To understand the identity of cartoneros it is necessary to understand the history of the group and review it in the light of Hall’s concept of identity. Hall provides the simplest definition of identity «…inner dialectic of selfhood» (p.42) Regarding the social identitirs he writes: «…collective soial identities were formed in, and stabylized by, the huge, long-range historical processes which has produced the modern world» (p.45) To evaluate the identity of cartoneros it is nessesary to study the history of the group.
People who pick up the food, materials or other items from mixed waste exist as long as cities. However, the globalization changed the ideology of waste pickers. Nowadays the cities are so large that thousands of people can earn for living by waste picking. The problem of solid waste recycling exists in every country of the world. The countries of so-called «Third World» suffer from the lack of solid waste recycling most of all. Solid waste demand the huge territories, it is the source of water and air pollution, and even diseases. Thus, the waste picking turns to eco-friendly business in the world capitals. Moreover, waste pickers identify their activity as the useful job for their own good and for society.
Cartoneros in Buenos Aires can be the brilliant example of changed attitude to waste pickers. The collapse of Argentinean economy was, probably, the most infamous crisis of the first decade of new millennium. In 2002 most of Argentineans lost their steady jobs and had to find the ways of survival. That time approximately 58% of population lived below the poverty line. Many of them went to the city disposal field and started working for themselves as waste pickers.
On the peak of crisis the number of cartoneros was estimated at 40,000, the number of people living on the waste-picking generated income – 100,000. The identity of cartoneros was disgusting that time: stigmatization were their fate. Cartoneros’ identity was based on their social position and their occupation, without the attention to age, gender or race. Hall writes that «class was the main locator of social position» (p.45) Cartoneros belonged to the lowest class in the social hierarchy. However, Halls mentions that «identity is always in the process of formation» (p.47) Cartoneros began the creation of their own cooperatives to provide social and communal services for members. These cooperatives were the first step in the shift of cartoneros’ identity. From the socially and economically excluded illegal working force they transformed into the real social power. Thus, cooperatives successfully lobbied the government and persuaded it to launch new nightly train service. The train carries cartoneros from their community to the downtown of Buenos Aires. Hall writes about the importance of diference for identity formation. Cartoneros found the difference in new perception of their work. «They know something about who they are. If they engage in another project it is because it has interpolated them, hailed them, and established some point of identification with them. It has brought them into the historical project» (p.59)
Thus, from the losers of globalization cartoneros turned to the real business. The importance of waste recycling is growing in the modern world, and cartoneros can feel their social importance. They are productive, hardworking people providing an important ecological service. The cooperatives also take part in reasonable consumption movement and act for the decrease of waste production. Thus, the identity of cartoneros before the crisis of 2001-2002 and nowadays differs significantly. Sure, cooperatives don’t include all cartoneros of Buenos Aires. However, they are influential enough to speak about the trend, especially in individual and general perception of their identity.
Ezparza. Elia. «Trash matters». Hummingbird review, Volume 1, Number 2. Summer / Fall 2010.
Zarwan, Elija. «Buenos Aires: The Ghost Train of the Cartoneros». World Press Review, August 2002.
Rushdi, Salman. «Yes, this is about Islam». The New York Times, November, 2, 2001.
King, Antony D. (ed) Culture, Globalization and the World-System: Contemporary Conditions for the Representation of Identity. 1997. University Of Minnesota Press