Loteria: A Novelby Mario Alberto Zambrano
In Lotería, the spellbinding literary debut by Mario Alberto Zambrano, a young girl tells the story of her family’s tragic demise using a deck of cards of the eponymous Latin American game of chance.
With her older sister Estrella in the ICU and her father in jail, eleven-year-old Luz Castillo has been taken into the custody of the/em>
In Lotería, the spellbinding literary debut by Mario Alberto Zambrano, a young girl tells the story of her family’s tragic demise using a deck of cards of the eponymous Latin American game of chance.
With her older sister Estrella in the ICU and her father in jail, eleven-year-old Luz Castillo has been taken into the custody of the state. Alone in her room, she retreats behind a wall of silence, writing in her journal and shuffling through a deck of lotería cards. Each of the cards’ colorful images—mermaids, bottles, spiders, death, and stars—sparks a random memory.
Pieced together, these snapshots bring into focus the joy and pain of the young girl’s life, and the events that led to her present situation. But just as the story becomes clear, a breathtaking twist changes everything.
Beautiful full-color images of lotería cards are featured throughout this intricate and haunting novel.
With her violent, alcoholic father in jail and our feisty older sister in Intensive Care, the life of eleven-year-old Luz Maria Castillo has slid into limbo. Stuck in state custody until her probable return to Mexico, she passes her time by dreamingly shuffling through a deck of Loteria cards. (These picture cards are used in a Latin American game of chance, somewhat similar to Bingo.) As she contemplates these images of mermaids, musicians, and ladders, Luz muses on associations from her formative young life. Arranged in 53 brief chapters, Mario Zambrano's debut novel functions like a series of still lifes that move, incrementally rendering a portrait of a young girl searching for equilibrium in the midst of Diaspora.
Read an Excerpt
Lotería is often described as Mexican bingo, a game of chance. The only material difference between bingo and Lotería is that bingo relies on a grid of numbers while Lotería relies on images.
There are fifty-four cards and each comes with a riddle, un dicho. There is a traditional set of riddles, but sometimes dealers create their own to trick the players. After the dealer "sings" the riddle, the players cover the appropriate spots on their playing boards, their tablas, with either bottle caps, dried beans, or loose change.
There is more than one way to win depending on what is played. You can win by filling a vertical line, a horizontal line, a diagonal; the four corners, the center squares, or a blackout.
An important rule to remember is that a winner must shout his victory as soon as his winning image is called. If the dealer calls another riddle before the winner declares ¡Lotería! , the player can no longer claim his prize.
This room has spiders.
¿Y? It's not like You don't see them. The way they move their legs and carry their backs and creep in the dark when you're not looking. You see us, ¿verdad? You see what we see? It's not like You don't know what we're thinking when we lie down at night and look up at the ceilling, or when we crawl in our heads the way these spiders crawl over furniture. It's never made sense why people think You're only there at church and nowhere else. Not at home or in the yard or the police station. Or under a bed.
When I first walked in there was a wooden desk and a chair that wobbled when I sat in it, next to a thin bed with a green blanket. Tencha said the room needed something so she started buying me roses from the flower shop in Magnolia Park and putting them on the windowsill. From one day to the next I watch the petals fall to the floor and that's when I notice the spiders. They crawl to the cracks in the wall when she comes to visit then crawl out again when she leaves. I'm at my desk doing what she told me to do, because she said I should write as much as I can, even if it's one word, one sentence. Let the cards help you, mama. Échale ganas.
My name is Luz. Luz María Castillo. And I'm eleven years old. You've known me since before I was born, I'm sure, but I want to start from the beginning. Because who else should I speak to but You?
It's been five days since I've been here and I don't have anything but a week's worth of clothes and a deck of Lotería. The best thing to do now is to be patient and cooperative, they say, otherwise I'll be sent to Casa de Esperanza. Tencha can't have custody, not unless we move back to Mexico, and they say that whenever I'm ready to talk it'll make things easier. But Tencha told them she filed her papers and has been working here for eight years, so why don't they let me go? Why can't she take me? I'm waiting for the day she walks in and tells me to pack my bags because we're going home, wherever that is.
Julia's a counselor here and looks like she could be in college, skinny and black, but gringa-looking by the things she wears. She tries to talk to me at lunch as she flips her hair to one side like a feathered wing. She brings me issues of Fama magazine and points to the photos and asks, "Like her music? She's pretty, huh?"
Then she looks at me like if I'm one of those stories you hear about on the ten o'clock news. Like one of those women who leave their kids in the car with the windows rolled up while they go grocery shopping. Or a story about some punk kid who molests a girl after school. Or some father who finds out his son's gay and rams a broomstick up his butt until it bleeds. And whoever reports the story on the news channel has this concerned look over her face standing outside the hospital room where the son's recovering. She looks into the camera and repeats what the father said to his son as he stood over him with the broomstick in his hand: "You sure you want to be gay, son?"
