THE SPANISH LOTTERIES:  by Peter Missler

 

For the poor, those who had to work, those who could not escape the necessity of labour and had no chance to take up arms against a wealthy enemy, the legacy of the Reconquista was no less disastrous. The medieval Spain that met the Moorish Kingdoms on the battlefield was no different from any other feudal nation of the age. But after the turn of the millennium, when the classes in the overpopulated northern nations began to clash and struggle among themselves, to the ultimate benefit of the bourgeoisie, Spaniards battled it out against another faith and culture, which siphoned off the superfluous energy and the surplus population. No middle class of city-dwellers sprang up to oppose the omnipotent warrior aristocracy. No bills of rights were forced down the throats of unwilling kings and weakened nobles. Here the haughty baron reigned supreme – his powers only checked by the tenets of his faith; his arrogance unbounded, his authority despotic and arbitrary on his own estates. It takes little imagination to picture how men like this, already addicted to taking rather than making wealth, would act towards the right-less serfs who worked their lands.

 

Until deep into the 19th century Spain was a society of royal droit divin, of noble privilege, of deeply rooted landed classes and an omnipresent church which exercised traditional claims on property and produce. This web of immoveable rights, where people deserved a share of the pie for what they were, not what they did, kept the great mass of men desperately poor and without a prospect of betterment. The country never knew a bourgeois revolution which did away with the old feudal sponger classes of aristocracy and clergy. Nor did it have a religious overhaul which might have implanted the civic virtues of thrift, accountability and equal justice for all(1). Instead, legality remained a matter of birthright and brute force. The hard-earned proceeds of the peasant’s labour could be stolen with impunity by the elite, by the great Lords and their overseer henchmen; and most of all by the notoriously corrupt scribes and legal officials. Against the rapine of the aristocrat there was no protection. Forever shielded from justice by royal favour, noble prerogative, and the solidarity of his peers, the sword-wielding warrior aristocrat could do as he pleased. The scribes, who possessed unchecked and arbitrary powers in the justice system, were forever for sale. Mad would be the poor man who brought a suit against noble abuse or official corruption! Far from getting impartial justice, he was certain to be imprisoned himself, at the price of a small purse thrown from Ducal hands into a scribal lap(2).

 

It will be obvious that such a combination of factors does nothing to stimulate the development of a work-ethic, or the belief in the sense of having one(3). If your nest egg can be pillaged with impunity by the first sword-swaying Junker to come around the corner, by any corrupt, self-serving tax-man or petty legal scribe who wields arbitrary power over your imprisonment, then why work hard and safe your earnings? To accumulate only minor, middle class wealth – the fortunes too small to buy you protection from powerful enemies and corruptible officials – is merely inviting trouble. What you want is either a vast fortune, in one swift stroke, or nothing at all.(4) And this understandable principle has had its due effect, which are still felt poignantly today. Spaniards, observes John Hooper in his book on modern Spain, have no tradition of saving at all, and although they work astonishing hours if they need to make immediate money or keep their jobs, they do not regard their labour as a source of pride, satisfaction or better prospects. There is no guaranteed connection between wealth and steady work, between enterprise and stable possession. So fortune comes to depend exclusively upon the one big Lucky Break: on the monopoly kicked your way by a political friend; on an opportunity for pillage in war or during civic unrest; on the collective dispossession of a socially out-group; or on that most celebrated one-chance-in-a-million: the Lottery. “Just as Spanish entrepreneurs have traditionally lived in the hope of the pelotazo (the ‘big kick’, a killing), that single stroke of luck or genius which will bring them a fortune overnight,” writes Hooper, “so the ordinary Spaniards can get by on the hope that one day me toca la loteria”, a colloquial phrase which means “let lottery land in my lap”.

