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¡Lotería!: or, The Ritual of Chance

by Ilan Stavans

ooooh-teh-ree-ah . . . The sounds still resonate in my ears. Pepe and Lalo Gutiérrez, a charismatic set of siblings who lived next door to my childhood house in Colonia Copilco, in the southern parts of Ciudad de México, often organized impromptu tournaments of La lotería, a board game somewhat similar to Bingo. These took place on weekday afternoons. Pepe, the younger of them, enjoyed stretching the syllables, especially the first one. His pronunciation foreshadowed an afternoon of clamor and competition in their dining room. A small, purple box would be taken from a kitchen cabinet, where it was religiously stored after each session. Soon every neighbor—there are ap-proximately eight players per session—would have a tabla (e.g., a carton board) in front of them and a pile of blue and yellow chips the size of a nickel to its side, ready to be placed in the right spot. The group guide, appointed by majority (usually Lalo was the chosen one), would pick up a card, immediately hiding it from everyone else. Then he would chant a brief riddle: for example, “¡Pórtate bien cuatito, si no te lleva el coloradito!,” loosely translated into English as “Behave properly, my friend. Otherwise the Little Red One will sweep you away!” The first one to guess the answer would immediately shriek, ¡El diablo!, the devil. Or another riddle: “Para el sol y para el agua,” For the sun and for the water. The answer: El paraguas, the umbrella. Anyone with the correct images in their tabla would place a chip on them, regardless of who answered the riddle.

An hour or so later, each neighbor would be called home to finish homework and have dinner. The winner—the one with the most images covered—would be awarded a sack full of 5¢ coins. The order of the afternoon had been about envy, frustration, genuflection, perhaps even anger. In how many games was I a loser? Too many to count. It was the goddess of Fortune (with capital F) who had been courted, but the courtship, in my own case, was hardly ever fruitful. Noticing my dismay, Pepe and Lalo’s uncle, who lived with them, would always say: “¡El que de suerte vive, de suerte muere!,” He who rises by luck, falls by luck, too.

The term lotería has the Teutonic root hleut, which was adopted into the Romance languages: in French it evolved into loterie, in Italian lotto, and in English it is the source of lot, a method used in ancient times to solve disputes by appealing to chance. The ‘lots,’ according to the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española de la Lengua, were placed in a receptacle—in Homeric Greece, a helmet—with an element (a sign, a letter) that tied each of them to a participant. The receptacle was then shaken and the victorious lot was the one that fell out first. Every country, from Scandinavia to Africa, has one or more varieties of games of chance, and Mexico is no exception. Or is it?

As with most things popular, the game has a complex, mostly unexplored history. According to the chronicler Bernal Díaz del Castillo, Hernán Cortés was an assiduous card player. In La Nueva España, as Mexico was known during the viceroy period, there were public stands for the dwellers of Ciudad de México to play cards and a handful of fixed board games at. As a collective pastime, La lotería nacional was established in 1769 by King Charles III of Spain. It quickly traveled across the Atlantic and since then has flourished like virtually no other Mexican institution: almost free of corruption (with a brief exception in 1838), with philanthropic tentacles that support schools and hospices. To this day the variegated tickets are like currency, with the peculiarity that they become worthless as soon as the contest is over.

The design remains beautiful, though. The anonymous designers in charge of producing them are an inspired cast. The pictures represented on the tickets include the Mexican flag, an emblem of the nation’s sovereignty; a group of Aztec hieroglyphics; and the angel symbolizing Mexico’s independence from Spain. They have a standard size that doesn’t change: 4” x 8”. What distinguishes not only one edition from another, but also a single ticket from the rest, are the numbers, randomly organized: 4135428201, 2566494, 040761. . . . Why buy a particular ticket and not another? The response, of course, is simple: intuition. Fortune is ruled by intuition.

Along with the tickets, La lotería nacional produces large quantities of publicity material: posters, calendars, matchboxes, and special toys. The momentous weekly Lotería contest, late in the afternoon on Mondays and Wednesdays, mesmerizes the entire nation. A bounty is awarded to a single individual. The selection makes no distinction across racial, class, religious, or ideological lines. Everyone is eligible as long as the individual invests at least $1 (one peso) in a single ticket. The results are publicized in the late evening and next morning through radio, TV, and newspapers.

