A Stitch in Time Arminda Palacios was the seamstress for the swankiest hotel in Buenos Aires for 20 years. But when the financial crisis hit, she lost her job, along with her purpose in life. But not for long...

A Stitch in Time

A Stitch in Time

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Arminda Palacios was the seamstress for the swankiest hotel in Buenos Aires for 20 years. But when the financial crisis hit, she lost her job, along with her purpose in life. But not for long...


From PRX and NPR, welcome back to SNAP JUDGMENT, the "Sex, Lies, And Audiotape" episode. My name is Glynn Washington, and what do you do when the secret you - the person you're trying to hide - comes out into the open? For our next story, SNAP JUDGMENT travels south - way south - to bring you this story from one of my newest role models. Snappers, meet Arminda.


ARMINDA PALACIOS: (Speaking Spanish).

ANA ADLERSTEIN, BYLINE: Arminda Palacios is drinking mate and watching a telenovela when we show up. Next to her is an old professional sewing machine.

PALACIOS: (Through interpreter) There are very few people who can say that they love their job like I do. I put my heart into my work.

ADLERSTEIN: For years, she was the head seamstress at the prestigious Hotel Bauen in downtown Buenos Aires. The Bauen opened with a splash in 1978 for the World Cup. It was a sleek, ultra-modern getaway for presidents, movie stars and anyone with enough money for the best steak in the world.

PALACIOS: (Through interpreter) Oh, there was so much work to do. I had to make all of the curtains, all the cushions, the blankets, the napkins, and well, the work - it just never ended.

ADLERSTEIN: As the Argentine economy grew, the hotel flourished. But in the late 1990s, Argentina found itself in the midst of economic turmoil. Business at the hotel sputtered, but the hotel didn't close. Instead, the owners called a meeting.

PALACIOS: (Through interpreter) And I'm like, carumba, some big problem is on its way. And they said to us, sorry, we don't have enough people staying about hotel, so everybody who can should go find another job. But obviously, all the businesses were closing, all the factories - so where am I going to find work? This was during the worst crisis in the history of Argentina.

ADLERSTEIN: The Bauen owners had a proposal - if Arminda and the rest of the staff would continue working, they would eventually pay them when things got better.

PALACIOS: (Their interpreter) So we all had the mentality that this would work itself out very soon. And it was with this hope that we all stayed working there for two whole years.

ADLERSTEIN: In December 2001, the economy collapsed. People desperately tried to pull their money from the banks. There was a general strike. The streets filled with rioters and on the last day of the financial year, the owners of Hotel Bauen fired everybody, including Arminda.

PALACIOS: (Through interpreter) How? After 20 years of working there, of serving him, his family - that's where I felt indignant because I felt used. I felt like, OK, I served you up to a certain point and after, not anymore? When they had to let me go, they fired me just like anyone else.

ADLERSTEIN: So Arminda performed her final task. She collected all the uniforms.

PALACIOS: (Through interpreter) So there I was, taking everyone's clothes, leaving everything in order and closing up. And as everyone came up to me, one-by-one, I received their uniforms and we just cried. We cried so bitterly.

ADLERSTEIN: She went home to her family, unemployed.

PALACIOS: (Through interpreter) In the beginning, I had some things to do my house. I washed the curtains, I washed the floors, the walls - everything. But that just lasted one month. You know, a person gets used to anything, little by little, but I never really got used to it. I just always felt ready to work. Then one day, after a year and a half, one of my old co-workers called me up.

I remember as if it was yesterday. He was a young guy, and he called and he said, hey, Arminda, how's it going? And then he says, so we're going to take over the hotel. And I'm like, what? Que? What is this all about? And he says, yeah, we're going to take over Hotel Bauen. It's been so long, and the owners still haven't paid us our wages, plus the hotel is being stripped. They're looting everything. And he says to me, Arminda, will you join us?

What? I don't know. I mean, I'd like to, but I don't know. I have to talk to my kids. He said, OK, great. Well, we're meeting in different locations each time so the owners don't catch on and - but I stopped him. And I was like, but I'm an old lady and, you know, all of the things you're saying - they can be done by young people. And he said, no, they knew I was elderly, but my experience would be really useful. Very few people knew the hotel like I did, so I felt very valued in that moment. But I was afraid, too. And my kids did not like this, not one bit. They said, no, Mom, you're too old. This idea is too risky. The cops could come. They could beat you or bring you to prison. I said to them, OK, well I haven't promised anything. I just want to go hear about what they're thinking of doing.

ADLERSTEIN: Arminda showed up at the assembly, and she was shocked to see the faces of her former colleagues, now starving and desperate. The word was the hotel owners were trying to sell the building and keep the money without paying the workers back. Arminda decided to do everything in her power to help her friends, but from the sidelines. So when she got the call inviting her to yet another meeting, she thought nothing of it. But as she approached the street corner, she saw her colleagues surrounded by dozens of supporters, chanting and holding banners.


PALACIOS: (Through interpreter) So the director of the movement said to me, look, Arminda, in 10 minutes we take the hotel. And I was just in shock, like, what? Yes, in 10 minutes we're taking the hotel because the owner found out the plan and the police and the army might come, and we could all go to prison.


PALACIOS: (Through interpreter) And I was shaking - my legs were shaking - and I said, what? You should've told me. Why didn't you tell me?

ADLERSTEIN: The plan was to march to Hotel Bauen with Arminda and a few other women in the lead for protection.

PALACIOS: (Through interpreter) It's a lie to say they don't beat women. They do beat women.

ADLERSTEIN: As group marched to the front, Arminda broke off with a small contingent to a back entrance of the hotel that only she knew about.