 

            The Spanish mania for lotteries is indeed phenomenal and borders on the neurotic. No other country in the world has so many lotteries which are drawn so often, pay such staggering prizes and command so much attention. Spain counts no less than 4 major national lotteries, which are drawn every day. One of these, the Cupon por ciegos, got started half a century ago as a modest tax-free charity to the benefit of the blind. Today it is one of the biggest Mammoth enterprises in the land, as prominent in Spain as General Motors is in America. Spain proudly sports the biggest single prize in the whole world, the so-called Gordo (“the Fat one”), which in the 1990s brought the lucky winner no less than 10,000 million pesetas (100 million dollars or 55 million pounds); a prize which is only slightly bigger than its cousin, El Niño (the Baby).

 

To award prices of this size, participation must be huge, and it is. Spaniards are by far the biggest gamblers in Europe, and world-wide only trail the Americans and the Filipinos. By one estimate, they spent some 3 trillion pesetas (28.5 billion dollars or 16.2 billion pounds) on gambling as a whole in 1991; 330,000 million pesetas on lottery tickets alone in 2001; and a vast 600 million euros merely on the 2003 Niño [on the Christmas Gordo of 22 December 2007 some 2,867.5 million euros was spent, or 63.5 euros per Spaniard!]. Such astronomical numbers inevitably remain a little vague and mute; but translate them to an individual scale, and they speak volumes. John Hooper calculated that, not counting the omnipresent fruit machines, Spaniards spent the equivalent of 311 pounds sterling (57,000 pesetas) per head on gambling in 1991; in Britain, where average income was 25 % higher, the sum was only 206. At the same time, the average Spaniard disbursed only six times as much on food throughout the year, three times as much on clothes, and twice as much on alcohol and tobacco. And most telling of all in a context of people’s perception of fate and fortune, they spent ten times less on insurance policies!

 

The national frenzy reaches its zenith around the Christmas season, when within a fortnight both the Gordo and the Niño get drawn. Participation in these two great lotteries is nationwide; and the very rare Spaniard who doesn’t hold at least a ticket to both is looked upon -  with an apt mixture of pity and abhorrence - as a total idiot. All of society participates in this grand Operation Fata Morgana. Caring mothers give lottery tickets as Christmas presents to their children, their in-laws and even the friends of those children. Plumbers and electricians, when making house-calls in the last two months of the year, hand clients, together with their visiting card and a calendar, a complimentary participation in a lottery ticket. Bars, bakeries, grocery shops, and garages all acquire lottery tickets and sell shares in their stake to members and clients. One cannot enter a shop or a public place without spotting a home-made poster saying “In this establishment we play number so-and-so”. Charity organisations and sports clubs sell such shares, for which they print their own vouchers, to ensure extra income. Members buy, for instance a participation for 1,000 pesetas, which gives right to a “share” in the winnings corresponding to 800 pesetas. It is a neat scheme: if luck does not strike, the whole 1000 pesetas go to the charity; and if luck strikes, the charity gobbles up a fat fifth of whatever prize comes the way of that number! People share “numbers”, in families, in clusters of the work-floor and in groups of life-long friends. Inevitably, some of the more amusing court cases derive from such pooling operations, when the person charged with buying this year’s tickets for the bunch makes off with the entire winnings.

 

Another, notorious, court case, which would be amusing if it weren’t so sinister, occurred when one day in the year 2000 an elder gentleman in Galicia dropped dead from a heart-attack a few moments after buying a lottery ticket in his regular bar. It was Sunday so he was wearing his best suit; and in this suit he got buried. A week or so later, the ticket he had bought gained 5 million pesetas (30,000 euros), but it was nowhere to be found. The family soon accused the undertaker who had prepared him for burial of absconding the ticket. The judge was sympathetic; and to eliminate all doubt ordered that the corpse be disinterred to prove the undertaker’s guilt! No ticket was found; the undertaker was proven to have come into money, and he was sent to jail. Naturally, the triviality of respect for the dead could not stand in the way of something as sacred as a winning lottery ticket!

