On a wall of the Spanish colonial-style villa which houses the Artes Gráfica Chilavert is a patch of unfinished brick surrounded by a picture frame.
This patch of brick, along with the old safe which now sits open and empty, are reminders to the fourteen members of the small printing cooperative of a fight to keep operating.
The financial depths Argentina plumbs in 2001 also marked a nadir for the printing firm. Since the 1980s its employees had worked months of unpaid hours under the spell of the former proprietor’s promises. With his silver tongue he convinced his staff that financial salvation was perpetually around the corner with new, bigger machines and larger contracts, all the while selling off its assets and reinvesting nothing.
It was finally on April 4, 2002, a Thursday evening, that the eight remaining workers who had survived years of downsizing decided to fight. They had been told a day earlier by the boss that he had never intended buying new machines. “Don’t you see what situation the country is in?” he asked them in jaw-dropping blatancy.
So began their occupation of the shop. With the help of the surrounding community who fed them and provided bedding and physical support, the workers maintained their vigil over the machines. Outside, by May 24 when the workers got their first eviction notice, there were eight police cars, eight assault vehicles, two ambulances and a fire truck. Keeping these authorities at bay were about 300 community members who came to camp outside the printing works. It was only the intervention of the Buenos Aires police commissioner that saw this impasse end and the eviction notice rescinded.
It was during this occupation that the workers printed their first book as a cooperative, a collection of essays from well-known and progressive Argentinean thinkers. Continuing to work during this siege was one of the strategies that maintained income and spirits. However the only way to take the book to market was to sneak it out through the hole in the wall they burrowed through to a neighbouring house. From there the books were loaded into a car boot and driven under the noses of the police – who guarded the printing works for several months after May 24 2002 – and to the publisher.
Chilavert– also the name of a leader of the Argentine wars of independence and the street on which the printing works are located – became a model for the rest of the country.
Cándido Gonzáles, one of the original eight members and at the time of its conversion to a cooperative, a 35-year veteran of the business explains: “Nosotros fuimos despertadores de conciencia” – “We have been wakers of consciousness.”
* This story would not have been possible without the assistance and research of Euricse postdoctoral research fellow, Marcelo Vieta.
* To see more about Chilavert, watch this video (in Spanish): https://wn.com/Cooperativa_Chilavert_Artes_Gr%C3%A1ficas