When I was little, my father’s business frequently took him to El Centro, the bustling downtown section. I often accompanied him. We would start the day with a stop for breakfast at the Sanborn’s of Los Azulejos, on Calle Madero, and then do the rounds on adjacent streets where he needed to visit clients and creditors. It was in the Edificio de la Lotería Nacional, near the statue known as El Caballito in the intersection of Avenidas Reforma and Benito Juárez, that on occasion he would stop to buy a ticket. My own grandfather, Zeyde Srulek, an immigrant from the Ukraine in the early part of the twentieth century, arrived in Mexico penniless. He began by selling shoelaces and razor blades. After a short time, he invested the little money he had saved in a ¡Lotería! ticket—and hit the jackpot. The experience made him forever grateful. Fortune had smiled. Mexico had opened its arms to him.

I remember vividly the back streets behind El Caballito as a full-scale ant colony: vendors pulling chariots with rags and cages filled with parakeets; señoritas swinging their miniskirts while being greeted by adventurous swindlers; tragafuegos vomiting flames at intersections; desperate policemen running after a thief; automobiles and buses making their horns heard incessantly while bicycles artfully sneaked through the fumes—and, amidst the hullabaloo, marchantes selling tickets while screaming ingenious slogans only constrained by endless exclamation marks: “¡¡¡¡¡¡Gane sus millones hoy y despreocúpese mañana!!!!!!,” Win your millions today and forget about tomorrow!

Were the weekly national contests of La lotería nacional and the individual sessions in Pepe and Lalo’s house that riveted our attention on those tablas before us unlike one another? Not really: they are fundamentally the same game, played on different scales.

La Lotería is a favorite entretenimiento not only in Mexico but in the western and central parts of the United States. From Oregon to Texas, it is ubiquitous in ferias attended by migrant workers and sold in mercados in the versions manufactured since 1887 by the French entrepreneur Don Clemente Jacques, widely known as the principal promoter of the game in manageable containers that include ten boards, eighty cards, and a joker, known as un naipe. Jacques’ commitment to the game is still shrouded in rumor, but the development of the pastime might owe more to him than anyone.

It is said that in the central state of Querétaro, he built, in the late nineteenth century, a prosperous canned-food and ammunition business. (The former has flourished; fortunately, the latter is gone.) At the time of the Mexican Revolution, around 1912, aware of the long hours of duress soldiers were subjected to, he decided to attach a small lotería board to his products so that the men could “pass the time.” But it was when the soldados returned home after the battle that the demand for Lotería boxes notably increased. In response, Jacques, using the same press he used to create food labels, increasingly printed more . . . until the brand and the game became synonymous. (Nowadays the division of Don Clemente Jacques devoted to the manufacture of the game is called Gallo Pasatiempos.)

I still keep an old set made by his company in a closet: it includes cards that feature, among other characters, the drunkard, the hunchback, and the Indian. Over the years I’ve studied these images almost to exhaustion. And I’ve also become acquainted with other designs. For instance, the lampoonist José Guadalupe Posada made his own set, which included one of Posada’s recognizable calaveras, a skeleton poking fun at . . . what else, but death? There was a plethora of sets designed for kids, as well as kits depicting heroes in Mexican history (Huitzilopochtli, Cuauthémoc, Hernán Cortés, Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, Porfirio Díaz), and famous themes (Indian slavery), events (the independence movement of 1810, as well as the Battle of Puebla, in which the fateful Cinco de Mayo became the stage for a clash between the armies of the U.S. and Mexico), and sites (Mitla, the castle in Chapultepec, etc.).

Then there is the ecclesiastical lotería set with depictions of priests, biblical scenes, and the seven deadly sins. But whatever design one might come across, its power isn’t reducible to its graphics. The poetic participation of the players is equally essential. At Pepe and Lalo’s house the sessions would frequently become—especially when Lalo was the group guide—a sort of poetry slam. He would recite his improvised riddles, known in Mexico as acertijos. He would also use other forms of popular poetry: colmos, tantanes, refranes, and trabalenguas—conundrums, corollaries, aphorisms, and tongue twisters. Sometimes these poetic capsules had the length of a single line. Others involved entire stanzas, rhymed in easy patterns like ABAB and AABB. Pepe used to describe the sum of his brother’s lyrics as a cancionero, a medieval term used to describe a compilation of ballads.

