How the Mexican Game Lotería Is Providing Comfort During a Pandemic
The traditional game of chance is uniquely suited for this uncertain time.
- La Lotería, or Mexican bingo, is one of the games people are turning to while practicing social distancing.
- Artists are reimagining traditional cards to better represent modern day.
- Lotería can offer both a distraction and a sense of comfort.
In this time of quarantine and social distancing amid the coronavirus pandemic, puzzles and board games have become a way to pass the time with loved ones (virtually and not), while offering a creative outlet. There is, however, one game in particular that feels uniquely suited for this uncertain time: La Lotería.
A traditional game of chance, lotería—the Spanish word for lottery—is often referred to as Mexican bingo, where illustrated cards depicting the Mexican aesthetic replace bingo balls. Latinx and Hispanic communities have been playing this game for hundreds of years, but in the past decade, it has become increasingly visible in the United States, according to Google Trends.
At present, artists like Rafael Gonzales, Jr., and Millennial Lotería creator Mike Alfaro are reimagining lotería cards to capture our “new normal,” including versions that represent hand sanitizer, working from home, and other coping mechanisms. Elsewhere, Latinx creators, brands, and even former presidential candidate Julián Castro, have created their own cards or merchandise inspired by the game. And just this past December, Google invited Mexican and Mexican-American artists to reimagine and reinvent the cards for an interactive Google Doodle to celebrate the 106th anniversary of its copyright in Mexico.
Brooklyn-based author and illustrator Cecilia Ruiz, 37, was one of the guest artists invited to work on the Google Doodle—and to her, part of the game’s persistent appeal is purely nostalgic. The cards themselves are retro and charming, she tells OprahMag.com, and the game reminds her of growing up in Mexico City. “It was one of the few games that we could all play,” she says. “My grandparents, my parents, my cousins. it’s amazing in that way.”
The pandemic has certainly triggered a similar sense of nostalgia, as more people physically isolate themselves in an effort to flatten the curve. It’s not surprising, then, that lotería is among the games people have turned to. In fact, nostalgia can be a powerful coping mechanism, studies posit.
And yet, nostalgia is just one reason why Ruiz thinks there’s been an increase in visibility. She notes that today, there is also a greater Latinx and Hispanic population in the U.S., many of whom grew up playing the game. (Census data estimates that the U.S. Hispanic population reached a record 59.9 million in 2018.) The game is still sold at mercados in the U.S. and Mexico, and there is also this little thing called the internet.
You could say a combination of all three is how Alfaro ended up making Millennial Lotería. In 2017, the 31-year-old creative director found his old lotería games while visiting his family in Guatemala. He told OprahMag.com that he felt nostalgic, yes, but he also thought some of the traditional card concepts were outdated. This was around the time the #MeToo movement was starting to gain traction, and a card like “La Dama” (“The Lady” or “The Lady in Waiting”) felt “so reductive for the time that we were going through.” Since then he’s reimagined that card to be “La Feminist,” plus several others to illustrate concepts and issues that millennials can better relate to.
“Tinder dates? That’s a card,” Alfaro said. “Technology is a big one, like hashtags. I think a lot about issues that affect me as an immigrant, too; coming to America and how hard it was to navigate the system.”
One such card was “La Border Wall.” He didn’t want people to think that he was supporting it, so he drew a ladder to show that he was overcoming it. It’s important to him to be as authentic and honest as possible, he said, especially when targeting millennials, who he believes are good at detecting bull.
So far, it’s been a huge success: Millennial Lotería has sold over 60,000 copies and is currently a number one best-seller on Amazon. An Instagram filter that randomly selects cards in Alfaro’s game has received 1.3 million impressions so far. And in addition to the pandemic-related cards he’s been posting on Instagram (as well as hosting live lotería games), he has plans to release a new version, the Shiny AF edition. It will introduce some cards while phasing out others, and each one will look more holographic and glitter-y. “It’s like if Lotería and Lady Gaga had a baby,” he says.
You can see the enthusiasm for Alfaro’s game in his Instagram comments, especially among young people who are frequently tagging their friends, asking for prints and even more variations of the cards. But under a recent post for “El TikTok,” there was a comment that asked him why he was ruining the game. Alfaro said he’s gotten this kind of pushback from “boomers” before, but, as was the case with the border wall, he meets these situations with humor. “If it makes them upset, it’s going to make Latino millennials more excited. It’s not just my abuelo’s game. It’s mine.”
It’s not just that lotería has become more visible in the U.S., but it’s also become more accessible—across platforms and generations. It’s a game, but the fact that the cards are in Spanish also makes it a learning tool. The cards are typically presented with a short verse or riddle while playing, so it promotes philosophical thinking and perspective, too. As artists like Ruiz and Alfaro continue to reimagine the decks that they grew up with, it will make that intellectual social commentary more relevant and impactful. Lotería checks a lot of boxes, and, as Yvette Benavides wrote in her Creative Nonfiction: Issue #72 last year, it’s life-giving.
Here is a little more about the history of the game, and how you can play yourself.
Who invented lotería?
As Amherst college professor Ilan Stavans explains in his 2003 paper, “¡Lotería! or, The Ritual of Chance,” the game has a complex history. It originated in Italy during the 15th century—the Italian word is “lotto”—before it made its way to “New Spain,” the name for modern Mexico at the time, in 1769. King Charles III of Spain established “la lotería nacional,” which started out as a hobby for the elite before traveling “ferias” or fairs were introduced for the masses to come and play.
In 1887, French entrepreneur Don Clemente Jacques published the “Don Clemente Gallo” version of the game with ten boards and 80 cards, including “un naipe” or a joker, according to Stavans. These games would be included in care packages for soldiers at the time, but it wasn’t until they returned home and played the game with their families that it really become popular.
Modern decks now include Spanish names for each illustration, plus fewer cards, but Jacques’ version still remains one of the most recognizable to date.
What do lotería cards mean?
There is a randomness to the cards, but traditionally, each has been a window into Mexican history and culture: “El Bandolón” (“The Mandolin”), “El Nopal” (“Prickly Pear Cactus”), and “La Muerte” (“The Death”), the latter of which is among Ruiz’s favorites. For the Google Doodle, she reimagined some other classic cards, like “El Sol” (“The Sun”), “La Luna (“The Moon”), and “El Pajaro” (The Bird). She was inspired by the traditional illustration, but she did take some liberties when drawing (including a new card for “El Guacamole”), especially for the sun and moon. “The original look more serious and kind of scary, so the ones I did were happier,” she said. “More joyful.”More than 100 years after the game came to Mexico, la lotería is reaching new audiences in the U.S. and providing both distraction and comfort in trying times.
Introduced in the late 1700’s, LOTERIA has become the most popular card game in Mexico and a favorite of families in the U.S. and from other Latin America countries. Although similar to Bingo, the LOTERIA playing cards are filled with distinctive illustrations rather than numbers or letters. This artwork has been used for the past 100 years and is known as the Don Clemente version.
These illustrations were created by local Mexican artists in a style that has achieved folk art status in the Latin markets. The colorful and imaginative artwork of all 54 cards is available for licensing and can be applied to a variety of products.
Artwork of the 54 playing cards of the historic board game LOTERIA
TARGET MARKET: Adults/Families