El Gordo: You Have To Play To Win

Unemployment has reached nearly 20 percent in Spain, and the rate is nearly twice that among young workers. The government's economic policies don't seem to be doing much good. But Spaniards haven't lost all hope. That's because in theory, any of them could win El Gordo — the world's biggest lottery, known as "The Fat One."

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Spain has just finished holding its annual Christmas lottery - the biggest in the world. It has a total jackpot of more than $3 billion. As is the tradition, school children sang the winning numbers.

Unidentified Children: (Singing in Spanish)

MONTAGNE: Just before the drawing, Jerome Socolovsky visited the long lines of ticket buyers and found the lottery provides some hope to a nation mired in recession.

JEROME SOCOLOVSKY: There are two tell-tale signs that Christmas is approaching in Spain. One is the villancicos, or Christmas carols.

Unidentified Children: (Singing in Spanish)

SOCOLOVSKY: And the other is the long lines in front of the state lottery kiosks. Here on the Puerto del Sol square in the heart of Madrid, there are three long lines of people waiting to buy tickets for the lottery known here as El Gordo.

Eduardo Ramon and Miguel Vasquez are in one of them. Both are in their early 30s, still live with their parents and lost their jobs in this recession.

Mr. EDUARDO RAMON: (Spanish spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: He's on welfare and I don't even qualify, says Ramon.

Mr. RAMON: (Spanish spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: It's our only hope, he continues. Maybe we'll get a spark of luck that will get us out of this rut.

The lottery is named El Gordo, or the fat one, because of its size. Nearly $5 billion worth of tickets are sold, which on average comes out to more than $100 per inhabitant of this country.

Unidentified Child: (Singing in Spanish)

SOCOLOVSKY: When the winning numbers are sung out, everyone is glued to their TVs - in cafes, living rooms or at work. And the anticipation is a community experience, because tickets are often shared by friends, relatives, bar mates or work colleagues.

Still, Miguel Vasquez is not very optimistic about his chances.

Mr. MIGUEL VASQUEZ: (Spanish spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: We'll see, he sighs, but I don't think I'll be lucky. Vasquez is hardly the only 30-something in the doldrums. While overall unemployment in Spain is almost 20 percent, among the youngest workers it's nearly twice that.

A few years ago, the Spanish economy was the bright star in the European Union, creating a third of all new jobs. But many have evaporated and opinion polls show that few people have faith that Spain's socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero can make things better.

Maria and Florina Butoa(ph) immigrated from Romania five years ago. The two sisters have just bought tickets and Maria has a thick bridal magazine under her arm.

Ms. MARIA BUTOA: (Spanish spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: Wedding dresses are so expensive, she says. The Butoas work as waitresses and their boss recently lowered their salaries. So if she doesn't win even one of the smaller jackpots, Maria says she and her fianc� will have to wait to get married.

It just so happens that 35-year-old Ivan Pasqual Garcia is playing El Gordo for the first time. That's because his girlfriend wanted to share a ticket, which means they would split millions of dollars if they win the top prize.

Mr. IVAN PASQUAL GARCIA: (Spanish spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: I don't even want to think about what I would do with all that money, because if you get your hopes up, you're definitely jinxed, he says.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Spanish spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: El Gordo is advertised as the lottery of dreams. And that may be because this is one of Spain's variants of the American dream. Traditionally, the way to climb the socioeconomic ladder in this country was either by becoming a soccer star or a bullfighter or by winning the Fat One.

For NPR News, I'm Jerome Socolovsky in Madrid.

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