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'Accessible To All': Spain Puts Hope In Holiday Lottery

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Despite the cold and the rain, about 1,000 people stand in line outside a lottery kiosk in Spain. Pawn brokers walk up and down, offering cash for gold.

Among those in the long line is Bartolo Rivas. In this dismal economy, he says he doesn't have a job, but he does have the "help." The "help" is about $520 a month in unemployment, part of which he's spending on lottery tickets.

Christmas wouldn't be Christmas in Spain without El Gordo, but "The Fat One" isn't Santa Claus. It's the state lottery, the biggest of the year. Tickets sell for nearly $300, yet more than 95 percent of Spaniards buy them — or at least a share in one.

Spain has the eurozone's highest jobless rate, at more than 21 percent, and double that for 20-somethings like Rivas. But practically everyone scrounges up cash for El Gordo.

Behind Rivas in line is Jose Usaro, who drove all the way from Andalucia to buy tickets at this particular kiosk. In the past, it has sold winning tickets.

"This is a special tradition in my family. Every year I come here and buy three or four tickets, and I hope I have luck," he says.

So does everyone else you meet on the street. El Gordo ticket sales are up 15 percent this year.

"I have a ticket," says economist Javier Diaz-Gimenez of the IESE Business School. "It makes no sense. I'm an economist. I know that the chances that this is going to win is nothing."

Still, he'll tune in to the five-hour televised drawing this Thursday.

Traditionally, orphan children sing the winning numbers. People stay home from work and school to watch it. Diaz-Gimenez remembers doing this as a child.

"You see, there's a long-standing tradition. I guess that was the only way to riches, when we were a poor country, during Franco's times," he says. "Accessible to all. I mean, you put in a little bit of money. Maybe we're just dreamers."

Dreams will come true Thursday for more than 1 million ticket holders, who'll win prizes ranging from about $20 to $5 million. The Spanish government is also dreaming about El Gordo. In 2010, the lottery raised $3.5 billion — money Spain desperately needs now.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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