Sodeto, the village of the lottery millionaires

No Christmas tree decoration makes the hearts of Spaniards beat as high as the Christmas lottery. Always on 22. December will be the main prize "El Gordo" pulled. Reiner Wandler visited a village that became rich this way in 2011.

Spain Christmas lottery El Gordo Sodeto

Inconspicuous: Sodeto – the village of lottery millionaires

In the village of Sodeto, with its 250 inhabitants, anyone who asks about luxury cars and grand villas is met with uncomprehending looks. "If in the city people win the lottery, they would probably invest in big apartments, in cars, in luxury", explains Ramon Paban. "It’s different here in the country." The 23-year-old drinks a coffee and eats a sandwich in the pub on the square in Sodeto.

As a "millionaire’s village" is the place between Zaragoza and Huesca known, since 2011 the "El Gordo" – to German: "der Dicke" – made the village happy. "El Gordo" is the grand prize of the world’s biggest lottery, the Spanish Christmas draw. 720 million euros it is, of which landed in Sodeto 2011 more than 100 million. The exact amount no one can or wants to reveal.

"Luxury hotel ‘" for calves and pigs

Spain Christmas lottery El Gordo Ramon Paba

Ramon Paban bought a ticket in the Christmas lottery again this year

All families had at least one ticket and thus won at least 100.000 euros. How much it was in the Paban family, Ramon does not reveal. "We have invested in our agriculture", he says. His father paid off the loans he had with the bank and built a huge hall that houses 80 calves and fattened 2000 pigs. "A kind of luxury hotel", grins Ramon. The animals come from big companies. Ramon and his father raise them until they are taken away. Before, they only grew corn. This is all that has changed at the Pabans since the big win.

Rosa Pons also remembers well those 22. December 2011, when the number 58.268 was drawn. "We, that is the local housewives club, had sold the lots", Reports the 57-year-old social worker, who until 2015 was mayor of the collective municipality to which Sodeto belongs. "When we were celebrating in the square, one of the first people I saw was the president of the irrigation association. He said: ‘Now we can pay the installments for the new facilities.’" A new computerized irrigation system had gone into operation shortly before. All the farmers were heavily in debt – and that in times of economic crisis.

Investment in small pleasures

Spain El Gordo Christmas Lottery Rosa Pons

Rosa Pons: "Suddenly all kinds of salesmen came to sell us their wares"

Chaos broke out overnight. Press and television besieged the place for weeks. "In the village, you ring your neighbor’s doorbell and just walk in", explains Pons. "The doors are not locked. At that time, all kinds of representatives suddenly came to sell us their goods. We started to lock the doors." But that was a long time ago. Now the keys are in again from the outside; the doors are open.

"Luxury? Little", says Pons. "I booked a cruise along the Norwegian coast with some friends, others bought furniture or renovated their house." The difference: "Before you bought the cheap sofa – and now the one you like best." The car a little bigger than the old one, but without overdoing it, a TV set a little too big, toys for the grandchildren a little more expensive. It is thanks to the lottery that the people of Sodeto have been able to make these little friends.

Spain Christmas lottery El Gordo regional newspaper (Reiner Wandler)

After the Christmas bonanza

Remembering the big day

On Christmas Eve 2011, they were the stars: The celebrating inhabitants of Sodeto not only graced the front page of the regional newspaper – media around the world also reported on the new millionaires. For weeks, the broadcast vans of Spanish television stations stood in the village square. Journalists conducted interviews and followed every little change in Sodeto.

Spain Christmas lottery El Gordo Virginia Riva (Reiner Wandler)

After the Christmas bonanza

Living room with fireplace

Retiree Virginia Rivas converted an old barn into a new living room. The fireplace is a little more grandiose and the TV a little bigger than it would have been without winning the lottery. Rivas is active in the housewives’ association. With the money she won, she fulfilled another dream: She traveled in a cruise ship the fjords of Norway.

Spain Christmas lottery El Gordo Luis Sanchez (Reiner Wandler)

After the Christmas windfall

Investment in the future

Luis Sanchez put the Christmas lottery winnings into his farm and paid off debts. And there is still enough left over to support his two daughters and his siblings. "It is a good feeling to be able to help the family", he says.

Spain Christmas lottery El Gordo Nacho Bescos (Reiner Wandler)

After the Christmas windfall

Newly rich shepherd

Also Nacho Bescos has won in the lottery. He did not want to give up his job because of this. Bescos has instead invested the money in new stables and new machinery. "The farm has a future", he says. He can’t imagine living in the city. He loves to roam the fields in all weathers with sheep and dogs.

Spain Christmas lottery El Gordo Agriculture (Reiner Wandler)

After the Christmas windfall

Change in agriculture

"El Gordo" has opened up new perspectives for many farmers. On the one hand, they have bought new tractors and built more warehouses. But the type of farming is also changing: in Sodeto, corn and barley used to be the main crops grown. Since winning the lottery, pigs are now fattened and calves are kept here.

