El Gordo

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
Today we start out with something a little different. Love.

Costis Mitsotakis:
“.. the typical story… love story…”

Roman Mars:
Costis Mitsotakis says it’s a typical love story, but it’s not that typical. It began like this – in the early 2000s, he was living in Greece, where he’s from when…

Costis Mitsotakis:
“I met a Spanish girl.”

Roman Mars:
Her name was Sandra del Pozo

Costis Mitsotakis:
“One thing brought the other and we decided to… for me I decided to give up everything and sell everything and she decided also to give up her job.”

Roman Mars:
The two bought a small RV on eBay and started driving across Europe in the direction of Spain, where Sandra was from.

Costis Mitsotakis:
“She told me once, what do you think if we go to see my grandma?”

Roman Mars:
Sandra’s grandmother lived in a small farming town in the northeast corner of Spain called Sodeto.

Katie Mingle:
Sodeto is one of about 300 little farming villages that the dictator Francisco Franco built in Spain in the 1950s. He wanted to bring people and agriculture to some of the more desolate parts of the country.

Roman Mars:
Producer Katie Mingle traveled to Sodeto, Spain recently.

Katie Mingle:
All the towns built during this time look similar and Sodeto is no exception. There’s a church in the center of town and one bar, which is also the one restaurant, which is also the one place to hang out as far as I can tell.

[church bells ringing]

Katie Mingle:
There are about 200 people who live in Sodeto permanently, all in homes built from stone the color of sand with red tile roofs.

Costis Mitsotakis:
“You always see at the front of the main house and at the back, is for the animals.”

Katie Mingle:
That’s Costis, giving me a tour of this little town. After he and Sandra came to visit her grandmother here, they ended up staying…

Costis Mitsotakis:
“So that’s Sandra’s house. On the right, we have Sandra’s house…”

Katie Mingle:
Oh, and Sandra and Costis? They’re not together anymore. They actually broke up years ago.

Costis Mitsotakis:
“There was Edu – the new boyfriend of Sandra, the daddy of the two girls.”

Katie Mingle:
After Costis and Sandra broke up they both stayed in Sodeto, went on with their lives, and then something really incredible happened.

Roman Mars:
Something that brought everyone in this small town into the streets to celebrate all day and all night into the wee hours of the morning.

[sounds of celebrating & Spanish news clip]

Roman Mars:
On December 22, 2011, almost everyone in this town won a piece of the biggest lottery jackpot in Spain.

[sounds of celebrating]

Katie Mingle:
By chance, Costis Mitsotakis had found himself in the luckiest town in the world.

Katie Mingle:
I’ve never heard of an entire town winning the lottery. Maybe a group of friends or co-workers, but more often than not, in the United States, the lottery winner is just one person. In Spain, though, they do the lottery differently. First of all, it’s a countrywide obsession.

Costis Mitsotakis:
“The Spanish lottery is a really big deal here. It’s nuts. They’re completely crazy. If you’re not from Spain. You cannot understand it. There are people that are taking the day off to watch the lottery.”

Katie Mingle:
There’s more than one lottery in Spain but the one that Costis is talking about, that people go nuts over, it’s called the La Loteria de Navidad – “The Christmas Lottery” – and it has incredible buy-in from the population. About 75 percent of Spaniards participate.

Roman Mars:
The Christmas Lottery is also the oldest running lottery in Spain and one of the oldest in the world. The drawing has happened every single year since 1812. This includes the years of the Spanish Civil War and all the way through the Franco dictatorship.

Katie Mingle:
For better or worse, lotteries have long been considered a useful way for governments to raise funds for things like infrastructure projects and public programs. Colonial America was basically built using lottery revenue.

Roman Mars:
But in the early 1800s, opposition to the idea of lotteries was growing all over the world, especially in Europe. Lotteries were (and still are by the way) thought to be a regressive tax on the poor. Churches found lottery play to be blasphemous and superstitious. And intellectuals like Karl Marx thought public lotteries were a sinister instrument of the capitalist state — designed to convince the proletariat that there was an easy way to escape poverty. In 1826 the British outright banned the lottery for nearly a hundred years

Katie Mingle:
And In 1862, Spain responded to the opposition as well by redesigning their national lottery so that it wouldn’t take as much money from the poor.

