What is loteria
American Bingo Board and Mexican Loteria Tabla
The game is very similar to American Bingo, with some differences. In Bingo, a number with an associated letter is randomly chosen from a rotating drum, while in Loteria, with a colorfully illustrated image is drawn from a special deck of 54 cards. The modern versions of these cards also contain the name of the image at the bottom and an associated number at the top. In both games, each player has a different game board/tabla. In Bingo, the game board has random numbers listed under their associated letters, while in Loteria, the tabla has a random pattern of images matching those found on the cards.
Tabla de Loteria, watercolor on paper Mexico c.1920 Collection of San Antonio Museum of Art
Many of the older tablas do not have words or numbers, since the originally was found in prose. These tablas were made either out of tin or paper that had been painted by popular artists, some of whom specialized in this art form.
Lotería is often referred to as “Mexican Bingo.” For anyone who has had the opportunity to play Lotería, will find similarities in playing American Bingo. However, players will quickly realize, how much more visually and intellectually engaging and fun it is to play Lotería than the American Bingo game. In American Bingo, an announcer calls out the selected letters and numbers, such as “B-4” and the players mark their game boards accordingly.
In Lotería, the announcer gives an improvised short poem or familiar phrase alluding to the image on the card (e.g. “The coat for the poor” for the image of the sun, or “The one who dies by the mouth” for the image of the fish). Each player uses a chip -often a kernel of corn or a bean-to mark the corresponding spot on his or her tabla. In either game, the first player to appropriately fill the game board or tabla in a predefined pattern will shout either “Bingo!”or “Lotería!” to win the game and receive the prize.
Since poetic license is afforded to the announcer of Lotería, the success and popularity of the announcer depend on his cleverness and style.
El Sol and El Pescado Loteria Cards. Images ©unknown (but I suspect they belong to Don Clemente Gallo)
The announcer’s approach will often depend on the social context in which the game is being played. At a church bazaar, for example, he might use a more tame humor, while for a game played in an adult setting he might use innuendos that are more risqué and derisive. Satire and references to contemporary events and politics are often a part of the word play involved; in fact, the linking of images to social commentary has existed since the inception of the game.
Loteria has been played as a game of chance, as a pastime, and for educational purposes. Because the Loteria cards include the name of the pictured character, they are used to teach reading, writing, history, and social values. Many bilingual teachers use the game as a teaching tool in the United States.
One of the more interesting historical versions was an educational , liturgical Loteria that appeared in the 1930’s. The images employed were objects and concepts found with the Catholic Church. This combination of the irreverence and banality of the game coupled with the solemnity of sacred symbols had some Catholics concerned. While the marriage of church and gambling in the form of Bingo in the United States is common, the initial attempt of the church-sanctioned liturgical loteria was more educational –to allow the parishioners to differentiate between a tunic and a maniple, for example.
Eccleastic Loteria image use by permission from private Collection of Carlos Monsavais
The most recognized version of Loteria is the “Don Clemente Gallo” rendition introduced into Mexico in 1887 by the French businessman, Don Clemente Jacques.
He purchased a manufacturing plant in Mexico to produce many items, including packaged food products, corks and bottles, and ammunition. In their printing press division they produced labels for the packaged foods, advertisements, invitations, party favors, calendars and the game La Loteria.
It was told to me by Gallo that when they packaged the canned food for the military rations they included a little game of Loteria for the soldiers to play to pass the time. When the soldiers would bring home the game to their families it was a big hit and became hugely popular with the general public thus creating a big demand and embraced fully within the Mexican culture.
The owners today of of Don Clemente Gallo Pasatiempos own the registered trademark of the original images, including the most famous and better known images that have existed.
As Mexican culture spread across the border, so did the demand for the game within the United States. The original Don Clemente Gallo Loteria game can be purchased today not only in Mexico but also in the United States, and online all over the internet. Many collectors have been purchasing and sharing them online, perpetuating the love of Loteria and the cultural significance and historical value of this game.
2001 Both Loteria game sets published and produced by Don Clemente Gallo. The Nuevo Loteria game set are images by American artist Teresa Villegas.
Artists have been inspired by the images of Lotería since its inception and is not a unique occurrence. I was one of many artists who were inspired by the imagery of the game, the enthusiasm of the players and by the announcers who were gifted poets and wordsmiths.
While living in Mexico (2000) it was in the research, for my installation paintings that I first interviewed Gallo. Gallo was very generous with giving their time, historical facts and information for the development of this work. While meeting with Gallo, they had asked to see my paintings and so I had shown them a few sample paintings and the sketches for the remaining. They had liked what they saw and asked if they could use my images for publishing and distributing a new version of their game. They were excited at the thought of “sprucing up” the 100-year-old game, and I was excited too and t hus the “Nuevo Versión” Lotería game was born.
Gallo produced and distributed it throughout Mexico and the US from 2001-2008. During the initial process of publishing this nuevo Loteria game, Gallo had offered me to have a higher end printing of the game than the original game. However, I wanted to keep with the historical intent when Lotería first came to Mexico for the purpose of soldiers’ passing the time, and to keep it affordable and available “for the masses.” Therefore the printing quality and the retail prices remained the same as the original lotería game. The royalties I received from Gallo, I donated back to Mexico to FAI Save the Children Foundation, Mexico.
In 2008, as did many businesses, Gallo cut back the production of many of their products because of the global economic recession, thus ending the production and distribution of el “Nuevo Verisión de Lotería.” Copyright for these Nuevo Loteria images now remain with me as my contract with Gallo has expired. For any of you who have purchased this version, you now have a “collectors item” and I hope you play it until it falls apart like my family’s has. And because I truly believe that “the experience is better than the artifact.”.You may be surprised to know that the quintessential Mexican game called La Lotería has its origins in Europe and came to Mexico by way of Spain. The traditional Loteria originated in Italy, moved to Spain, and finally came to Mexico in 1769. Initially played by the colonial Mexican elite, it eventually was embraced by all social classes. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Mexican farms and towns were few and far between. Traveling Ferias (fairs) would set up in these ranchlands and small towns on the weekends, and many people would go out to them especially to play Loteria.
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. ]]>