Spain Christmas lottery El Gordo irrigation (Reiner Wandler)

After the Christmas windfall

Better harvest

The new irrigation system of the village was expensive. Most of the farmers used the lottery winnings to pay off the loans they had taken out for the plant. The area between Zaragoza and Huesca is only humid in winter, but hot and dry in summer. The Monegros Desert is only a few miles away. Thanks to the new system, two harvests a year are possible.

Spain Christmas lottery El Gordo card game (Reiner Wandler)

After the Christmas windfall

Only pennies

The village’s retirees like to gather at the bar to play cards. Since the lottery win, the stakes have not increased – they are still playing for pennies only. "You don’t play for the big money, that belongs to the family." They belong to the first generation of settlers. Many came from the Pyrenees, where their villages sank when reservoirs were built.

Spain Christmas lottery El Gordo village romance (Reiner Wandler)

After the christmas money blessing

Everything the same – only more beautiful

Pomp and luxury are not flaunted in Sodeto. Thanks to the lottery winnings, all the facades have been freshly painted, and the natural stone walls have been plastered and grouted. No village far and wide shines like Sodeto.

Spain Christmas lottery El Gordo Sodeto Beverly (Reiner Wandler)

After the Christmas windfall

A touch of California

On the outskirts of Sodeto young families have built new houses. "Sodeto Beverly is the popular name for the new construction area. Before winning the lottery, many young people left – now they stay permanently. For the first time in 20 years, families with young children are living in the village again.

Spain Christmas lottery El Gordo Alicia Preciados (Reiner Wandler)

After the Christmas windfall

Hope for the big lottery

Alicia Preciados didn’t witness the big moment five years ago – she only came to Sodeto in 2012. Since then she has been diligently buying lottery tickets year after year. "If I win, I’ll build myself a little house", says the single mother who works as a waitress in the bar. She has already saved up the plot of land – 400 square meters, after all.

Spain Christmas lottery El Gordo tickets (Reiner Wandler)

After the Christmas windfall

New lot – new luck

Wherever you go: lots, lots, lots. In Sodeto they are a bit more lottery obsessed than in the rest of Spain. The Christmas lottery has been a tradition since 1811. Every year tickets are sold for more than 2.5 billion euros. 70 percent is distributed – the rest goes into the state coffers.

Author: Reiner Wandler

Young villagers have a perspective again

Spain Christmas lottery El Gordo Luis Sanchez

Luis Sanchez proudly presents the village’s computer-controlled irrigation system

"With the irrigation system we now have two harvests a year", Luis Sanchez is pleased. The sporty man in his mid-fifties, who once kicked in the third Spanish league, grows barley and corn. With the lottery win – 200.000 euros in his case – he has also invested in his business. "Being debt-free is a good feeling", he says. "Besides, I helped my two daughters out." One of them has stayed in the village, married a farmer. "Without the lottery win, both would probably be gone", Sanchez is sure. "Young people suddenly see a perspective in agriculture again." Especially now, when unemployment in Spain has risen so much due to the crisis, a debt-free company is more than interesting.

Spain Christmas Lottery El Gordo Gabriel Penella

Mayor Gabriel Penella is proud of the new development area, where young families have settled

Down at the edge of the village stands a row of new houses. "Sodeto Beverly" they call the street in the vernacular. "Young families have built their homes here, says the 26-year-old mayor Gabriel Penella with satisfaction. This would not have been possible without winning the lottery. "All the young people used to go to Huesca, Saragossa or even further away in search of work." For the first time in 20 years, small children live in the village again.

The Greek without a lottery ticket

Only one person in Sodeto has not shared in the new wealth: Costis Mitsotakis did not buy a lottery ticket back then. The housewives’ association hasn’t rung his doorbell, as he lives in an old house outside the village that he has renovated. Mitsotakis is a filmmaker working on a film about Sodeto, the lottery and what winning means to people’s lives.

"As an outsider, I notice things that people here don’t notice so much", says the 47-year-old Greek. He came to the village in 2006 and attests to the fact that the villagers "have stayed down to earth to be. "However, the mentality has changed", says Mitsotakis. "Before the lottery, people here shared everything. Now it’s more like: this is mine, this is yours." Those who have a larger tractor used to lend it to their neighbors. Not anymore. "After all, he can buy one, or?"

Mentality has changed

Spain Christmas lottery El Gordo Costis Mitsotakis

Filmmaker Costis Mitsotakis has come up empty – and is working on a film about the windfall that has transformed the village

Then he gets sociological: Sodeto was founded as part of agricultural settlement projects during the Franco dictatorship in the 1950s," says Mitsotakis. "There are two kinds of settlers here", reports Mitsotakis. Some came from the nearby Pyrenees, mostly they were resettled because their village had sunk in a newly built reservoir. "They had some money and cattle." The others were poor farm workers who had to work hard for everything they got. "Since winning the lottery, there is no longer this difference", says Mitsotakis "now everyone has the same wealth. That bothers some people."

The fact that he didn’t have a lottery ticket back then has long since ceased to be an issue for Mitsotakis. He is not even sure if he would have bought one if it had been offered to him. "I have never played", he says. "I’m not Spanish, I can’t do anything with all this lottery enthusiasm." Also this year he did not buy lots.

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