the commuters look at their watches, brush their coats clean of the grit of this upheaval.
* * * *
A passenger train approaches Victoria station, stops, and then thrusts faster and faster into reverse.
Word spreads among the commuters.
The cartoneros have blocked the tracks!
Men and women disembark and rush down a street toward a bus stop. Shoe heels clipping against the sidewalk. Wrapped in coats, ties blown over their shoulders. Scarves wrapped furiously around red cheeks. Their breath, puffs of clouds in the winter wind.
This fucking government has no shame, an old man mutters, his sliver hair unruffled. Despite all the commotion everything about him pristine, smooth. A briefcase firmly in hand. Only his commute disrupted.
Terrorists stop the train and they do nothing! he says and curses again.
The old man and dozens of others stand in lines for buses. The train remains motionless, powerless to go forward. A desolate object. Beneath its still wheels, the tracks vibrate with the sound of distant voices rising and rising until the shouts of an angry knot of cartoneros burst onto the tracks.
We’re fighting to save the train!
We are here to block the road so the train won’t get out!
We all have the same right to work. We’re all fighting same thing!
We want train to keep going!
We need more cars!
Estelle stands to one side, away from the protesters. She does not know who called the demonstration. She appears intimidated by the arrival of TBA officials. Journalists ask her to comment, and she tells them she will in a minute, in a minute. She has to think.
First she wanted to turn in the petitions. Then she planned to organize demonstrations if necessary. Fearful the protest will antagonize the Macri government further, she watches in amazement. She does not understand what is happening. Her fear infects others.
The police will come and take us, a woman warns the protesters.
Our kids should leave right now, another woman shouts.
Estelle shrinks from the faces looking toward her for guidance, dwarfed by the anger rising around her. Another woman, Coronel Elsa Mabel, instead exhorts the crowd.
We must fight for each other! she calls out.
Yes, a man complains, but since last week I can’t work. I don’t have carts like you to come and work. Do you think that’s right?
Why doesn’t she stay inside? a commuter complains of Coronel.
Why is she fighting? another commuter says. I have a job to get to.
A TBA official in a blue uniform approaches Coronel. Estelle moves farther away. Coronel faces him, pushed by the crowd until they stand nose to nose.
You cannot stay here any longer, the TBA man says. It has already been twenty to thirty minutes.
Can you give us a solution? Coronel asks.
That’s what we’re trying to talk about, but you have to get away from the rails first.
The problem with the trains is they don’t have enough cars, a man shouts.
The TBA man gestures and talks. The crowd shifts to give his roving hands space. He steps forward and they move back. A few people break away as if he had some how loosed them from orbit. He gestures again and once more steps forward. Additional men and women drop off from the glut of protesters. In this way, through the quiet ruthlessness of his calm manner, he herds the crowd farther and farther away from the tracks.
Please get off the rails, he says gently. Let the train pass.
He asks Coronel for her name. He promises to add more train cars for the cartoneros. But he needs names so their complaints can be properly heard. He gestures, steps forward, gestures, steps forward. Behind him, some cartoneros move their carts from blocking the tracks. The space where Estelle stood has absorbed her until she stands there no more. Nothing now inhibits the station.
Coronel stands alone with the TBA man. Then she, too, leaves wondering what, if anything, was gained.
Does the TBA man know what he is talking about? Can he really provide the extra cars? Is it all just lies? Coronel rubs her face. The cartoneros have to wake up. This is everyone’s fight. Too many of them, she worries, believe the trains won’t be shut down. She doesn’t know why anyone would want to get in their way. The government has to let them work.
The TBA man joins commuters on the platform. He watches buses crossing the tracks, vendors selling phone cards: the day again resumes its irresistible rhythm, the unstoppable tide of routine that makes no space for delays.
* * * *
- Cartoneros block the tracks at Victoria Station and argue among themselves as they protest plans to shut down the White Trains.
In the evening, Coronel readies her three carts for the night’s work. When she first started working as a cartonera, in 2001, she did not own a cart. Just plastic bags that she filled with cardboard. At night, she camped in a park by the side of a school.
Coronel shakes her head—her long black hair brushing the small of her back—and rubs her face. Those days, a long time past. And still she scavenges.
Inside her green clapboard house, she fills a bucket with water, and bathes. After she dries herself, she puts on a brown sweater and dark pants. It will be cold.
Clothes for the next two days—sweatshirts and blue jeans and socks—drape the back of a wood chair. Also set aside are three heavy comforters. She moves about the house drying her hair. Everything she owns, a chest of drawers, bunk bed, pots and pans, the kitchen stove, she found in garbage. It surprises her, the things people discard. A washing machine, see? It still works. Some of what she finds her husband, a painter, restores and sells.
She collects cardboard Friday night through Sunday morning, allotting just five hours for sleep. Before the economic crisis, she used to clean houses and sell tortillas, but after 2001 her family needed more. Her husband has a painting job tonight and won’t be home. Coronel will pay a neighbor twenty pesos to watch their daughter.
