What is Loteria? It’s a board game similar to American BINGO. Like BINGO it is played on a card that is made up of squares with a number in each square coordinating to a letter. The biggest difference is that Loteria is played on a game board that is vibrant with color, and pictures with names. It consists of game boards called “tablas” and a special deck of 54 illustrated cards. An announcer calls out the drawn card, giving a short poem or phrase describing the image on the card. Each player places a chip or token to mark the corresponding image on the tabla. Our family uses pennies as markers, but many also use a bean, kernel of corn, small rocks or a wooden nickel or chip to mark the spot. Like in BINGO, the first player to fill the game board in the predetermined pattern will shout out “Loteria!” to win the game and receive the prize.
The game originated in the 15th century in Italy — was then found in Spain, and recorded in Mexico in 1769. As Mexico became colonized, it was initially played by the Mexican elite. Eventually the game was enjoyed by all social classes. The traditional Mexican Loteria game was established in 1887 by Don Clemente Jacques, a French businessman, who produced La Loteria in the printing division of his manufacturing plant along with many other items such as labels for packaged foods, invitations, party favors, and calendars. The game became hugely popular and embraced fully within the Mexican culture.
Mexican culture already existed in many areas of the southwestern United States. And as Mexican culture became more widespread and popular, so did La Loteria. My daughter invoked La Loteria into her artwork early in her artistic development. Her first solo exhibit was a collection of 21 loteria cards done in watercolor. I can still recall her anxiousness before the opening; and her excitement at the end of the evening. She sold every one of her paintings at the opening reception and received commissions for additional paintings! She had worked months on her paintings and found the courage to put herself out there for the public to scrutinize. The deep sigh of relief and light in her eyes is a memory I will forever cherish. La Loteria was a familiar friend and it had inspired this artwork. I have seen this scenario repeated by several other artists.
The images of La Loteria have inspired poets and artists since its inception. Each card is a form of folk art, its images capturing popular Mexican figures such as “El Catrin” (the gentleman), “El Gallo” (the rooster), “La Chalupa” (the flower boat), “El Nopal” (the cactus) and “La Sirena (the mermaid). In the last few years, new versions of Loteria have been created. There is a Millennial version that includes “La Cantante” (Selena, the singer) and even a “Cuarentena” (pandemic) version that will make you laugh. Everyone that has played the game has a favorite Loteria card. Which one is your favorite?
The now 135 year old Don Clemente Loteria game is a traditional activity for countless Mexican and Mexican-American family gatherings, and holds a cultural significance and historical value for many. It is a game that everyone can play, bringing together members of all generations.
As the game has been passed down, generation to generation, you will find delightful stories and memories of Loteria Games at birthday parties, after holiday meals, at backyard BBQs, and most any family gatherings. My fondest memories are the Loteria games played with my grandchildren and great-grandchildren on rainy days when we couldn’t go outdoors to play and explore. Their voices were tickled to learn new words for the images in Spanish, and proud to recite the numbers in Spanish as well. Each game was an adventure with excitement building up to the calling of the winning card! Everyone came away feeling the joy of time well spent playing Loteria, sipping Mexican hot chocolate and pan dulce (Mexican sweet bread). It is a memory worth creating over and over again.
Join the Loteria games at Loteria Fest on Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. at Cuauhtemoc Hall, 1100 Patton Street in San Marcos. For more info go to: www.loteriafest.com
Garza-Hernandez is a native San Marcan, family historian, and lover of art and culture.