‘It Needed to Be Modernized.’ The Artists Recreating Lotería, the Iconic Mexican Game of Bingo
I n mid-March as the coronavirus swept through the U.S., Rafael Gonzales Jr. watched the news, and all he could do was call the virus by a Spanish swear word: cabrona, the bitch. Like so many other people in the United States, he and his wife began working from home full-time, and Gonzales was surrounded by news of the virus’s devastation. But the worldwide crisis also sparked his creativity, giving birth to an idea that has brought joy to many as the pandemic wears on.
“I had a small idea of basically getting out the frustration of having to deal with COVID-19,” he tells TIME. That small idea was a joke, a play on words comparing cabrona and corona. He went on to illustrate the joke in a format recognizable to millions of Latinos around the world: Lotería.
Though by day Gonzales works as a lab manager and compliance officer at the Feik School of Pharmacy at the University of the Incarnate World in San Antonio, he enjoys doing graphic design on the side. So he created “La cabRONA,” an illustration of the virus designed in the style of the classic Don Clemente Jacques’ Lotería, a Mexican game of bingo made up of 54 images that have become entrenched in Latino identity.
Though Lotería is a board game, its roots go deeper than Monopoly or Scrabble. The game is a cultural tradition for many Latinos, and artists like Gonzales and Mike Alfaro, creator of Millennial Lotería, are giving it a new life.
Their versions of the game are played the same way Clemente’s Lotería is played. Friends, family or even complete strangers pick a tabla (board) containing 16 images printed out on a 4×4 grid. An announcer holds on to a deck of cards, each containing one of 54 images. One at a time, the announcer will draw from the deck and name the image, or make it more challenging by saying a riddle or developing a story line. If the player sees the image drawn from the deck on their tabla, they can mark it, traditionally with a dry pinto bean or a stone. The first player to get four in a row wins Lotería.
The game is popular with families, particularly around holiday celebrations in part because people of all ages can play. It’s also played in public spaces like ferias (fairs), where friends and strangers gather and place a bet.
After publishing the “La cabRONA” illustration on Instagram on March 24, Gonzales decided to continue with the COVID-19 theme and design more Lotería cards. His clever, sometimes critical, images were met with hundreds of “likes” and comments. By mid-April, Gonzales produced 31 images that he and his wife turned into “Pandemic Lotería” on their kitchen table. Gonzales says that within 24 hours of taking pre-orders for the game, the couple sold more than 800 copies online. To keep up with sales demands, Gonzales and his wife began a partnership with a local retailer, Felíz Modern.
Gonzales is now among a range of artists throughout the U.S. and Latin America who have redesigned the classic Lotería, which is now more than a century old, though none have come as close to popular as the Clemente version. The most famous Lotería design we know today was created by Clemente, a French immigrant in Mexico who printed what he named the “Don Clemente Gallo” Lotería in his own factory. The version that we know today can be traced back to the early 1920s, according to Gloria Arjona, a Spanish lecturer at the California Institute of Technology who has done extensive research into the origins of each of Clemente’s designs, and recently published a book titled ¡Lotería!.
“I am sure that the Lotería is not only a game, it’s a tradition,” Arjona tells TIME. “It’s part of our identity.”
Arjona herself has participated in reimagining the classic Clemente Lotería game. Earlier this year, she coordinated a team to create live artistic renditions of popular Lotería cards. Alejandra Hernandez Talapa was one of the actors who partnered with Arjona to create a live version of “La Chalupa,” a woman with Indigenous roots who sells produce from her canoe.
“When I was a child, it was just a matter of winning the game,” Hernandez Talapa tells TIME, adding that portraying La Chalupa allowed her to reconnect with her roots and understand the origins of her character. “Now I know the history of this…there’s that consciousness of where this game came from, what was the purpose, because it has a cultural history.”
It’s impossible to know how many people have recreated Lotería because, by nature of the game, anyone can make one with their own unique designs at home. Today it is most common to purchase a Lotería game online or at ferias, flea markets or Latino stores, but before Clemente’s version came along, most people made a Lotería at home. Clemente’s version of Lotería that has become the most widely recognized today is also itself a recreation of Loterías that can be traced back to Italy in the 15th century. Before the game was commercialized in the early 20th century by Clemente, families, friends and neighbors painted their own unique versions.
A range of artists throughout the U.S. and Latin America have redesigned the classic Mexican Lotería, which is now more than a century old.