Be good, she tells the girl and kisses her forehead. She puts a ribbon in the girl’s hair.
You take a shower?
Did you perfume your body? Even your butt?
Coronel kisses her again. The humiliation of picking through trash means little compared to the pain of leaving her daughter.
People don’t know the sacrifices we make, she says. They don’t know we have less. The train has a soul. it’s everything to the cartoneros. We have a soul. Human beings ride the train, not ghosts.
* * * *
An hour after dropping off her daughter, Coronel drags her three carts off a White Train at the Núñez station, and slips on a reflective orange band. She attaches two carts with a belt and pulls them behind her as she pushes the third cart with her free hand.
Apartment buildings line the sidewalk. The glow of streetlights reflects off her band. Flower-decorated patios jut out overhead, and music drifts without direction, dissipates within the rumble of buses and trucks and cars and the chatter of café couples arm in arm outside, smoking cigarettes. Coronel leaves two of her carts at a DVD store. A sympathetic manager whom she has known for years agrees to watch them for her. When she fills one cart, she will hide it at her campsite and return for the remaining two and continue working.
She walks down the street. A car horn blares. She ignores it as couples on the sidewalk ignore her, though she walks a little closer to the curb. The lights of an intersection change and break her stride. With her hair concealed in a long stocking cap, she has the appearance of an elf out-of-season, dwarfed in the skewed multicolored glaze of billboard lights and commotion.
La Faustina Bar.
Tucson Steak House.
Victoria Babalonia DVD Store.
Coronel stops, feels a garbage bag propped against a lamppost. Some people mix paper with trash. Through the plastic, her fingertips sort out what might be recyclable.
When she first started scavenging, she was a mess. She didn’t know what to take, so she took everything. She would see paper, grab it, and find that it was filled with dog shit.
Trabaja sucio, she says. This is dirty work.
Coronel empties a box of paperback books and paper sacks and throws it all in her cart. She continues down the street.
Plaza de Juegos.
Coronel finds a bag of fresh bread, which she leaves for other cartoneros because she brought food with her. A case of bottled orange juice, however, she keeps. The juice expired four days ago but the bottles weren’t opened. In another trash pile, outside a Chinese restaurant, she discovers a pane of glass. She will use it for her night table.
Maidenform Bras, Panties, Shapewear.
A pizza deliveryman parks outside a gated apartment complex and rings the buzzer. He leans on his motor scooter and watches Coronel pushing her cart.
You are the worst of us, he says.
She stops and faces him.
I’m not the worst. How much do you make?
One hundred fifty pesos a day.
I make more.
A woman crosses the street walking a miniature pinscher. The click of her heels on the pavement. People gather in a courtyard behind the apartment gate. Their voices low. Music. Perhaps a party.
Everyone here has a right to work, Coronel insists.
Lick my dick, the deliveryman says. People like you don’t want to work.
Coronel walks away. She must fill her cart. He is less than her. This is hard work. She would not want to deliver pizzas. She won’t be a cartonera forever. She does this for her daughter. She won’t work near construction sites because of guys like him. Motherfuckers! He must have been burned by a woman for what he said to her. Maybe he is a drug addict. She doesn’t know. Fuck him! She pushes her carts. She doesn’t get lonely. She focuses on the work. She feels lonely only when she thinks of her daughter, and when small men mock her.
* * * *
Coronel sleeps. She camps in El Barrio Rojo near Núñez station beneath a billboard for a new apartment complex with a pool and an exercise room.
Weights. Yoga. Treadmill. Medicine balls.
For a Better Life.
Two transvestite prostitutes hustle a street corner nearby. They watch out for Coronel between tricks. Her comforters hold the aromas of home, and she snuggles beneath them and dreams of her daughter.
In the darkness of this hour, boys paste cinema advertisements on the sides of vacant buildings, around frayed campaign posters promoting Macri. He smiles beside his smiling vice-mayoral candidate Gabriela Michetti and promises va a estar bueno buenos aires. It’s Going to Be a Good Buenos Aires. A catchy slogan. A play on the city’s optimistic name. Like promising “It’s Going to Be a Newer New York.” Such pitches are aimed at voters who don’t work nights picking trash or pasting up posters. His campaign was for those who believe Argentina has risen above its past economic woes and into prosperous times again.
- Coronel pulls her carts with a bicycle and looks for garbage to inspect for recyclable materials to sell.
The cartoneros remind everyone that those times, should they return at all, won’t include opportunities for everyone. That some will be left behind and be forced to cope on their own as they do now. The pocked and mottled White Trains run like a daily gash across Buenos Aires, the dividing line between people with means and people without.
If the trains remain, Macri faces more than just an annoying symbol of poverty. The cartoneros are a captive audience ripe for anyone with the drive to organize them. They spend hours on the train fretting about their fate, eager for a leader. Perhaps Estelle will rise to the occasion. Perhaps Coronel. Perhaps Cora and her husband, Omar. Perhaps young Franco. Perhaps one of their listeners. A leader who would represent not just the cartoneros but all of the people left behind by the economic chaos of 2001.
