When I was, oh, eight or nine, somewhere around there, I played this Mexican game called Lotería. My aunt had brought the game from New Mexico. (Her husband died of cancer, so she moved to California where we lived, where her parents lived.) It’s a game of Life, from Mexican perspective and culture. I don’t know the history of this game, I only know my personal experience with it.
Lotería is played like Bingo, blackout Bingo. But instead of calling out a number, the caller turns a card over from a deck, and calls out the image. The number on the card doesn’t matter. We placed a bean, a raw Pinto bean, to mark the image that was called on our playing card. When someone had a “man” (a bean) on all their images, they called out, “Lotería!
We lived in a small town, north of Sac-of-tomatoes. My mom was the first to move there, with three little kids and another on the way. My dad had cut out. I was four.
My mom’s sisters, brothers, and parents moved there. All except two brothers. We had big family gatherings. There was laughter, lively conversations, memories shared, stories told, gossip, food, drink. My grandparents didn’t drink alcohol, but my uncles drank beer and sometimes took shots of tequila. My grandfather didn’t smoke, but my uncles did, and so did my grandmother. She smoked Lucky Strike, no filter. My mom and my widowed aunt smoked, but never in front of my grandfather. They smoked Winston, filtered. When we were done eating, the guitars came out, and the adults sang Mariachi songs. I liked it when some would break out with, “Ahh, ha, ha, ha hai!” and “Ah who ah!” Ha, something like that. There was so much joy and excitement. It was great. It was especially exciting when my uncle came up from Juarez, and my other uncle from New Mexico. I’m sure those were the best times for my grandparents, when they had all 9 children, sometimes nieces and nephews, and most their grandchildren gathered under one roof. It was always at our house. I had four uncles and five aunts. My mom spoke Spanish, though she understood and spoke some English, but her children were already losing the language. We spoke more English than Spanish. My cousins from Mexico didn’t speak English, my cousins from New Mexico were bilingual. It was the 1950’s.
Things changed. My sister and I talked about this once. She said it was when Grandma died, because she was the center that held us all together. But I think the changes began a couple years before that. They began when my mother remarried. She had gone to New Mexico, and down to Juarez, leaving us in the care of our aunts and uncles. The four of us kids were placed in different households. We weren’t happy about this. When my mom returned, she was married. Out of the fucking blue, she remarries. He was a boyfriend from her teenage days. In retrospect, I know she planned this trip to get married. But we had been kept in the dark about it. I hated him. My mom loved him. A year later, I had a new baby sister. By then my mom had realized the guy was bad news. She told him to get the hell out when the baby was a few months old. Almost immediately after that, my dad comes back into the picture. He’d been roaming the country, hopping boxcars. He had left when I was four, and I saw him again when I was twelve. Grandma died when I was thirteen. That was in 1963. There was less joy, more sorrow, worry, tension, discontent, competition, jealousy, drama.
“Lotería” means “lottery”, so I suppose this game suggests that life is chance, luck of the draw, maybe even a gamble. I never would’ve heard of this game if my aunt hadn’t brought it with her from New Mexico. In those early years, my mom and her brothers and sisters had fun playing it. They laughed and talked, drank coffee, smoked cigarettes, my widowed aunt and my mom sneaking a puff when grandpa left the room or wasn’t looking. Someone would come up with clever or poetic line, and everyone would laugh. Then someone else tried to top it. We kids had fun playing Lotería too. We had our favorite images and got excited when they came up. I liked the game because it was Mexican, and that was kind of a familiar yet “foreign” culture to me. It felt like a cousin. I loved learning about Mexican culture, being reminded of words I still knew, and learning new words. I knew what a mermaid was, but had never known it was una sirena in Spanish. I had never heard the word “chalupa”, which means boat or canoe, or seen anything like this woman in a canoe carting flowers and fruit, dressed in an embroidered “peasant blouse”. I found it, well, exotic.
I’ve heard that the card El Borracho has been eliminated from newer editions of the game. That’s too bad. I have a dark sense of humor. I love this card because it cracks me up.
As a kid, I stared at this card with morbid fascination and fear. “El Borracho”, the drunk. I knew there were men like this in life. They said my daddy was a borracho.
Indeed, my dad was an alcoholic, but he was more than that. I saw this when he came back into our lives. He was cool, charming, funny, smart, and a work-a-holic when he was sober. He told me stories. I loved hearing stories. I always asked my mom and my widowed aunt to tell me stories. My grandma told me stories about my mom. I asked my dad to tell me stories of his boxcar travels. He loved the song King of the Road (by Roger Miller), he said it was his song. (If you don’t know it, it’s on YouTube. Check it out.) I smile to hear it. That was my dad once. He loved New York, New Orleans, Denver. He saw a lot of cities on his “travels” around the country. In my opinion, he should’ve stayed away from my mom; he might’ve had a chance. But he never figured this out. I only just figured it out myself a few years ago. A whole lot that didn’t make sense then, makes sense to me now. I know more about life, how hard it can be to be human, and I know about narcissistic personality disorder. My dad tried. But he never stood a chance. He was never going to please her. Like I never will. But, unlike my dad, I figured it out. Finally. A lot of years of therapy, psychology books, introspection, and putting pieces together. My troubled and cool dad, with his self-destructive tendencies; my mother, the arrogant, trickster, self-preserving destroyer. What a pair.
The next time I came across Loteria was in the early 90’s. I hadn’t seen it or heard of it since those days in the 50’s. I lived in Berkeley. My son lived in San Francisco, had moved there when he was a
student at San Francisco State. One day he came to visit me in Berkeley, and he said, “I have something for you.” It was a T-shirt with an image of a Loteria card–La Muerte. I had never told him about this game. He had no idea that I knew what this image was. I had no idea that he knew about Loteria. Living in the Mission District, he had learned about it.
I painted an image of a woman with La Muerte on her shirt. I used myself as the model, but the painting isn’t me. The painting is meant as a poetic expression, an emotion, and an allusion to indigenous history and connection. But I didn’t make that obvious. Intentionally. It also has an element of dark humor, but I’ve only heard one person make mention of it. She said, “I don’t know what to say about that neck. It’s so…” She seemed unable to find the right words, just went silent. She looked up at me. I nodded. I said, “I know.” We burst out laughing. Then I said, “I wanted to
make her look ghoulish.” She said, “Yeah, I can see that. She has a green tinge.” But no one else has ever said anything like that. I used this painting for the cover of my self-published chapbook. Some people have asked me, “What’s the 14 stand for?” It doesn’t mean
anything; it just happens to be the number on that
card from the game Lotería. The numbers on the Loteria cards have no particular significance, as far as I know. But I’m not an expert on the subject. I simply have my own personal experience with the game. My favorite cards were (well, still are) El Borracho, La Muerte, La Luna, La Estrella, and El Apache (The Drunk, Death, The Moon, A Star, An Apache). The image of the Apache man is actually the artist’s interpretive image of an Apache. My name is Estela, which is a form of Estrella (pronounced ehs-treh-ya in Spanish), so, naturally, this was/is my most favorite card of all.
Life is a card you draw. Some cards you draw at random, some you deliberately choose, some just fall in our path. And, really, every choice you make is a gamble. Así es la vida.