Our introduction to la lotería, the Latin American game of chance, was a very American one. We purchased a set from the toy section of a dollar store and took it home to try to decipher the rules using our high school Spanish lessons. Eventually we had to ask for help. Now we love the cards with their bright primary colors and symbols of people, animals, objects and other notions such as the sun, devil, death and the world. And we love the bingo-like way it's played with one person singing out the card's title (Death, The Umbrella, The Apache, The Canoe) and everyone else marking their cards until someone gets four in a row, shouting out, "Lotería, lotería." But to us it's just a game, a piece of art, a $1 gift to send to equally American friends in less diverse cities where discount stores carry games in English only.
But to those raised with family lotería games, it's much more than a novelty. It's tradition, heritage, nostalgia and, for some, inspiration for artwork that reflects universal themes, Latin American culture and the bridge between childhood and adulthood. "I was born and raised in Mexico, and really I just saw the game as something that was an excuse for family to get together without really noticing the artistic value of the pieces or that the designs on the cards tell a story. That didn't happen until later," says Enrique Fernández Cervantes, the curator and visual arts coordinator of the Bath House Cultural Center. "Then you begin noticing that it had some social significance, too. That it had images that were significant to the culture of Mexico and Latin America, to the literature, to the story that your grandmother told you about the mermaid and the sun, the contact people had with nature. I didn't see that when I was growing up."
Cervantes introduces as well as reacquaints people with lotería with exhibits at the Bath House in which he divides the 54 cards of the game's deck among about 50 artists, who then reinterpret the simple images from the games. Some artists are Latino, from Dallas all the way to Paraguay, who use their experiences with the game and its images to tell new stories and offer new ideas. Others have never heard of lotería and take their assignments at face value, working only from the card's names, such as The Basket or The Moon, to make their artwork. "I was really aiming at getting a large number of artists who had never been exposed to the game of lotería," Cervantes says. "I was trying to get a group of people who came to the exhibit with a fresh mind, who didn't have any preconceived influences that might have made them inclined to simply reproduce something that they had seen as children. They are basically expressing their own interpretation of a simple image."
In addition to the exhibit, Lotera, Lotera! (dos), which opens with a reception Saturday featuring the contributing artists, there will be a night of playing la lotería on May 15. The game tables will have different decks of cards, some sets of traditional ones, another based on the works from a previous Lotería exhibit at the center and more based on this year's submissions. Visitors can play games for prizes donated by sponsors and meet the artists responsible, some of whom will also be playing their first games of lotería that night. Come learn with them, or pick up your own at the nearby dollar store.