Berta Esteve Volart:
“They decided to make the tickets very expensive and what the rationale was that if these are unaffordable, poor people won’t buy them.”

Katie Mingle:
That’s Berta Esteve Volart. She’s an economist at York University in Toronto who has studied Spain’s Christmas Lottery. She says the Spanish government figured that if they set the price of lottery tickets really high, only rich people would buy them. But that’s not how it worked out.

Berta Esteve Volart:
“What happened is instead of people not buying lottery anymore, they decided to turn to their networks and start syndicate playing.”

Roman Mars:
People began syndicate playing, or playing in groups. The lottery became more popular than ever.

Berta Esteve Volart:
“So people in the same neighborhood or family or friends, they would buy one ticket by putting together their money.”

Katie Mingle:
The Christmas lottery works like this — there are 100,000 possible numbers, ranging from 0 to 99,999. When you go to the lottery office, they’ll tell you what numbers are available in your area and you pick one.

Roman Mars:
But it’s really expensive to own an entire number, like tens of thousands of euros. What is much more common is that an organization will buy a share of a number and then sell off even smaller shares to individuals – 5 euro shares or 2 euro shares… Thousands of people may own small fractions of the same number. The smaller the share you have, the less you get of the total jackpot if your number should win.

Katie Mingle:
And one of the things that this has done is to turn this Christmas Lottery into a huge social event. Local organizations sell tickets at a mark-up for fundraisers, so your soccer team might be selling shares of a number, the school your kids go to maybe selling a different number. Most Spaniards have a stack of tickets — all different tiny shares of different numbers that they’ve been talked into buying by someone.

Roman Mars:
The numbers go on sale in the summer and then on December 22nd, all of Spain tunes in to watch the drawing.

Costis Mitsotakis:
“Every year it’s been done the same way in the same theater in Madrid. It starts at, I think, 8 o’clock in the morning, And the TVs and the radios are always everywhere all showing this thing.”

Roman Mars:
If you turned on Spanish TV that morning, here’s what you’d see — there’s a stage, and on it are two giant golden orbs. One contains balls with all the possible lottery numbers printed on them. The other smaller orb has balls with the prize money amounts. While one orb spits out a number, the other drops down the corresponding prize amount.

Katie Mingle:
After the balls drop, a couple of catholic school kids in their uniforms sing the numbers and prizes out-loud in a kind of Gregorian chant — the whole thing goes on for several tedious hours.

Roman Mars:
And the kids aren’t particularly great singers…

(kids singing in Spanish)

Katie Mingle:
There are a bunch of small prize amounts that drop but at some point, the orbs spit out the biggest prize of the day and its corresponding number. This big prize is called El Gordo – the fat one. The total jackpot for El Gordo can be close to a billion dollars.

(kids singing in Spanish)

Roman Mars:
When El Gordo drops, reporters all over Spain rush to figure out who has won the jackpot. But it’s almost certain that the winning number isn’t held by a single individual. It’s held by hundreds or even thousands of people who probably all live in the same geographic region of Spain. Reporters scramble to find out where the winning number was sold.

Katie Mingle:
And on December 22nd, 2011, everyone looked to a little farming town in the Northeast corner of the country.

Costis Mitsotakis:
“I got a phone call from a friend of mine that he was on the train.”

Katie Mingle:
That’s Costis again

Costis Mitsotakis:
“He was telling me that something was going on in Sodeto because I’m in the train and everybody’s on the phone, talking on the phone, and I hear all the time ‘sodeto sodeto sodeto.’”

Katie Mingle:
58,268. That was the lottery number that had won El Gordo. The winning tickets had been sold all over Sodeto by The Housewives Association, a group of women who host parties and activities in town. The association sold lottery tickets door-to-door for 6 euros — five euros for the lottery share and 1 euro for their fundraising

Maria-Carmen Lambea (voiceover by Carmen Vidal):
“Hi, I’m Maria-Carmen Lambea. I chose the winning number in Sodeto when I was the secretary of The Housewives Association.”