Today these images and the poems they were accompanied by might appear racy and even awkward, but they were commonplace at the time I was growing up. And through them, to some extent, millions of other children, young adults, and I learned to understand the way Mexican people behave: the way they eat, drink, think, dream, dance, and make love. The Mexico of the 1960s and 1970s was controlled by a corrupt single-party system, which might explain our obsession with chance. The reality that surrounded us was tight and undemocratic, with little space to debate ideas in any meaningful fashion, at least at the political level. It was in the private sphere where individual spontaneity was championed. And it was also in that sphere where a person’s future might be challenged, and, along with it, the future of the country as a whole. For all of us felt that in command of our lives was not a savvy, coherent government with enough know-ledge to lead; instead, our fate was in the hands of a bunch of disoriented politicos without a clue as to how to feed approximately eighty million stomachs. Ramón López Velarde (1888-1921), the nation’s most susceptible, heart-torn poet, in La suave patria, roughly understood as “sweet homeland,” wrote about the randomness of La Lotería as Mexico’s manera de ser:

     Como la sota moza, Patria mía,
     en piso de metal vives al día,
     de milagro, como la lotería.

     Here is the English version of Margaret Sayers Peden:

     Like a Queen of Hearts, Patria, tapping
     a vein of silver, you live miraculously,
     for the day, like the national lottery.

To us the images of lotería cards and boards weren’t types but proto-types and archetypes in the nation’s psyche. To play a single game was to traverse the inner chambers of la mexicanidad.

Mysteriously, I’ve been transported back to the boisterous sessions in Pepe and Lalo’s dining room through the recent rendition of ¡Lotería! by artist Teresa Villegas. This modernized interpretation is the product of her journey to San Miguel Allende, in the state of Guanajuato, filtered through a modern sensibility and a north-of-the-border view of life. I became hypnotized by it after learning of an installation she built of the total fifty-four cards, rendered—“reappropriated”—by her brush. I’ve found myself enthralled, for instance, by the frequency in the game of gastronomic motifs (churros, nopales, horchata, pozole), religious symbols and amulets (ex-votos, milagros, polvo mágico, la Virgen de Guadalupe), and also pop icons and the media (El Santo, Subcomandante Marcos, TV soaps, comic-strips). And I’m spellbound, too, by how the dichotomy of sexes is turned upside down: machos like the street-corner fire breather on one side, and on the other dignified females like Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and the independentista Josefa Ortíz de Domínguez. Is this still the Mexico of my past? Not quite: much has changed though much remains the same.

Villegas’s images have inspired me to recreate the riddles that populated my yesteryears, hopefully in a mood that is akin to our present era. These riddles of mine, a total of twenty-seven, which the artist herself has selected, pay homage to Lalo’s talents. Hopefully they contain the same dose of irony and fatalism that infused his words. Indeed, his cancionero always seemed to distill a skeptical philosophy: Is love truly redemptive? Does the food we eat have any connection with our emotions? Is there magic in the world? What is the value of freedom? In hindsight, those competitions in Colonia Copilco taught me early on some fundamental lessons in the art of living: “¡El que de suerte vive, de suerte muere!” I learned that things are not what they seem and, also, that our existence is shaped by sheer chance. Every single decision we make, no matter how insignificant, represents a forking path before us. To choose one alternative among many is to say no to the other ones—to say no to the other selves we might have been.

Albert Einstein once said: “God doesn’t play dice with the universe.” That isn’t true. With us He plays Looooh-teh-ree-ah.

Read an interview with Ilan Stavans


Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latino and Latin American Culture at Amherst College. His latest books are The Poetry of Pablo Neruda (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003) and Spanglish: The Making of a New American Language (HarperCollins, RAYO, 2003). The essay here is the introduction to ¡Lotería! (University of Arizona Press, 2003), which contains art by Teresa Villegas and riddles by Professor Stavans. (10/2003)

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