Loteria is a game that is very dear to some, and completely unfamiliar to others. In the U.S., Loteria is known as “Mexican Bingo.” To win, participants must mark the images called out by the cantador or caller, of the game. Once a player completes a line of four squares, that person yells out “Loteria!”
Recently, the iconography and symbols of Loteria have become very popular. They can be found in fashion, on pricey t-shirts and novelty items like buttons and cups. In some Texas cities, it has inspired artists to paint murals.
But Loteria isn’t just a trend: the game has a long history and a huge cultural meaning.
Here is how a Loteria cantador calls a game.
“Preso me llevan señores, preso por un delito. Por una fruta madura que pico mi pajarito. Pero mentira señores, ya tenía hecho el hoyito. El pajarito es la figura.”
The game has been around for a long time, says Dr. John Morán Gonzalez, a professor of English and director of the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.
“Well, the story goes that in 1887, Don Clemente Jaques, who is actually a Frenchman that migrated to Mexico at that time found a kind of packaging, advertising his business, by giving away these cards,” Gonzalez says.
The cards have images on them that the caller reads out.
“This game caught on very quickly because you could get the card off these everyday kind of packages…it was really fun and easy, and because there were pictures you didn’t have to be literate to participate. You could be a little kid or whatever,” Gonzalez says.
You don’t even have to be able to speak Spanish. The cards have images, like a tree or a violin – and the game has stayed surprisingly current – there’s even a new card with the image of President Donald Trump.
“…so like one of them is La Sirena, which is depicted like a mermaid, think of Starbucks kind of. So it’s this constellation of kind of both everyday objects, but also kind of popular folklore,” Gonzalez says.
The caller of Loteria, unlike traditional bingo, will use songs or little jingles to call out the image on the card.
Here is another one: the word is watermelon.
“Agua se me hace la boca de verla tan colorada. Señora de la sandía, regáleme una tajada. La sandia es la figura.”
The rhymes are fun with a pun, and sometimes, they’re a little naughty. But the game is very simple to understand, and more importantly, it’s available to anyone.
“Well, I think it’s got the elements of that the materials are very easy to obtain right,” Gonzalez says. “It would’ve come in the packaging of everyday items. The markers are pinto beans which every Mexican household has…”
If not pinto beans, people use pennies, rocks, or scraps of paper to mark their cards. Anything that any household has and can grab.
“Al otro lado del rio estaba un venado sin orejas. Si se murieran las jóvenes, ¿que hiciéramos con tantas viejas? ¡El venado es la figura!”
And there’s another reason Loteria has lasted over a century – something that gives Lotería a much greater value. University of Texas student Aileen Bazán says it’s a family tradition.
“At my house, we normally played it with my grandma, my aunt, my cousins, all of us. Growing up, we played it regularly. But we would play with bets,” Bazán says.
And companies are betting on it. The increasing demand for loteria has taken the game from something companies used to give away, to something that sells online for as much as $20.
Bazán calls the memories priceless.
“La mujer que quiere a dos, no es tonta si no advertida. Cuando una luz se le apaga, la otra le queda encendida. La dama es la figura, la dama señores.”