Katie Mingle:
When Marie-Carmen heard that their number had won El Gordo, she started calling friends. No one could believe it.

Roman Mars:
On a PA system that the town normally only used to announce water shortages, the mayor came on and said…

PA Voiceover:
“Congratulations, Sodeto. We have just won the lottery! Come to the plaza to celebrate.”

Maria-Carmen Lambea (voiceover by Carmen Vidal):
“That experience, you can’t really explain it. If you didn’t live it. You can’t imagine. If you had been there in the moment, you would have thought these people have gone completely crazy.”

Katie Mingle:
The residents of Sodeto frantically searched for their tickets. Had they bought one from the Housewives? Each 6 euro ticket the housewives had sold was now worth 100,000 euros. How many did each person have?

Roman Mars: Soon the entire town was congregating in the plaza. People chanted their winning number as cars drove through the streets honking their horns.

[horns honking and people singing]

Katie Mingle:
Ana, the bartender, had won. Paco, the farmer, and his wife Marisol, the hairdresser, had won. Rosa, the mayor of the town had won. It seemed that every single resident of the small town of Sodeto had bought a lottery ticket from the Housewives and won a piece of El Gordo.

Costis Mitsotakis:
“The whole village – everyone. Everyone, except one.”

Katie Mingle:
Oh yeah. there was one person who didn’t have a ticket. And who was it?

Costis Mitsotakis:
“That was me.”

Katie Mingle:
Costis did not have a ticket. Costis, who had moved to the town for love and stayed even after he broke up with his Spanish girlfriend Sandra… who yes, had a ticket.

Roman Mars:
Costis lived on the edge of town and somehow the Housewives had missed him when they went knocking on doors.

Costis Mitsotakis:
“They drove everywhere except at my place. Which they didn’t do it on purpose. It just is the only one which is outside, you know, from the village so they did feel a little bit guilty.”

Roman Mars:
The people of Sodeto were not the only ones to win on the number 58,268 in 2011. A few thousand other people also had small shares of the number – mostly scattered around in towns nearby. The total jackpot that year for El Gordo was about 750 million euros but it was divided by thousands of people. In Sodeto, the people who bought more tickets got more money and everyone got at least 100,000 euros. Everyone, except Costis.

Katie Mingle:
Six years later Costis still lives in Sodeto. He and Sandra are good friends now. She lives in the center of town and he just outside of it in a barn that he’s turned into a house that still feels kind of like a barn. He has a couple of big german shepherds. You can hear one of them jumping into my mic.

[sound of dog jumping into mic]

Katie Mingle:
When I ask Costis if he felt or still feels any regret or jealousy about not having a ticket, he laughs like it’s a ridiculous question.

Costis Mitsotakis:
(laughing) “No, nothing.”

Katie Mingle:
For a while after Sodeto’s win, reporters swarmed the little town. They especially wanted to talk with Costis, the one unlucky guy who was left out of the lottery. But Costis doesn’t feel unlucky. In fact, if anything he feels like he got something that day too. He’s a filmmaker and the day the town won the lottery, he grabbed his camera and went to the plaza.

Costis Mitsotakis:
“The moment that that happened it was literally like somebody was giving me a script in hand.”

Katie Mingle:
He filmed all the celebrating, and he’s been filming ever since. He says it’s been interesting to see what happens when a whole town gets wealth all at once.

Costis Mitsotakis:
“The whole thing is like a social experiment with really fast results to study and see what an event like this can do to people. It’s not always for good.”

Katie Mingle:
Costis thinks the people in Sodeto have become a little more insular since the win, more focused on the nuclear family and less on the town as a community.

Costis Mitsotakis:
“You do see how it’s affecting, how they have changed, how they have closed. Before that, all the doors were constantly open.”

