Readings — From the February 2008 issue

ELF-CIO

From Elves for Dignity, a children’s book published in July by a workers’ cooperative currently operating the Hotel Bauen, in downtown Buenos Aires. Closed by its owners during the 2001 financial crisis, the twenty-story hotel was reopened by former employees in 2003 and is now one of 170 worker-run businesses in Argentina. Translated from the Spanish by Burke Butler.

Once upon a time, in a faraway land, there lived a greedy and merciless King, whose only desire was to fill his chests with gold. One morning he awoke with the brilliant idea—he always considered his ideas unquestionably spectacular—of converting one of his palaces into a hotel. He immediately ordered his associates to hire a legion of elves, whom he considered honest, selfless, and docile. For a small sum, they hired the necessary personnel: cook-elves for the kitchen, servant-elves for the bedrooms, elves who spoke various languages to attend to the clientele. They all abandoned their markets and farms to serve the King.

The elves worked night and day to ensure the hotel’s splendor would never fade. But one day the ill-humored monarch got up on the wrong side of the bed. “I am tired,” he announced to his followers. “I want to generate money more easily. There will be no more hotel!” And without consulting anyone, he closed it. He put an enormous lock on the front door and departed, leaving the elves on the street.

A few of the elves reunited in the forest. They discussed what to do about the injustice they had suffered. Some feared the anger of the King and were opposed to every idea, but others became excited, and finally the majority made a great decision. They armed themselves with picks, shovels, and brooms and walked boldly toward the hotel. Filled with passion and pain, they aimed their precarious weapons at the grand lock, and our friends—united by a common dream, some atop the shoulders of others and some pushing—forced open the door.

Then their enthusiasm yielded to fear and helplessness. There were discussions, some erupting into fights. Yet a few little elves took up some brooms, brushed off the dust, and began to sweep in silence. Another two, imitating their companions, one on the shoulders of the other, lit a candle on the chandelier with a torch. The activity was contagious; more and more lighting candles, more and more light defeating the shadows.

Cleaning rags, torches, and brooms were now the weapons that our friends the elves wielded to mend the palace. Working hard, they forgot every dispute. The hotel recovered its beauty—the red carpets, the golden rays of the sun filtering through the windows. Fear was conquered by audacity.

But one morning they heard from far away the carriages and steeds of the King rapidly approaching. After the sound of trumpets, there followed a penetrating silence. The King’s retinue entered the palace, resolute. The roaring voice of the imperial herald broke the tense silence: “Your Excellency the King has entered.” Yet the elves did not drop to their knees. The King was infuriated, but he knew that he should change his strategy—with the entire village watching him, he feared a general rebellion—so he invited the elves to sit with him around a table to negotiate.

Pretending more bravery than she felt, an elf at the table raised her voice and said, “Sir, we have occupied the palace in a peaceful manner, and we want to continue working with dignity, so we can feed our families.” Another worker, feeling brave beside his companion, added, “We are going to reopen the hotel!”

Imagine, little elves defying their King!

This decisive posture disoriented the monarch. He forced an ironic smile and departed.

Thus murmurs became ideas and finally actions.

The elves reopened the hotel. The news spread across the most distant sea. Reporters arrived daily to inform the world of their work, and then travelers came for a stay, and still more elves joined the movement. In distant lands, other elves emulated their actions, inspiring still more elves—and the movement could not be stopped by all the kings of the world!

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