 

A vast system of superstition surrounds the lottery. People are convinced that Fortune distributes Luck in a geographical manner, so nationwide networks are in place to provide the true aficionados with lottery tickets from every nook and corner of the land, nieces in the north buying tickets for grand-uncles in the south and vice versa. A precise geographical score is kept by the news-agencies about the places where the main prize fell most often; lottery kiosks who have sold several winning tickets in the past are known by name and address. Eerily, one Catalan village called Sort – a name which means “Luck” - had the exceptional fortune of thrice receiving one of the main prizes(5). Consequently people will travel from hundred of miles away to score lottery tickets from the village, a vast half a million clients in 2003, [to the tune of 28.8 million euros in Christmas sales in the main kiosk which goes by the magical name of La Buija d’Oro, the Golden Witch]. When in November 2002 the Oil-tanker Prestige sank in front of the Galician coast and spilled its toxic contents over 300 miles of coastline and fishing grounds, all of Spain sought lottery tickets from Galicia (its share of tickets sold there went up 5 % on the national scale). Misery had struck there, so -  people reasoned - divine luck would surely come its way to compensate (ironically, the Gordo fell once again in Madrid and Barcelona; a fact which was quickly and willingly forgotten).(6) [In 2004 the sales of the Christmas tickets begins in mid July! People on holiday buy the stuff]

 

Other superstitions concerned the numbers sought. Two particular ticket numbers were in avid demand in 2001: 166386, because the coming euro was valued at 166,386 pesetas and - almost perversely - 110901, for the date of the Twin Towers attack. Somewhat lighter in tone, the gamblers in 2003 went for number 22504, because the Crown Prince had announced next year’s May 22nd for his wedding (the number was only available in Seville, where a visionary lottery saleswoman had bought them all up), while in 2004 all of Madrid, somewhat irrationally, sought the number 002012, because in 2012 the city hoped to  stage the Olympic games. When the popular singer Rocio Jurado died on the 10th of June 2006, the number 1066 was quickly sold out.

 

            When, on the morning of December 22nd and January 6th El Gordo and El Niño get drawn respectively, the whole nation is shackled to the tube. Woe to the American president who gets assassinated on such a day! The news will never reach a single Spaniard. All of the news broadcasts, of all the channels, dedicate their entire news bulletin to the lucky winners of the prizes. They analyse the exact geographical distribution of Luck, comparing it with those of the last ten years. They give notice of the exact minute that the Big Prize fell in the long sequence of hundreds of drawings. And they show an interminable sequence of neighbourhood locals splashing bottles of fake champagne about and dancing up and down inside corner cafés and adjacent streets like frenzied Bakkhae. For all of a day, Dame Fortune rules the land. Otherwise earnest political commentators praise her wisdom or criticise her insensitivity for dropping the Big One in wealthy neighbourhoods or the most humble places. Anecdotes of poor sods who might have bought a share but didn’t, raise the nation’s pity. Opposite footage of louts who announce shamelessly that they’ll never work another day in their live, her envy. And throughout the land the air is rent by the sound of millions of lottery tickets being grimly torn to shreds…

 

When called upon to explain the extra-ordinary addiction of Renaissance Italians to Games of Hazard, Jacob Burckhardt, that great observer of human nature, concluded that it must be a result of their exceptionally vivid imagination. The Italian, he wrote, ‘becomes the earliest great player of games of chance of the modern era, because [his imagination] paints him pictures of future riches and their enjoyment with such realism, that he is willing to go to the very limit. Surely,’ Burckhardt adds, ‘the Mohammedan nations would have preceded him in this, had not the Koran established - as the necessary defense of Islamic morals - a total prohibition of games of chance, and redirected the imagination of its people towards the discovery of hidden treasures.’ Burckhardt was perhaps too spiritual, too aesthetic a man to grasp the veritable motives that drive common human beings. Rather than explaining such phenomena in terms of spiritual inclinations, one ought to understand them as the sour fruits of simple, down-to-earth economics. In early shark-societies such as Renaissance Italy and Reconquista Spain, acquired wealth is of extreme uncertainty. Necessarily there arises a disbelief in the usefulness of hard work and the insistence that whatever may Easy Go should also Easy Come.