I'm Papi's daughter, but still. That story is a true story and that boy was my age and when I saw him on television, I felt bad for him. I wanted to spit in that newscaster's face, the way she pretended like she cared. To her it was just another story, but to that boy, he must've been sore, must've been hurting real bad and wondering what it was going to be like once he got home.
There's a guy named Ricardo staying in one of the rooms on the opposite side of the building. He has dreadlocks that fall to his knees but he twists them the way you wring a mop and plops them on his head. One night we were watching The Price Is Right in the common room and he told me he liked to do something called blow. His foster parents found him cutting lines on the kitchen counter and that's why they turned him in. That's why he's getting counseling. He said Casa de Esperanza is where they take kids when nobody wants them. After Tencha saw him she told me to stay away from him.
When I'm sitting by myself by the window doodling on paper, Julia comes up to me and tries to act like she's my best friend. "What are you drawing?" she asks. "I can help you. Why don't you let me help you?" Then she sits there, staring at me.
¿Y? It's not like I'm a piece of news in the Chronicle she can pick up and read. It's not like that. If anything, it's a telenovela with a ranchera in the background playing so loud you can't even hear your thoughts anymore. Like that movie Nosotros los pobres, when Pedro Infante is accused of killing his wife. He didn't do it and only his daughter Chachita believes him. Half the movie is not knowing what happened, whether he killed her or not. Everyone thinks he's guilty, but he's not. He's just poor. Chachita visits him in jail and pleads to the officers to let him go. She has braids in pigtails and throws her arms over her head like Hallelujah! She falls to the floor, crying with tears over her cheeks, all slobbery, all dramatic, like one of those old ladies at church who's lost her husband, praying, ¿Por qué me haces esto, Señor? ¡Por favor, Dios mio!
Tencha says I should tell Julia whatever she wants to know. If I don't want to talk then I should write it down because we have to get Papi out of jail. That way we can go home and be together again. The only way he can get out of jail is if I open up, she says.
"Why don't you use the cards to help you, mama? Ándale. Write it down in a journal, like that they can see what happened. Like that they can see he didn't do anything wrong."
At first, I didn't want to. I didn't feel like it. Besides, Tencha wouldn't believe me. Or maybe she would. Maybe she knows what it was like but never wanted to believe it in the first place because she loves her brother too much. Either way, I'm keeping this as mine.
What I write is for You and me and no one else.
There's this spider at the edge of my desk and she's looking at me like if I'm her Virgen de Guadalupe. I don't want her touching me or getting too close, and I know she's not poisonous, but still. I could blow her off in one breath if I wanted to. I'm thinking of smashing her, then cleaning her off with my sock and acting like it never happened. But when I raise my hand and close my eyes I hear her scream.
Julia says the reason I don't say anything is because I'm in deep pain. Like if pain were something she knew looked like me. I hear her when she talks to Tencha outside my room. Because I'm eleven she treats me like some kid. The way she looks at me, feeling sorry for me, scared, but at the same time frustrated. Like if answers are overdue and behind her pity she's upset that I'm not "cooperating."
I used to tell You I pray for Your will. ¿Recuerdas? I used to make the sign of the cross in the dark while I was in bed and tell you how much I loved You. That I wish for the best and I pray for your will. Well, I do, but maybe I'll smash this spider. Mom used to say that life was full of tests. And if we pass, we'll be in Your grace. Maybe if she named me Milagro instead of Luz this would've never happened.
If I wait for this spider to crawl out of this room, then maybe I can go after her. And on the other side of this wall there'll be this underwater world and I'll swim to the deep end and float next to one of those electrical fish that light up in the dark. And maybe he'll sting me or split me into pieces or eat me alive. But then everything will be over and no one will remember because I'll be down there in the dark with nothing around me. With no fish, no light. No Luz.
There's a flea market on Alexander Street that we used to go to when I was little. It's where we went to buy things like comales and molcajetes. They sold sheets and sheets of Lotería paper and I didn't know it came rolled up like that. I didn't know you could make your own tabla.
There was a round woman who sat in a canoe with flowerpots around her like if they were her children. Red flowers, pink, yellow, and purple. She wore a nightgown with thin stripes and had braids falling down her chest. Her name was Alondra. Estrella called her una pendeja because she was a grown woman dressed up like a Lotería card. But she wasn't dumb. She made bracelets with all these different colors and would stitch your name on one if you asked. Two dollars apiece. She'd sit under the sun, even when it was ninety-five degrees outside, and braid her bracelets. We'd pass her on the way to the food stands, buy some barbacoa and tamarindo, then pass her again, and she'd be in the same place.
