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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.

‘Lotería,’ a Beloved Latino Game, Gets Reimagined for Millennials

SANTA MONICA — There is a particular magic to Lotería, the card game, sometimes described as Mexican bingo and played by generations of Hispanic children, that lasts well into adulthood. It can transport you to an abuela’s house in Mexico, to a cousin’s birthday party in Texas, to a babysitter’s backyard in California.

But it can also make you wince.

Last year, as Mike Alfaro shuffled through an old deck of the game — notable for its folk-art drawings — he blanched at one image of “La Dama,” the lady. The card showed an affluent woman in an old-fashioned full-length skirt-suit, weighed down by flowers and a clutch. It struck him as symbolic of antiquated views about gender and identity within the Latino community. How would this young Hispanic woman identify in 2018, in the United States? He looked at other cards, some with undercurrents of racism and classism. What about those?

So began the process of reimagining Lotería for a new generation in America, with new cards and a message to better fit the times. Drawing on nostalgia and humor, Mr. Alfaro’s parody project, rendered in Spanglish, has caught fire on social media. It has amassed tens of thousands of fans, enough to draw the interest of a publisher that is distributing a full version of the game.

“La Calavera,” the skull, is now “El Gluten.”

“El Paraguas,” the umbrella, is “El Safe Space.”

“La Campana,” the bell, is “El Notification.”

We spoke with Mr. Alfaro, 30, who is a creative director at an advertising agency by day, about how the version of the game came about and what he hopes to achieve. The Q. and A. has been condensed and lightly edited.
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Q. How did you get the idea for something like this? Did it start as a grand concept, or did you go one card at a time?

A. This was definitely a reaction to the shift in culture we’ve seen in recent years. I was looking through the cards and I saw “La Dama” and it just seemed so outdated, especially when looking at #MeToo and this broader conversation going on. I thought, ‘That card would be so much cooler if this was ‘La Feminist.’ And I started looking at the other cards in there and realized, ‘Oh, this could be updated too!’

Q. These cards have a very specific sensibility. They are funny and a little tongue in cheek, and some of them are also political. What’s the broader message here?

A. I think we need to find a way to represent Latinos in a more modern way, and I wanted to look at Hispanic life through a millennial lens. There’s some tension in the idea: We’re fighting Hispanic stereotypes and we’re winking at millennial stereotypes at the same time. I wanted to make something that does these things with this little wink, a little joy, with some nostalgia to it. And it has really resonated with people.

I think that the original Lotería is a little bit problematic if you look at it now. You see the gender stereotypes, the way some women characters are represented versus the men. You also see colorism reflected, which is true in Latin American countries for sure. When you’re young, you don’t realize that.

So I wanted to make a parody, a satire of the old Lotería, acknowledging the problems and flipping them around.

Q. And who would you say this version is for? How does this fit into the broader universe of Lotería, which has such a rich history spanning centuries?

A. Anyone can create their own version. And in this one, I wanted to bring a millennial version with a message that was expansive and talked about Latino culture on a grander scale. That was one of the reasons I did this in Spanglish; I go in and out of English and Spanish all the time and I don’t even think about it.

But I also want Latinos to be playing with Gringos. I don’t want to keep this siloed. It’s such a fun tradition that we have. Even if you’re not Latino, this is a game that you can play.

And there’s also a lot of conflict between generations. Our parents’ Latino generation is so different than Latino millennials when it comes to things like LGBT rights and gender norms. I think these cards provide an opportunity to talk about these new ideas.

Q. You said these ideas have been informed by your advertising work. There’s a kitsch quality to a lot of Latino outreach and some pretty silly pandering — you know, a sombrero, a piñata. Can you talk about that?

A. This game is a reaction to feeling many times like I need to do that pandering. It’s called ‘throwing some guacamole on it.’ That’s something my art director coined and I’ve been saying it ever since. When clients are asking you to do something for Latinos, they want to really feel like it’s “ Latino.”

There is so much intersectionality in Hispanic millennial life. Here in the United States, Latinos are siloed into this idea of Latinidad, but we’re so diverse. And I think people can look at these cards and find themselves reflected there.

Q. How did you get involved in advertising work, and when did you move to Los Angeles?

A. I grew up Guatemala City. My parents don’t speak any English. They’re middle class in Guatemala, which is not like it is in the United States, and they worked really hard to start their own interior decoration shop. So I’ve always been around creativity. For some reason, I was a little kid who wanted to grow up to be an advertiser. When I was in high school I did a couple internships in advertising shops in Guatemala and realized that the type of advertising I wanted to do could only be done in the United States. That’s where decisions were being made.

I love movies and entertainment and so L.A. seemed like a really cool place to go. I used to watch “Friends”, and they would play in English in Guatemala, with subtitles at the bottom. I learned English basically by watching TV and trying to sound like the TV. And I convinced my parents to let me go study in the United States; I went to Chapman University in Orange County. And I’ve been here ever since. I came to the U.S. on a student visa, then I got an H1-B work visa after graduation.

Q. Given this political moment, did you consider including a card about the president and his administration?

A. I want this to live beyond this Trump era. I just feel like I don’t want him in my game. He’s already in so many people’s lives. It’s like, ’Sorry, no, you can’t be in this game.’

A Q&A with Mike Alfaro, the creator of Millennial Lotería, an Instagram-ready parody of the beloved original. ]]>