 

Yet Burckhardt’s observation that Games of Chance and Treasure-hunting are essentially identical is indisputably correct. Both look to the Lucky Break for the one sole windfall. Both favour the Stroke of Fortune over the scanty, insecure proceeds of saving, thrift and industry. In Spain, which may be Arab at the root but shed its Koranic inhibitions when it changed its faith, giant sized games of chance could exist next to, and on an equal footing with, burning dreams of hidden treasures. The earth had to deliver what the system - that system petrified with aristocratic abuse and absent prospects - would not grant.          

 

The earth… and other places. For the earth is miserly and never delivers enough. Spain is of course a rich land, whose fame in classic times was well-deserved. It has plenty of mines and minerals, its soil contains gold, silver and gems in abundance. In early Roman times, the silver mines of one single city, Carthago Nova (modern Cartagena) employed no less than 40,000 slaves in her shafts, and there were many lesser mining districts in the land at large. Like any other country of the old continent, she also had her share of hidden treasure in the earth, buried there by the countless former cultures that had over-run and then abandoned her, or were swallowed up by history: grave-gifts, statuary and little private hoards from Roman times or Greek, from the Phoenicians and the Moors themselves. Padre Feijoo, who wrote extensively on the subject, points out in his essay “Of the futile and harmful habit of searching for hidden treasures” that occasionally a small hoard was indeed discovered, by chance rather than design, and he mentions as an example a Roman purse with 30 silver coins found at a village near Leon in his own day. Washington Irving agreed with him. “It is certain,” he wrote, “that from time to time hoards of gold and silver coin have been accidentally digged up (sic), after a lapse of centuries, from among the ruins of Moorish fortresses and habitations.” But the frequency of such finds is no greater in Iberia than in any other European place, and the quantities so found are neglectible when compared with the vast discoveries made in the Fertile Crescent. A Spaniard cannot hope to find such heaps of gold, in every hillock and beneath each stone, as the Arabs of the East. While her population, high and low, was as frenzied in their lust for treasure as the fellaheen of Egypt or the Oriental poor, the treasures in her soil, compared with those of the Nile Valley or Iraq, were but a trifle.

 

            The Spanish poor did dig. They have dug, demonstrably, from the 11th century to the present day. They have dug in the earth with the dedication of a veritable treasure-hunting hysteria. But they also went treasure hunting above the earth. In the same manner in which their nobility went looking for gold across the ocean, the poor went hunting for gold in the coffers, cellars and purses of their neighbours, through pillage by plebeian mobs, during moments of rebellions, civil wars, and times of anarchy. [It is this which makes perhaps the saddest consequence of all.]

 

(1). Feudalism was never really dissolved, abandoned, abolished; the church was never truly returned to the spiritual realm where she belongs.

 

(2) Pfandl 117: “La iligalidad reinante y la creciente carga de impuestos y tributos junto con la labor de la Mesta y de los mayorazgos, anularon casi totalmente el trabajo de labradores y campesinor, con inmensos perjuicios para la nacion”

 

(3) Ford, Handbook I, p .11 on the Oriental fear of the Spaniard to be seen wealthy, due to tax-collectors, scribes, mayors, etc who might come and rob him. Hence: Ford on Hidden Treasure.

 

(4) What you want is one big golpe (strike), that lifts you out of the Lumpenproletariat right into the class of rulers, plutocrats and powerful in one quantum-jump, where you will be able to buy your own security. A small fortune only brings big risks and trouble, but no security.

 

(5) And again in 2004: the first prize! In normal countries one would think of fraud; but since such a thing is unthinkable in Spain, it must indeed be magic. The Kiosk, called “La Bruija d’Oro” or “The Witch of Gold”, sold 28.8 million euros worth of lottery tickets in 2004 for the Christmas draw alone!

 

(6) Idem: when in 1996 the camping of Biesca was swept away by an inundation – caused by its illegal, unchecked and unsanctioned location – the following Christmas ten times more lottery tickets were sold there than other years. When in 2006 Galicia burned and then flooded tremendously, its sales of lottery tickets went up 40 %. Catastrophe is great business in Spain.