"Want something, Alondra? ¿Un Jarrito? ¿Algo? Ánadale," Papi would say.
She'd close her eyes and tighten them, shake her head like if she were remembering someone who'd died. When she'd open her eyes we'd notice she wasn't crying. "No, no gracias," she'd say. "No necesito nada." She'd open her arms and sweat would be glistening over her forehead.
I asked her to write a word on each bracelet I bought because I wanted them to read like a sentence. Ven. Que. Te. Quiero. Ahora. It's the riddle to La Rosa, which is a strange dicho. I don't know how a rose has anything to do with wanting or loving. But every time I thought of it I heard Mom's voice and the way she'd say it in Spanish, all smooth and sexy like Sara Montiel: Come, I want you now.
And because quiero can mean either want or love, I asked if it meant "I want you" or "I love you." Come here, because I love you, or, come here, because I want you? If you were saying to someone, come to me, then the person you loved wasn't there, and if you had to tell someone to come to you then maybe he didn't love you. And to want someone to come to you is like an order. If you have to order someone to come to you, how much love is in that anyway?
After Alondra made my last bracelet, I put it on my arm and she read them out loud from my wrist to my elbow. Ven. Que. Te. Quiero. Ahora. She opened her arms and hugged me the way Tencha does, with her body soft like pillows, and I understood why even though she was smiling sometimes she looked like she was in pain. She was confused of whether or not she was wanting or loving. Or both.
When Estrella ran away I thought she was going to Angélica's house because she wanted to scare Papi into thinking she was leaving for good. We thought she was being dramatic and wanting attention. I never thought she'd go to the cops. I never thought they'd come to the house the way they did.
Julia asks the same thing over and over when she sits down next to me in the activity room. She wants to know what it was like living at home. "And on weekends?" she asks. "What did you do all together? What did you do with your Papi?" But she wouldn't get it. She wouldn't know what it was like.
We all fought. We all hit each other.
Papi punched because he was a man, but we hit him too. There was one time when Mom grabbed the Don Pedro bottle from the coffee table and smashed it over his head. Blood ran down his face like the statue of Jesus Christ and Estrella and I had to grab toilet paper to soak up the blood.
Now, here comes Julia thinking Fama magazine is going to open me up like some stupid jack-in-the-box. Like if I'm some extension cord tangled up in a garage she can take a few minutes to untangle. Then what? She'll leave me alone? Or maybe Papi will stay in jail because of something I say, something she writes down and tangles up later.
It's like in Lotería, instead of playing the four corners we play the center squares. But midway through the game you find you have the corners but you're missing the center. And if you would've played the corners you would've won already. But that's how it is, isn't it?
I keep my mouth shut because I don't know the rules of the game.
Three days ago Tencha came to visit me and sat in the chair next to the door. I'd been laying out the cards on my desk. La Rana. El Paraguas. El Melón. Thinking about the stories the cards helped me remember. Usually she sits with me on the bed and rocks me back and forth and tells me everything's going to be okay. But this time she sat in the chair, all hunched over with her feet together, and whispered, "Mama." Then nothing. Like if she couldn't get the rest of the sentence out. I knew what she was trying to tell me, that her rosaries for the last week were for nothing. Her prayers to la Virgen were for nothing. And if I waited for her to tell me it would've taken too long. So I walked over to her and put my hand on her shoulder, and she started sobbing in that way that's scary, like if her lungs are falling out and she has to suck them back in before they fall to the floor.
Estrella was in the ICU ever since that night they came to get Papi. I was looking out the window next to my desk when Tencha asked if I wanted to see her. She whispered, like if I'd get mad at her for mentioning her name. But she knew it wasn't going to be the way I imagined. I wouldn't sit at the end of Estrella's bed and hold her hand. And I wouldn't be able to go inside the room she was in. When Tencha said her name I put on my sneakers and stood up, keeping my head down so I wouldn't have to see her eyes.
She had to get permission, she said. Larry, the social services director, didn't think it was a good idea. He lowered his voice as he talked to her in the hall, but I could hear him. He said I was too fragile, it might make me worse. But she told him good, said if I didn't get to see my sister I'd sue him when I turned eighteen. My own flesh and blood. They should be ashamed of themselves. "Shame on you!" she said. And then he agreed, but only for one night. She told him everything would be fine. She was responsible and this was a family matter.
Before we walked out of the building he told us an officer would take us to the hospital and sign us in. We drove to the Medical Center near the zoo off of highway 59, to a huge building that looked like a good place, not some clinic with bums crowding the emergency room. It looked like a place that could fix things. It had forty-four floors and there were doctors with clipboards walking up and down the hallway. When we asked the receptionist for Estrella María Castillo the woman told us she was on the thirty-eighth floor. I remember because I pushed the button in the elevator but it wouldn't light up, and when the doors opened the hallway was quiet. It seemed like no one was there. But finally a nurse passed. She said I couldn't go inside the room where Estrella was. All I could do was see her from behind a pane of glass. But all I could see was her chin and the shape of her body past two other beds. I couldn't see her eyes. There was a curtain blocking half of her face. For all I knew it could've been someone else.