PALACIOS: (Through interpreter) They opened it up, and we went walking in the total darkness. Everybody had flashlights, and we went by this little path, just until we reached the reception. And then the reception - there was this little light, and when we all found each other there, we just started to cry and hug because never in our life did we think that we would return to the hotel.

The place was totally abandoned with dirt and everything you can imagine, like bugs and rats and bats. It had been completely ruined after a year and a half.

ADLERSTEIN: The workers' plan was to occupy Hotel Bauen day and night to block the owners from selling the building. They didn't know how long it would take, but for starters, Arminda went with 13 colleagues to the courthouse to get a court order from the judge allowing them to stay on the premises. They explained to the judge that the owners owed them two years' wages. They showed how the place was being ransacked and asked for custody of the building.

PALACIOS: (Through interpreter) The judge looked at us, and he said, but I'm going to ask you one question. With what are you going to guarantee the hotel? What do you have of equal value? Do you have a house - anything, TVs, refrigerators? And I looked up, and I said, in the name of God. And I said to him, yes, Mr. Judge, I have a house, and I will bring you the deed to my house as a guarantee that we will look after the hotel. And all of you, I said to my colleagues. And they looked at me, and they said with fear, OK, well, yes, we'll also bring some things - TVs, refrigerators. And everything we had, we put up as a guarantee so that we could stay in the hotel.

ADLERSTEIN: With Arminda's house on the line and a court order in her hand, the group returned to the hotel, triumphant but penniless. Arminda swallowed her pride and went out to the street with her colleagues to beg.

PALACIOS: (Through interpreter) We went to the neighbors to ask for hot water because there wasn't any gas, no electricity - nothing. And man, was it cold. It was the winter time and a really harsh winter this year. I brought my little stove from home, and we sat around it and drink mate. It's very hard for me to talk about this time because I get very emotional. We weren't even working.

ADLERSTEIN: The group lived like this for a full year - camping out on the floor of a decrepit hotel, sleeping in shifts, hardly eating. Just as they were losing hope, they were approached by a woman about cleaning up one of the ballrooms for her daughter's 15th birthday party. They agreed to do it and instead of money, they asked for payment in cleaning supplies.

PALACIOS: (Through interpreter) It was so beautiful. After so much time, to put on a party in the hotel where - well, at this point, we considered it our hotel.

After a year and a month or so, we started to think of it in a different way. The next month, we put on more parties, but the parties didn't cover the cost of maintaining the halls. So one day we had a meeting, and we decided, why don't we open up the rooms? Why don't we sell the hotel rooms? But with what? There weren't beds, mattresses, nothing.

ADLERSTEIN: Arminda went to the Venezuelan Embassy. She had heard they were sympathetic to cooperatives, so she invited their delegates to stay at Hotel Bauen and the ambassador agreed. And to help out, the Venezuelans would even pay for their stay up front.

PALACIOS: (Through interpreter) We felt like millionaires. We bought uniforms. We painted an entire floor. I got to work making cushions and curtains. They were here for 20 days, and they were so grateful. It's a different kind of pride one feels than if you're doing something like this for a boss. The building wasn't ours, no, but the work was. With what we had sold, we put together two more rooms and then the atrium upstairs. And then, with what little money we'd earn, we'd pour all of it back into fixing up more rooms, repairing and fixing one, then another, one and another of every floor. It was just like that.

ADLERSTEIN: And so the former employees began to transform into worker-owners. They were doing quite well at it - well enough for the old owners to take note. After two years of running the hotel independently, the old bosses showed up. But this time, they came to negotiate. They wanted to buy the business that the workers had rebuilt.

PALACIOS: (Through interpreter) They said they would pay us like a privately owned business which would give us a ton of money, so they were truly demonstrating their interest. But we weren't interested - not under any circumstance - now that we knew we could truly run the place on our own. And they never - not once - offered to pay us back our back pay, so yes, they'd come now and again to try, but we had made up our minds. We were working the hotel, and we would continue to work it.

ADLERSTEIN: Today, they still get eviction notices but they just ignore them. There are 130 people working there as a cooperative, and they've managed to rehab most of the 240 rooms.

PALACIOS: (Through interpreter) It used to be a five-star hotel, and now it's a solid three-star hotel - a comfortable three stars.

ADLERSTEIN: Hotel Bauen today is still like a snapshot in time. Yes, the carpet is faded - it may not have been changed since the hotel opened - but it's clean. The once ultramodern furniture is now vintage and the French curtains, like so much else in the hotel, are all homemade.

In Arminda's sewing shop, she shows us reams of dark blue fabric, new custom placemats and table runners for an upcoming party. You can tell she's anxious to get back to work.

PALACIOS: (Through interpreter) When they ask me when are you going to leave, I don't like when they ask me that. It's like leaving a child that you've birthed. The little strength that I have, I still dedicate it to this. So as long as there's even the slightest thing to do, I still feel useful. I think I'm doing OK for someone who's 78. There are moments when I don't even remember my age.


WASHINGTON: Thank you so much, Arminda, for sharing your story. From the looks of things, Hotel Bauen is on its way. A group of wonderful folks made this piece possible. Thanks to Kenny Silbre (ph), Miguel Tigre Salas (ph), Santiago Matteo (ph), and our friends at Tecnopolis who hosted us in Buenos Aires. You better believe we're going to be back for more of that Malbec. Original sound design by Leon Morimoto, with some help, the man playing the piano, that tingle so sweet, so smooth - his name is Mark Wein, and we'll have more at snapjudgment.org. That piece was produced by Ana Adlerstein and Nancy Lopez.


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