Katie Mingle:
The way he talks about it makes me wonder if the people in the town will like the film when they see it. But Costis says he thinks they will… mostly.

Costis Mitsotakis:
“Maybe a few small things that might not like it. But that’s reality.”

[birds chirping]

Katie Mingle: One thing about Sodeto, there are birds. A lot of them. Luckily this is also one of the things I am also able to say with my limited Spanish.

Katie Mingle:
“Pajaros. Muchos.” (translation: Birds. Many.)

Katie Mingle:
Another thing about Sodeto, it’s hot. Marie-Carmen, the former secretary of The Housewives Association, tells me it’s not usually this hot until later in the summer.

Maria-Carmen Lambea:
“Aye el calor. No puedo con este color.”

Katie Mingle:
‘This heat’, she says, ‘I just can’t with this heat.’ As we walk around Sodeto, she’s pointing out a few houses that have been fixed up with lottery money.

Maria-Carmen Lambea:
“Esas casa estan arreglado, estan reformado.”

Katie Mingle:
But mostly Marie-Carmen says the town hasn’t changed that much. Sodeto is a town of farmers and some of them installed new irrigation systems or bought new tractors. Some people made modest additions to their homes but nothing extravagant.

Katie Mingle:
Unlike Costis, Marie-Carmen hasn’t noticed the town being more closed off since the lottery. She thinks there have been some little jealousies here and there – not everyone won the same amount – but overall, she thinks it’s been an incredible thing for everyone in this little working-class town to live without the worry of debt. She has been battling cancer – which keeps going away and coming back – and the money’s allowed her to stop working and not worry.

Maria-Carmen Lambea (voiceover by Carmen Vidal):
“For me personally, the lottery has just brought a sense of calming. To have the day-to-day covered, you know?”

Roman Mars:
And that’s the thing about this syndicate style lottery – unlike the PowerBall jackpot, which heaps hundreds of millions on one or two lonely winners, the money from the Christmas Lottery gets divvied up among thousands of people and they don’t generally win enough to buy mansions and yachts. They win enough to pay off their debts, maybe buy a Honda Civic. The lottery brings wealth to a whole geographic area and distributes it relatively evenly, at least among those lucky enough to have a ticket.

Katie Mingle:
After a short walk, Marie-Carmen and I arrive at the new office of The Housewives Association, which now, to be more modern, is officially called the Women’s Association but everyone still seems to call it The Housewives Association. Back in 2011 when they were selling lottery tickets, the group kept four for themselves which left them with four hundred thousand euros — At the time enough to cover their budget for the next 200 years.

[sound of door opening]

Katie Mingle: With all the new money, they fixed up an old school building in town and made it into their office-slash-community center. It has a nice kitchen for parties, a laundry room, and a fitness center.

Maria-Carmen Lambea (voiceover by Carmen Vidal):
“You see? All of this was made with lottery money. This living room was built, this kitchen…”

Katie Mingle:
And the association gave Costis some money for his film.

Maria-Carmen Lambea (voiceover by Carmen Vidal):
“We gave him, I don’t remember how much, if it was 15,000 euros or how much. I don’t know. It was a good bit.”

Katie Mingle:
But she also mentions that he hasn’t finished it yet and, um, everyone is waiting.

Maria-Carmen Lambea (voiceover by Carmen Vidal):
“No, it still hasn’t come out in theaters or anything yet. The people here in the village are waiting. Like hey, what’s up? We gave you money.”

Katie Mingle:
Marie-Carmen isn’t the only one to mention this to me. It actually seems to be the talk of the town. A little later that day, I run into a group of older guys. When I tell them I met with Costis one of them says ‘the one who made the movie? But he hasn’t even come out with it yet.’

Katie Mingle:
I tell him I think it’ll be another year before the film is finished and he says… ‘but it’s already been five.’

Katie Mingle: Another guy chimes in and says Costis didn’t win the lottery but he’s done quite well for himself. He says he’s been getting paid for all the television interviews he’s done. Then they all talk about how much he’s been getting paid.

