On the morning of December 22, 2002, Nacho Guerreros aka Coque in the popular TV series La que se avecina, was woken by a message on his voice mail. It was from his cousin who was phoning his apartment in Madrid from the town of Calahorra in the winemaking region of La Rioja. Recovering from a late night in the bar where he worked, Nacho listened groggily at first, but soon shook off any vestiges of sleep. Like at least 4,000 others from Calahorra, his parents had won el Gordo – Spain’s big Christmas lottery draw. Fifteen years later, Guerreros describes how the money allowed him to embark on his dream to become an actor.
Up and out of bed in seconds, Nacho tried in vain to contact his parents. Cell phones weren’t common in Calahorra and his mother and father were out and about drinking bottles of champagne with the other prizewinners.
Before 2002 it was hard to sell tickets. Now they’re all gone in a matter of 15 days
President of the Santa Vera Cruz association José Joaquín Catalán
Few in Calahorra have forgotten how fortune smiled on the community to the tune of €130 million, much of it going to the Guild of Santa Vera Cruz, the association that has been organizing Calahorra’s Easter processions since the 16th century. “The hangover lasted all Christmas,” says Guerreros who finally tracked his family down the following day. “And I believe they’re still hungover 15 years on. Every December 22, we remember it.”
The actor regrets not being in Calahorra to experience the win first hand but he did benefit from the money. First, he opened a design and décor shop in Madrid, which he ran for five years while he tried his hand at professional theater. Then he asked his father for a loan to buy the rights to Bent, a 1979 play by US playwright Martin Sherman.
The production allowed Guerreros to showcase his talent and pick up a part in the TV series Aquí no hay quien viva – his first significant role. “If my father hadn’t lent me the money, I wouldn’t have been able to do the play. The lottery win was really important to me,” he explains.
Lucky band of brothers
“We won, and we sure did win, and thank goodness we did,” says the Guild of Santa Vera Cruz. That year, the Christmas jackpot went to a large number of people because the winning number 8,103 was sold in lots of €2.50. The Santa Vera Cruz association used its winnings to completely restore the San Francisco temple, an old Baroque church. They also extended facilities for its 2,000 members and bought an industrial warehouse now used as a youth center and a workshop area.
According to the association’s president José Joaquín Catalán, a permanent exhibition of all the Easter processions was mounted in the church – the only exhibition of its kind in La Rioja, with processions dating back almost 500 years. And while the Calahorra Easter procession was declared an Event of National Interest in 2014, the renovation of the temple and the exhibition have boosted religious tourism to the town, benefiting the entire community. By way of a thank you, one of the newly installed church bells – dubbed The Lottery – has engraved with the winning number.
Nacho Guerreros says that many of his friends and relatives won a chunk of the winnings in 2002. Most of them used it to pay back debts or buy a house or a car. The Calahorra town hall confirms that the sectors which benefited most from the boon were in car sales and property though winnings were also plowed into refurbishments, travel, jewelry and electronic devices.
Álvaro Ramírez, who was 15 at the time, recalls how his family bought an apartment and that his father was suddenly rushed off his feet in his job as an electro-domestics fitter. “The whole of Spain was in a property bubble at the time,” says Ramírez, adding that his father remained busy until the bubble burst.
The hangover lasted all Christmas. And I believe they’re still hungover 15 years on Nacho Guerreros
But as is the way, the jackpot money gradually dwindled to nothing. Many in the town recall the sudden hike in house prices at the time but companies benefiting from the sudden influx of cash said the effect didn’t last long. Nacho Guerreros remembers the “brutal” impact of the crisis and wonders what would have happened if the town hadn’t had that injection of money to see them through.
Not surprisingly, el Gordo lottery sales are one thing that have remained high in Calahorra. “Before 2002 it was hard to sell tickets,” says the president of the association. “Now they’re all gone in a matter of 15 days.”
Nacho’s parents are naturally among those investing in the possibility of another windfall, though they are now retired and enjoying a relaxed life “free of debt”. According to Nacho, “You have to keep working because money runs out,” but he still buys his Christmas lottery ticket as a nod to a tradition that has stood the test of time.
English version by Heather Galloway.