Lotería as Modern Social Commentary


Most of you are familiar with the very popular Mexican game called Lotería. The Lotería images are iconic worldwide: esteemed by collectors, represented in art, and used in crafts projects. Recently a girlfriend of mine sent me images for a 21st century update of the Lotería cards that provide an insightfully scathing social commentary, packaged in this most innocuous of game wrappings.

The traditional El Pájaro, as shown at left, was a merry looking songbird. The updated version I received, at right, is dead on the beach, covered with oil.

There are quite a few themes that appear in the set of 27 (vs. the traditional 54) cards that I received. The top four themes in order of frequency on the cards are:

  1. Crime and Violence (7 of the 27 cards)
  2. Environmental Destruction (5 cards)
  3. Drugs, and Alcohol (5 cards)
  4. Breakdown of Social Values (2-4 cards, depending on how you categorize them)
Many Mexicans play Lotería with their families and friends, particularly when the children are joining in. The best part about Lotería is the caller, or cantor. S/he often tells riddles or jokes about the image, which is often the funnest aspect of the game.

A wonderful thing about Lotería is how adaptable it is. While the traditional images are known by everyone, you can find Lotería games customized to many specialized purposes. I love using games as learning tools, and I’ve often used Lotería or Bingo to teach vocabulary or review basic concepts. These new cards would lend themselves well to current events! I have no idea who created the new images in this post. If you know, please let me know! I can only imagine what fun a good cantor could have with these newly revised cards!

First let me show you a few of the new cards, next to their more traditional predecessors. The traditional version is colorful. The cartoonist (I assume) who drew these new cards used monochrome pen and ink.

El Diablito, traditional at left and updated at the right. At first I thought it referred to the infrastructure realities we live with here: Will the phone work today? Will the rainstorm cause a power outage? Will we have internet? I have now learned that “diablito” refers to all those stolen electrical (and cable) hookups we see all around town.

La Calavera, traditionally the skull but updated to a young woman with an eating disorder. Definitely a serious issue in this style-conscious society.

A few of the traditional and updated cards urging us to be environmentally responsible include El Árbol, El Mundo, and El Sol. Terrific awareness raising, no?

Comparing a few traditional and updated cards from the theme of violence and crime includes El Valiente, La Mano, and La Sirena. Yes, a return to respect for others and for human life, please!

And finally, a couple of traditional and updated cards under the theme of the decay of social values include El Corazón (referencing the rampant poverty, homelessness and street corner begging in this beautiful country) and La Dama, sadly transformed into a table dancer (a different sort of “respect” or “empowerment” for women than the traditional card, for sure).

I post here the complete three sets of new cards that I received. In addition to the before-and-after photos above, noteworthy on this first page are La Palma (violence and crime),  El Perico and El Gallo, (drug use).

This second set includes another card about organized crime (Los Pinos, the Mexican “White House”). We also see the new themes of drugging our children in the name of health (La Muerte), and racism (El Negrito), which seems to me to exist in the traditional set as well.

In this third and final set of cards you see a card on immigration and the border “war” with Mexico’s northern neighbor (La Bandera), in addition to a few more related to crime and violence and a couple about alcohol and drugs.

All in all, a VERY strong and up-to-date social commentary, I would say.
How Lotería Is Played

You can buy Lotería sets very cheaply in almost any stationary or toy store. They make great gifts. Each player receives at least one tabla (card). Rather than five squares across, as in Bingo, Lotería cards have four images across and four down, for a total of 16 squares on each card. See the traditional Don Clemente images here.

As in Bingo, there is an announcer, in this case called the cantor (singer). The cantor has a deck of 54 cards, each with an image, a name and a number (I’ve never seen the numbers actually used). The images in the deck correspond to those on the tablas. The cantor randomly chooses a card from the deck and announces the drawing’s name or, oftentimes, a corresponding riddle (e.g., “The one who sang to St. Peter won’t sing to him again:” The Rooster) or joke to the players.

Players who have that image on their tabla use beans, bottle caps or other household items to mark the spot, trying to get four in a row: across, down, or diagonally. The first player to get four in a row wins, screaming “Lotería” or “Buena” to indicate their victory.

Well, someone, who I don’t know, has taken the time to update this classic game, making it more in tune with the 21st century.