Older Gentleman:
“Mucho dinero. Mucho.” (translation: A lot of money. A lot.)

Katie Mingle:
For the record, Costis told me he’s never been paid for any interviews. Conspiracy theories aside, I got the feeling the people in Sodeto liked Costis – this strange greek artist who lives on the outskirts of town. But I also wondered if they seem him as an outsider and if the lottery has made this even more pronounced. When I ask Marie-Carmen about this she says “no, he’s one of us. We just wish he’d come out with that movie.”

Roman Mars:
Economists have long struggled to figure out why people play the lottery. It’s not a rational investment of your money. The odds of winning are terrible — worse than blackjack, worse than slot machines, worse odds than any other form of gambling, and yet, it’s the most popular form of gambling. But in Spain, it’s pretty obvious why people play THIS lottery. It’s a social thing to do. You buy a ticket because The Housewives Association will pester you until you do it. You buy tickets because your friends are buying tickets. You buy because you don’t want to be that one guy town who doesn’t win. You don’t want to be Costis.

Katie Mingle:
The Housewives Association continues to choose a number each year for the Christmas Lottery and sell tickets in Sodeto and in the surrounding little towns. And while they used to knock on doors for months, they don’t have to do that anymore. Now the people come to them and tickets sell out in a few days. ‘They were lucky once and they could be again’, people say – and no one wants to be left out.

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by our Senior Producer Katie Mingle. Mix and Tech production by Sharif Youssef. The digital director is Kurt Kohlstedt. The rest of the team includes Delaney Hall, Avery Trufelman, Emmett Fitzgerald, Taryn Mazza and me, Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
Find out more about Costis’s movie – which he’s working on with his film partner Lars Sorensen – at cuandotoco.com. We’ll put a link up on our website because I am not going to spell it for you. While you’re there, check out some beautiful animations of this story by Benjamin Stark. Music in this episode was composed by Jenny Conlee Drizos, Jon Neufeld, and Nate Query. They were part of the team that also did the scored the Genie Chance story and toured live with us. They are the best. We had additional songs composed by our own, Sean Real. Carmen Vidal did the English voice-over of Marie-Carmen. Special thanks to Roberto Garvia and Zach Frolich.

Roman Mars:
We are a project of Radiotopia and KALW in San Francisco. And produced on radio row in beautiful downtown Oakland, California.

Credits

Producer Katie Mingle spoke with Costis Mitsotakis, Maria-Carmen Lambea and Berta Esteve Volart. Special thanks to Roberto Garvía and Zach Frolich. Carmen Vidal did the English voice-over in the audio version of the story.

Benjamin Stark did all of the above illustrations and animations. See more of his work here. Music in the episode was composed by Jenny Conlee Drizos, Jon Neufeld, and Nate Query with additional songs by Sean Real.

Costis Mitotakis and Lars Soerensen are working on a movie about Sodeto and the lottery called, Caundo Tocó. It should be out in 2018.

Comments (6)

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  1. Alferid

    El Gordo is part of every year’s Christmas soundtrack for many of us. Your podcast made possible travel in time and feelings. Love that Radio and deeply admire your podcast.

    Thanks so much for that Radio travelling.

    MUCHAS GRACIAS !

  2. I remember this story. In Greece there were some people who laughed at his bad luck, because of his name. It is the same as a former PM of Greece who many citizens considered as a bearer of bad luck. The coincidence was kind of funny.

  3. Guru

    Very delightful story, that village truly deserved the fortune. Spain is amazing.
    Great work on the images and media for this piece.

  4. Elly

    We just traveled to Spain and saw lottery tickets being sold everywhere! In Sevilla old men were just wandering the streets selling them to people who passed by. It was so cool knowing the backstory. Loved this story!

  5. Kara Jacobs

    Hello! I loved this episode. I am a Spanish teacher in New Hampshire and I teach a unit about El Gordo. I am in the process of translating this story to use in class, giving full credit to you. I am wondering if it would be okay to share publicly. Also, could I use your images as well? Giving full credit to the artist as well.

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