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Monsignor Rodrigo Bocanegra

Written by Christopher Clover, based on interviews with Count Rudi Schoenburg and Mr Ricardo Sánchez Bocanegra, nephew of Don Rodrigo.

Few people today who were not born in Marbella are aware of the enormous significance of Monsignor Rodrigo Bocanegra in the development of the town in the 50’s and 60’s, and the strength of character and accomplishments of this wonderful person to help Marbella become an outstanding place to live in those critical years.

He became the Parish Priest of Marbella at the very beginning of the era of tourism, and was renowned for his mix of traditional yet advanced social thinking.

Monsignor Rodrigo Bocanegra signing the construction contract of the Marbella Organ, ORGANO DEL SOL MAYOR, on December 29, 1971 in presence of organ builder Gabriel Blancafort (left) and Michael Reckling, promotor of the project (with drawing).

Don Rodrigo, from his arrival in the city in 1949 until his death in 1973, was the leading local figure in Marbella town, the man who united everyone to accomplish the tasks he set for himself. He was undoubtedly the major strength behind the different Mayors of Marbella during this period, who all counted on him for his support making him, in practical terms, the “Mayor behind the Mayor” for almost 25 years.

He was instrumental in trying to get financial help from the central government to build the fishing port of Marbella, and hence the livelihoods of its residents. Unfortunately, this financial help was originally turned down, but in the end, by his persistence, he achieved his goal and his efforts served as a catalyst for improvements of many other types afterwards.

Always for others, never for himself: Don Rodrigo was of the opinion that if the working classes were miserable and discontent, he would never fill his church and there would never be an atmosphere of peace within the town. As he was Confessor to María del Carmen Polo, General Francisco Franco´s wife, he decided to make use of this “direct line” and to use it to channel local petitions to “the top”. All this was done by a simple telephone call. He took to heart the local people´s interests and “fought” to maintain and improve their income and their housing (he created 250 social housing units). In this manner, and through his incredible charisma, the Monsignor was able to establish substantial financial help for Marbella which would otherwise have been treated as a small, unimportant fishing village of little or no consequence.

Monsignor Rodrigo Bocanegra with Doña María del Carmen Polo, wife of General Franco, in the Church of the Encarnation

Among the many good works he did, he created a basket making factory (esparto) to give jobs to humble women, social housing (mentioned above), a residence for senior citizens, many schools for children, the hotel Bellamar which was used to train young people in the different areas of the hotel business since tourism was starting to take off, a residence for young girls who came to Marbella to work in the hotels and restaurants, and he opened a social club next to the church for young people. Also, he was the key person for helping Jose Banús to get the necessary support in order to build the famous port which carries his name, he managed to get the financial support to build the Hotel Don Pepe and the Hotel Incosol, among others. He was also played a major part in most of the projects (public or private) in Marbella thanks to his huge influence and relationships with all the government ministers.

Monsignor Rodrigo Bocanegra with Don José Banús and Don Juan de Borbón, father of the current King Juan Carlos

The second social bridge that he built was that between the original inhabitants of Marbella and the “newcomers”. He was instrumental in creating a collaborative atmosphere between both and indeed those who are now known as the “founders” of Marbella pulled together to protect the town and its image. Low-rise buildings were certainly not imposed by either central or local governments at the time, but it was decided that it would be in the town´s, and its inhabitant´s, best interests to maintain the style and flavour of the original town as much as possible.

Thirdly, it was illegal to create and establish “associations” as vehicles for people to meet and take collective decisions. However, religious “Brotherhoods” were permitted and so Monsignor Bocanegra set up the Brotherhood of Santa Marta, in compliance with Canon Law, and it was this Brotherhood that allowed hoteliers and other society members to come together and to decide and agree on new initiatives for growth within Marbella.

The effects of Monsignor Rodrigo Bocanegra´s influence in the course of events at the time were indeed far-reaching, and it is no surprise that he was given the nickname “The Achiever” for he did indeed “achieve”: socio-economic well-being for the inhabitants of Marbella, social peace and harmony, and the unity of the local people with the “foreign” newcomers.

Monseñor Rodrigo Bocanegra driving round a golf course