Elderly in Spanish city live days at home supported by bullfighting tickets

Posted: Tuesday, August 12, 2003

PAMPLONA, Spain On a hot summer evening during the city's San Fermin festival, Jose Goni sipped wine from a leather pouch and looked down from the stands at Pamplona's bullring at the ageless spectacle of bullfighting.

''The festival is everything to me. It's in my blood,'' he said.

Goni ran with the bulls through Pamplona's cobblestone streets during the famed festival for the first time when he was 16. His first son was born four years later on the first day of the San Fermin festival, just as the bulls were bolting past the Goni apartment. He is named Fermin. Goni also was the gatekeeper to the bulls for more than three decades opening the gates to let the enraged animals rush through to fight with the bullfighters.

Now, at age 80, the retired truck-driver and his wife are living out their last days at Pamplona's home for the elderly, the Casa de la Misericordia. The home also happens to own the city's famed bullring Spain's second-largest, the fourth largest in the world, and the one that sells out all its 19,500 seats during 10 days of San Fermin bullfighting.

The nearly 300-year-old ''house of mercy'' supports itself with fees from some of its elderly residents, but also pulls in a neat profit in ticket sales from the bullfights that take place during the festival, which this year was held for one week in early July.

Jesus Cia, director of the Casa, said after paying for an army of cleaners, attendants and the men who rake sand over puddles of bulls' blood, the bullring's owners take home about $1.47 million in profits.

The profits help pay for a shiny array of facilities for the one-third of the home's 560 residents who can't afford medical expenses or room and board as well as free tickets to the bullfights. Those with physical and financial needs are given preference in admission.

''People don't realize it, but when they line up to buy tickets to the bullfights, they're giving money to us,'' Cia said.

The Casa de la Misericordia was founded in 1706, following in the 13th century Italian charitable tradition of laymen taking in the city's poor and orphaned. A board of governors helped run the home, investing in textile factories and running fairs to raise funds.

In 1922, when San Fermin was just a small local festival for Pamplona's 25,000 residents, the governors built a vast bullring and then traveled to London and Paris to promote the fiesta.

Some say a governor who brought word of the festival to Paris was the one who caused Ernest Hemingway to travel to Pamplona, which later inspired his novel ''The Sun Also Rises'' and brought international fame to the city's festival.

These days, the Casa still claims charitable status, even though it no longer takes in orphans. In addition to proceeds from bullfighting tickets, about two-thirds of its income about $4.5 million comes from fee-paying residents, who pay between $10,600 and $22,800 a year to live there.

Some Pamplona residents criticize the Casa, saying it has an inordinate amount of local political power, given its ownership of the bullring one of the city's most important institutions as well as a board of governors populated by politicians and well-connected business owners.

The politics of the home don't bother Goni or his wife, Escolastica.

''We like it here. We can watch the San Fermin fireworks from the terrace,'' she said, contemplating a washed-out photograph of her husband attending a 1950s bullfight. ''And if we run out of money, we know they will look after us.''

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