Ever since I first visited Mexico, more than 30 years ago, I’ve been fascinated by its culture. It’s beautiful, exotic, alien, yet also comfortable and attractive.
One of the things that have intrigued me since the start is the lottery game: loteria de camacho.
I’ve seen it for sale in many stores, and played at street vendors and booths at local fiestas. from boxed games to plastic pouches, it can be found in almost every Mexican store. It’s more than a simple game: the set is used to teach literacy, history and writing, too.
From the first time I saw these pictures, my curiosity was aroused. They struck me as symbols of a Jungian nature, or something from Joseph Campbell: icons of the collective, mythologic unconscious. You can see the whole set on may sites, including this one.
Over the decades, I’ve brought back several versions of the game, the latest being from our recent trip to Mazatlan (bought in a small farmacia near the hotel).*
While all of the images in the decks are similar, the artwork can be quite different, and very compelling, depending on the deck. There is a new (nuevo) deck that I have not found, but will search for in my next visits.
Sets usually include a deck of cards, several playing mats as per the image above (10 mats is common, but I’ve seen sets with fewer and more), plus a sheet for tracking what’s been played (sometimes just a blank grid with numbers).
In play it’s similar to bingo, although the winning patterns aren’t all identical. What continues to captivate me is the images.
Instead of the dry numbers that bingo uses, the loteria game uses images that remind me of the major arcana in the Waite tarot deck**.
The popular tarot deck has 78 cards, of which 22 are in the major arcana. The loteria game has 54 numbered cards. Many of the icons both have common: the star, the world, death, the moon and several others. But others are unique.
Wikipedia describes the game:
Lotería is the Spanish word for lottery. The deck is composed of a set of 54 different images, each one in a card. To start the game, the caller (cantor, or singer) randomly selects a card from the deck and announces it to the players by its name, sometimes using a riddle or humorous patter instead of reading the card name.
Unlike bingo, the caller doesn’t always simply call out the basic card or its number. He or she may use a riddle, poem or epithet instead, forcing the players to guess the card. These may be simple or challenging. For example, as Wikipedia notes, the caller may cry,
No me extrañes corazón, que regreso en el camión.
This is, in English: “Do not miss me, sweetheart, I’ll be back by bus.” So what card does that relate to? A bus? A traveller? Regular players would recognize it as number 27: El corazón (“the heart”). There are also regional variations on the riddles, too, and often the callers depend on extemporaneous poems or descriptions.
According to Wikipedia, the game derives from a card game played in Italy in the 15th century. Apparently it spread around Europe over the centuries, because it arrived in Mexico in 1769. It travelled from the upper classes downward to become a populist game prominent in fairs and festivals.
Sherryl Smith commented that,
Spontaneous poetry is part of the game, reminding me of the tarocchi appropriati parlor games popular in 16th century Italy. During the game, the caller doesn’t announce the name or number of a card. He calls out a poem or riddle, and the players have to figure out what image he’s referring to before they can play the card. A good caller shapes his poetry to the audience: bawdy, political satire, or family-friendly.
And Teresa Villegas wrote,
The announcer’s approach will often depend on the social context in which the game is being played. At a church bazaar, for example, he might use a more tame humor, while for a game played in an adult setting he might use innuendos that are more risqué and derisive. Satire and references to contemporary events and politics are often a part of the word play involved; in fact, the linking of images to social commentary has existed since the inception of the game.
Villegas has her own set of cards that is well worth examining, especially in comparison to the traditional images. Sometime in the future, I’ll dig up a tarot deck and compare the similar images one-to-one.
* I will post my thoughts about Mazatlan in a separate blog shortly. Suffice to say we were pleasantly surprised by the city, and by the number of Canadians who have chosen to make it their second home. Weather was superb. We plan to return.
** The tarot fascinates me as a visual collection of archetypes, not as a fortune-telling device; it is a psychological expression of essential western symbols. Fortune-telling, of course, is simply superstitious claptrap. There are no psychics: merely charlatans and con artists. That does not detract from the artistic, historical and psychological interest in the deck.
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