When the nurse looked at me she did that tilt of the head like people do, like if I were abandoned. Other nurses started to show up and they looked at me in the same way. Maybe they thought I'd attack them or knock them over or run inside the room no matter what I was told, because they'd heard what had happened. But I didn't. I stood there and looked at my sister while Tencha walked with them down the hall and asked them questions.
The machines that were next to her beeped louder the longer I stayed, and no matter how much I tried to block them out, I couldn't. I pressed my palms against the glass and told her how much I love her. How sorry I was. My sister. Just there, sleeping. Not moving. She got blurry from the fog of my breath covering the glass, and I whispered, ¿Y por qué tenías que ser tan tonta? I wrote her name in my mind and imagined the star as I drew it over the glass.
Mom used to say to us, Estrella y Luz, cuánto las quiero.
I pressed my hands harder against the glass and told her it was going to be okay, not because You were going to make it okay but because I was there and You were there and I was really trying to tell You something. Like how much I love You. And if I loved You, wouldn't that make things better? It didn't matter if I fell on my knees or threw up my hands and prayed I don't know how many Hail Marys. Lo siento, Madre María. But it was a matter of Your will. Learn to live with what you lose and that's what's meant to be. ¿Verdad? Mom used to say, "Forgive and forget." I say it to myself over and over when I'm trying to fall asleep at night but it feels like a lie. It turns into a song and then I don't even know what I'm singing anymore.
Standing there, all of a sudden, I was like a jug of water trying to be taken from one place to another, and little by little, I was spilling. The nurses didn't even look at me anymore.
Meet the Author
Mario Alberto Zambrano was a Riggio Honors Fellow at the New School and recently completed his MFA at the Iowa Writers' Workshop as an Iowa Arts Fellow. He is a recipient of the John C. Schupes Fellowship for Excellence in Fiction. Lotería is his first novel.
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A tragic, yet beautiful body of work. For a debut, I am highly impressed and eager for a second novel. Bravo Mario!
What happened to Luz's sister, Estrella? This is what you want to know from the moment the story begins and while it is unfolding... and Luz is in control of the speed at which we find out. We learn the details slowly, as Luz feels ready and able to write about it, as she writes in her journal while working through a stack of Lotería cards for inspiration. When exactly what happened is finally revealed, I was completely shocked. It was completely believable, but I just didn't see it coming at all. There's a lot of Spanish peppered into the story. Usually context makes the translation obvious, but there are definitely times when there's no help whatsoever. This has the potential to be frustrating for some readers. However, it adds to the beauty of the writing and gives an authentic atmosphere of the life of this immigrant family. The voice of Luz, our 11 year-old narrator, makes the story flow by quickly and easily. This is a crazy fast read, but certainly not a light one. The themes that come forth from her words are not what you'd expect - or want - to hear from a child. Domestic violence and child abuse from this young child's perspective... it's heartbreaking, complicated, and infuriating. Yet it's a story told very simply. I think this is a huge reason why Lotería comes across in such a powerful way. Lotería is Zambrano's first novel, and I hope to read more of his work in the future. This is a stunning debut. I received a copy of this book from the publisher via TLC Book Tours in exchange for an honest review. I did not receive any other compensation for this review.
In a very young yet full life rattled and mangled by chance, Luz Castillo's journal forms the quietly devastating constructs of Mario Alberto Zambrano's debut novel, Lotería. Inspired by the eponymous Mexican card game, she finds clarity and voice despite her voluntary silence triggered by sudden upheaval of her treasured family. Each card of the Lotería deck elicits specific memories Luz uses to piece together her tragic story. And with each poetically random draw we learn via her writing just how visceral her need for family and continuity truly run. A novel of nuanced depth ensconced in spare prose, Lotería is sure to establish Zambrano as a talent to watch in earnest.
I didn't like it
The game of Loteria sets the chapter breaks for the novel and Luz's story. Just as the game is not one of continuity but of chance, so is Luz's life. Her family is the poster fodder for dysfunctional and to add to the complications, the family is illegal. In an interview Zambrano was asked when is there too much of a foreign language in a book (lots of Spanish in this novel). He replied that he thought he had found a balance because there was context for the Spanish words and phrases. I disagree. I had no trouble reading and following the story but so much of the Spanish was not, for me, explained in context. Still, I was drawn into the huge task that Luz faces having to remember and tell her sad, tragic story.
I have played loteria before i like it so i like this book