For the young workers at the fairgrounds of the Universal Exhibition, life was magical. They made good money and had an extraordinary international experience. Six of them recall it, 21 years later, as new generations dream of finding a job in the middle of the crisis.
On April 20, 1992, Seville opened its doors to millions of people for the inaugural day of the Universal Exposition. Guns boomed, the king and queen, Juan Carlos I and Sofía, walked the streets and Expo’ 92 began. Welcoming the visitors was Curro, the colorful Expo’ 92 pet designed by German artist Heinz Edelmann, who created the cartoons for the Beatles’ film Yellow Submarine. This smiling human-like bird with rainbow feathers was named after the popular nickname for the Spanish name Francisco, but also had a second meaning. Curro in slang also means job.
Thousands of people came from all over the world to currar in the Expo’ 92 and Lalo Ordóñez, Max Hartwig, Emilio González Ferrín, Patricia Cabaleiro and Otto Pardo are among the curritos or currantes who still live in Seville. Some started their curro for the event as early as 1987 whereas others continued until 1993.
The magical event started every day at 9:00 am and continued until 4:00 the next morning. Emilio González Ferrín was there most of the time, working, learning, or partying. Now a professor of Contemporary Arabic studies at the University of Seville, he was 25 when the Expo’ 92 began. He organized the store for the Saudi pavilion after studying the culture and spending time in Saudi Arabia. This ended up being a very easy job because “the whole world wanted new and different things,” which were abundant in the culture-filled Expo’ 92. Trinkets and souvenirs sold quickly in all of the pavilions.
Seville washed its face for the Expo’ 92 with the construction of buildings, bridges, highways, and the high-speed train to Madrid. “The Expo became a large door to the world after the Franco regime,” Emilio points out. Seventeen years after the death of the dictator in 1975, Spain was awarded the opportunity to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the discovery of America… and more. Expo’ 92 was a way to demonstrate that Spain was capable of hosting a huge event, which would include pavilions, or buildings, created for as many countries as possible. It proved to Europe that Spain was not a backwards country and that it could be a noticeable member of the European Union, which she joined in 1986.
Expo’ 92 was a success, especially for the many young people who found a job here easily— something which sounds like a dream for today’s younger generations, who can’t find work in the middle of the crisis.
“Everyone was very happy with their work,” Otto Pardo, a museum expert, recalls of those days. “It was a magical time. All of a sudden Seville converted into a cosmopolitan city,” remembers Patricia Cabaleiro, who now works as an architect for the Architectural Heritage Office of the Andalusian Government.
Emilio Gonzále z Ferrín compares his life then to a typical student’s study abroad experience today. Living in the Expo was unlike any other time. Expo’ 92 was a “distinct city” where “there were no elderly, no children, not even dogs. It was like living in a city only of your own generation. It was like living on campus for six months…everyone passed though the Kangaroo pub at night in Australia’s pavilion,” he remembers. Seville was so close, yet life was so different. People even used another language. “They spoke of countries, for example, ‘let’s eat in Mexico, have dinner in Ireland.’ We lived in another world, a strange world,” says Emilio. It sometimes reminded him of what life would be like if he were to live in the airport. Yet everyone was content with his or her work. “I think that the people would have worked for free,” he says. Lalo Ordóñe z and Max Hartwig, carpenters, worked before, during and after the Expo and it was unlike anything they had ever seen before. Max, from Germany, was 29 and Lalo, 31. Max explains that he had felt alone as a foreigner in Seville because it had such a close-knit culture,
but the Expo helped to change that. “It was like a window into Seville. Before this, it was very closed. Today it’s different,” he says.
Lalo and Max worked in the Swiss pavilion helping with the construction and later with the upkeep and maintenance. Through their work they were able to speak with and learn from many different people. The two also made lifelong friends from Switzerland.
Patricia recalls how her good friend Selva ended up marrying a man that she met while working. The couple remained in Seville, although she was from Argentina and he was from Ireland. There are hundreds of stories like this one.
Emilio, Lalo and Max all agree that, “everyone was well paid,” adding to the positive atmosphere. Emilio was able to buy his first car and Max made “double the normal.” “Everything was new and no one was ever bored. The majority of people that worked in the Expo liked it,” Max recalls.
Although they speak highly of the money they were paid, they also explain that during the Expo,
Spain began to fall into a recession. “In 1991 it was already a reality, but many Sevillians didn’t realize until the Expo was over,” Otto claims. Over 1.2 billion dollars were used to transform the site that was the Expo, including the construction of the main pavillions, 2.2 billion more on infrastructures that included a high-speed train, new bridges, and highways. The participating countries and the companies present at Expo’ 92 invested another 1.1 billion dollars. “For some workers, the Expo was the only job they had ever had,” Max explains. For both him and Lalo, it took almost a year to find another curro after the Swiss pavilion closed.
NEW HIGH-TECH BUILDINGS AND EMPTY LOTS AT CARTUJA
Now, 20 years later, the once legendary space is full of office buildings, an amusement park, Isla Mágica, the restored Monastery of La Cartuja, and dusty, empty lots, which still haven’t found a new use. After the closing of the Expo on October 12, many of the pavilions had to be pulled down or repurposed. The main area of Expo’ 92 became the site of the Parque Científico y Tecnológico Cartuja, a district specially designed for technological and scientific-based companies, which little by little is giving a permanent use for this space.
When visited during business hours, the place is crowded with cars. But after that, it becomes deserted. The parking lots are dirt areas and the metal structure open-air auditorium, where concerts were performed every night, remains empty. The silence and lack of people after-hours is deafening in a place that 20 years ago was visited by almost 42 million people, with over 100 countries, 20 international organizations, 17 Spanish regions, and 20 private companies participating.