Lost wills, Spanish piety and cunning bring major university to Andalusia

October 28, 1990|By New York Times News Service

ESTEPONA, Spain -- At first glance, with its white arabesque apartment complexes and its marina crowded with yachts, Estepona could pass for any of a score of overbuilt tourist resorts that have sprung up along the Costa del Sol over the last 30 years.

But the past somehow survives here, keeping alive a tradition of fishing and farming and, in the narrow sloping streets above the port, the Andalusian way of life. "Everyone knows everyone," a resident said. "You must always ask how's your family, how's your mother?"

It seems proper, then, that Estepona's future is about to be trans

formed, not by the tastes of tourists or the greed of developers, but rather by the quirks of the past, by decisions made decades ago that have only recently become known.

Resembling something Garcia Lorca might have written, the story revolves around devout families, old spinsters, an unrequited love, a powerful priest, misplaced wills and an

astute mayor. Its denouement,though, should be the construction in tiny Estepona of one of the largest university campuses in Western Europe.

"We're going to build an industry of culture," announced Manuel Sanchez Bracho, a 45-year-old former mathematics teacher who is now the mayor of this town of 40,000 inhabitants 50 miles west of Malaga. "It's going to change the whole of the coast."

Antonia Guerrero, one hopes, would have been pleased. Before she died a spinster in 1928, she recorded in her will that "the greatest pain of her life" was that, because she was a woman and had not been properly educated, she had not fulfilled God's mission for her in this world.

While bequeathing eight properties to a nephew and two nieces, she ordered that if they, too, died childless, her legacy should go to an Antonia Guerrero Foundation to finance the higher education of the "poor women" of Estepona, preferably in law or the humanities.

Her relatives -- Jose, Carmen, and Maria Nadal Guerrero -- were themselves well off. They inherited all the belongings of one Cristobal Navarro, a local politician who, according to Estepona legend, never married because he swore his undying love for their mother, Isabel. They also had property of their own.

Don Jose, as he is still known here, died 20 years ago without children. "He was all of a gentleman," Dolores Jimenez recalled. "He would go to Mass every morning in a suit and a hat. And when he came out, the poor and the Gypsies would be waiting for him to hand out coins. He was a very good Catholic."

He was no less admired by his spinster sisters. In a will written before her death in 1978, the surviving sister, Maria, gave everything she had inherited from him to a Jose Nadal Foundation that would carry out "religious, charitable, and educational works" as defined by the town's Roman Catholic priest, the Rev. Manuel Sanchez Ariza.

Today, it is seen as a stroke of luck that Father Sanchez failed to execute the will because, in the meantime, land prices in and around Estepona continued to multiply. When the priest's papers were sorted out after his death in 1988, the Catholic Church quickly recognized that it had inherited a major fortune.

Not only did Maria Nadal give control of the foundation to Bishop Teodoro Ubeda of Mallorca in the event of Father Sanchez's death, but she also bequeathed almost all of her own properties in Estepona and in her home town of Onteniente near Valencia to different Catholic charities and institutions.

"I only heard of the Jose Nadal Foundation 10 months ago," said Mayor Sanchez, who is not related to the late priest. "And it set me thinking. I'd heard that the Pontifical University of Salamanca wanted to open a branch in southern Spain and I thought, why not Estepona? So I began negotiating with the church."

It was, he said with undisguised pride, like David taking on Goliath. But he had a powerful sling. "The value of the foundation's land in Estepona depended entirely on how the Town Council decided it could be used," he said. "If we said it could only be used for growing potatoes, it was worthless."

He therefore laid down his terms: in exchange for authorizing construction of a 36-hole golf course, luxury homes, and hotels worth tens of millions of dollars on the real estate market, the church agreed that Salamanca's Catholic university would build and run the University of Estepona on a prime 230-acre plot overlooking the Mediterranean.

Further, under a provisional agreement reached last month, other properties owned by the foundation will be used for a cultural center and a sports complex. "We'll pay for construction," Mr. Sanchez said as he watched heavy machinery preparing the ground for a small soccer stadium. "But the land is free."

What must now be decided is how the Antonia Guerrero zTC Foundation will fit in. Her will gave ample powers to a board comprising the mayor, the local judge, the oldest woman teacher, and another woman of her choice. And already the mayor and the judge are wondering what Dona Antonia would have wanted.

"If she wrote her will today, she would see there are more women than men studying in Estepona," Mr. Sanchez said. "It's only a personal opinion, but I don't think she would have distinguished between the sexes today. And I don't think she would have only promoted law and the humanities."

Judge Alicia Rodriguez, who insisted she is not a feminist, noted with a smile that the three women on the board will have the last word. "But it is now reasonable to give scholarships to both sexes," she added. "The important thing is to bring culture to Andalusia. You know, when I first heard the University of Salamanca was coming here, I thought it was science fiction."

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