It seems that Macri won’t wait for that day. No, the train must go; the cartoneros must be controlled. Controlled before they understand the threat they pose. Soon they will ride passenger trains like anyone else. What does it matter if there are not enough trucks to carry their carts? That is not the point. Neutralize the threat. The cartoneros must blend in with other passengers sitting stop after stop, numbed by the sheer numbers of other people, dormant, faceless in the docile trap of a new order. The last thing Buenos Aires needs is a socialist boom sweeping South America. Let Juan Evo Morales Ayma stay in Bolivia. Let Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías stay in Venezuela. Let Macri be mayor so as to pursue the Argentine presidency one day.
Coronel sleeps. She has potential to be an organizer but it is hard to lead when she must work such exhausting hours. But one day Coronel or someone like her may not need sleep. Macri knows this—as strong men before him have known.
No, of course Macri cannot wait. Not another moment. The train must disappear and with it the cartoneros. He smiles forever on his campaign posters.
It’s going to be a good Buenos Aires.
* * * *
Sometime after midnight, Sunday morning, Coronel wakes beneath the cardboard cave she had made for herself between two carts. She rises and cleans her campsite. When she finishes, she hides her broom in a tree. Washing with a bottle of water, she changes clothes. She has filled her three carts with cardboard, paper, a fan, some carpet and nylon wrapping strips.
She sips mate. When she gets home, she will get her daughter ready and send her to school. Then she will sleep. She sips the mate, feels the drawn tautness in her tired face. When she gets this hungry, when she thinks her ribs are about to cave in, mate gives her strength.
Coronel needs to be strong. Last night, a man stopped, circled around, and stared at her.
Do you like men or women? he asked.
Coronel chased him with piece of metal. She knows she was not wrong about his intentions.
She joins other cartoneros at Núñez station. A man she has known for years helps her push the carts up a ramp to the platform. She calls him King Kong. Two heads think better than one even if they don’t have a lot of brains between them, she says.
You look like the Grinch, she tells Kong.
You look like Olive Oyl, Kong says.
You really think you’re smart!
Skinny girl, he says. You’re taking up the whole platform with your three carts.
They stop teasing each other long enough to help the half-dozen cartoneros gathering at this nomadic hour pull their overloaded carts onto the platform. A hodgepodge of plastic stools, heaters, faucet handles, countless pieces of cardboard, all of it swaying above them in absurd disjointed stacks that somehow never fall but shift at odd angles and cut the pavement with unsteady shadows. The cartoneros pause in the labors, frozen like figures in fading daguerreotypes—still, solemn, the lines of generations etched on their faces.
Streetlights snap off.
Gray light spreads into day, revealing empty streets and closed shutters against the dawn . . .
Cartoneros! Coronel shouts. Ready!
. . . and the hue of an approaching White Train.
* * * *
Two hours later, Coronel hauls her carts off at Savio station. The train had hit a truck parked alongside the tracks. No one was hurt but the accident caused delays.
What’s going on with the train? asks a cartonero who arrived before her.
There was an accident, Coronel explains.
I thought they were going to add cars.
I don’t know.
But Estelle said . . .
She can’t speak for us, Coronel insists. We have to speak for ourselves. We’ve got to unite and say what we want.
At the depósito three blocks away, Coronel unloads her carts onto a scale. A bare bulb hangs over her and the damp stink of mildewed cardboard presses in on her. A man reads the weight and writes it down. For thirty-six hours of work, she has earned one hundred sixty-six pesos, about fifty-five dollars.
I’m happy, Coronel says. I’m going to be able to pay for the shoes I’m using for work. I’m going to be able to pay for the jacket I got last week because of the cold. And I’m going to be able to buy a few things I need at home for the house. So yes, I’m happy. For two days it’s a good salary. A lot of sacrifices, but it’s worth it.
* * * *
The White Train carries us.
Into the night, holding the walls for balance. Our cell phones provide blinking light to see by, and we stand pale-faced and temporary in the brief light before the dark and the movement of the train consume us again. We pass cups of mate. Always mate to fill us and keep us warm. The wires from broken ceiling lights remind us that the train, like ourselves, has been recycled into something new. To that we drink, and to good finds on the street tonight.
Throughout Buenos Aires the lights are out. Soccer stadiums stand empty. Bus stops offer spaces with none to occupy them. The streets lie beyond us with no one upon them, in a profound silence not broken even by the rush of the train.
The train passes Savio station. Garín station. Victoria station. Núñez station. And all the stations in between. Then it leaves. Mile upon desolate mile, the hoarse sorrows of its engines burrow into the night. Then it stops downtown and lets us off. We stand on the platform with our carts and watch the fading light of the train, until it disappears and what we have left is ourselves and our need, alone in the silence.
But we are here. We exist.
Let us work.