I had seen those Mexican Bingo images everywhere. The Drunk, The Mermaid, The Crown, The Heart, etc. Cute and silly and there are a helluva lot of them. Except for all the names being in Spanish, I never really noticed that they are particularly Mexican (even though I had seen them all over Mexico). Mostly on paintings, cards, t-shirts, mugs, matchboxes, whatnot, what have you.
THEN I opened a store in Merida, Yucatan, Mexico with another gringa loca (crazy white girl) who was way more in the know than me. Her name is Julie and she was unfortunately in charge of teaching me a lot of shit about Mexican culture before our first buying trip in Guadalajara pre-grand opening. She told me we were gonna “Get our La Loteria on!” in a big way.
La What? La Profitable!
The Hardcore Backstory of La Lotería
Gambling is fun, let’s face it. Even Bingo is a good time…and I’m relatively young! Cards kill time and build friendships in ways other games can’t. Uppity folks in Italy and Spain knew this and played regularly as early as the 1400’s. It made sense for Hernan Cortés and his troops to bring a few decks of cards with them to play during the Spanish Conquest of México while plundering the natives of “New Spain”. Basically, when the Spaniards took time out from stealing land and enslaving Mexicans, they would kick back and enjoy a few games for laughs, money, pride or whatever.
I guess one good thing the Spanish conquerors did was introduce a taste for cards into México. Cortés himself was a great card player as it turns out. This introduction led to 2 very distinct, yet equally important games:
The Difference Between La Loteria and The Lottery
After all the battles of the War of Independence were over, lotteries and raffles were set up all over Central and South America. Lima, Peru was the first New World place to have an official lottery. It was introduced after an earthquake destroyed a local hospital and the archbishops there decided to institute a citywide lottery to rebuild the hospital with the profits.
Mexico needed profits to rebuild its post-war everything. BIG TIME. So in 1771, it became the second country to establish a legal lottery with the first big jackpot of $84,000 pesos.
“This vice, or time-honored habit – intelligently channeled towards good, so that it might benefit the poor and deprived, relieving them in their distress – is what gave rise to the lottery. Good engendered by evil: this was the idea proposed by the kindly King Charles III, who founded the lottery in his dominions of New Spain.”
—Artemio de Valle Arizpe in ‘A Brief History of the Mexican Lottery’ in “The Art of Fortune” by Artes de México.
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And when we say ‘good engendered by evil’ we are talking about how all of the Catholic muckety mucks declared gambling as evil…even if it was ultimately for good. By 1782, after 11 years of successful fundraising (and some exploitation to line King Charles III’s royal pockets), México’s jackpot would commonly get to BIG MONEY. The PowerBall (if you will) would get to $715,000 pesos, which was a shit ton in 1782!
Since this was clearly a lucrative business, some clergymen and nuns got in the game…creating mini-raffles similar to La Loteria cards, but naming the cards after saints and relics. Douchey.
Long story short…México still to this day has its own National Lottery called Lotería Nacional with scratch-offs, PowerBalls and the whole shebang. This is NOT to be confused with the fun board game that is referred to as La Lotería. Yes, both types stemmed from the games of the Spanish soldiers, Cortés and King Charlie. However, La Lotería has much more cultural significance which is steeped in 200 years of history. The images of which have become iconic. No scratch offs, just loads of history.
Traditional La Lotería from 1887
So after 100-ish years of playing versions of La Lotería, a commercial board game version was created in 1887 by French entrepreneur, Clemente Jacques. He aptly called his widely sold game, “Don Clemente Gallo”. For those who have ever shopped in a Mexican grocery store or ‘super’, you have seen that name and that gallo (rooster) image before.
It was Clemente Jacques who came to Mexico to import games, seeds and canned foods and ended up establishing the first food processing and canning factory in México. This same dude made and marketed a timeless family-friendly game while feeding Latin America. Strange connection, but the company is one and the same.
Anyway, Señor Clemente Jacques mass produced a formal game of La Lotería. His version has a total of 54 images that each include a picture, a name and a number. Each one depicts a unique characteristic of México…food, Catholic beliefs, Aztec beliefs, booze and Mother Earth essentials. Frankly, Teresa Villegas says it better…
“Every culture has its idioms and icons -certain words and images that transcend the literal and reside in the psyches of the people. This artwork has drawn upon Mexican traditions, historical figures, gastronomy, and popular culture, translating them into images familiar and recognizable to those who have experienced this distinctive culture. ” And Teresa drops the mic…BOOM.
How to Play
Each player is given a La Lotería board that has 16 images and a hand full of beans, bottle caps, rocks or whatever is lying around. Then a caller gets ready to rumble…He or she draws a card like a bingo caller fetches a ball out of that whirling dervish of a metal cage.
The caller is the crucial part of the game and plays the Emcee, the ‘Fair and Balanced’ Entertainer and the Riddler. The unique aspect of calling out the randomly chosen images, numbers or names is that they don’t actually call them out at all. WHAAATT?? The caller uses riddles, puns or jokes to note which image/number/name is being called. Depending on the audience, he or she can be quite tame or risqué AF.
Remember, this game has been played in churches, schools, dirty cantinas and table dance joints all over México for over 200 years. #dontjudge
Sound confusing? I agree, but it’s actually genius and if it is used in grade schools to teach kids objects and words, it’s gotta be good! I personally think it’s pretty hilarious that one of the images is ‘El Borracho’ which is ‘The Drunk’ in English. Little kids in grade school are learning that shit pretty early in life! Foreshadowing? Si. 🙂
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The riddles that are called out range from obvious to downright clever. Here are my Top 10 Tame Faves:
- El Diablito – The Devil – Behave yourself so that the little red one doesn’t carry you off.
2. La Calavera – The Skull – As I passed through the graveyard, I found a skull.
3. La Muerte – Death – She walks through the bones, waiting to catch you and take you to heaven.
4. La Sirena – The Mermaid – The love of every sailor, sings with the sea, and entangles you with her hair.
5. El Nopal – The Cactus – To which all go to see when they have to eat.
6. El Corazon – The Heart – It beats, tomato in color, falls in love the very lover.
7. La Corona – The Crown – The hat of kings.
8. El Barril – The Barrel – The bricklayer drank so much that he ended up like a barrel.
9. La Botella – The Bottle – As a microphone for the drunk and as a remedy for the sick.
10. El Borracho – The Drunk – Playing goes with his body, which he cannot control and falls to the ground.
When a pun is called that matches one of the images on your board, you put a bean or a bottle cap on the square. Once you have 4 squares across or 4 squares down or just 4 squares in the shape of a square, you win and you scream out LA LOTERÍA! And the crowd goes wild.
Millennial La Lotería from 2019
Fast forward to 2019 and you have a new way to play! You millennials are cray cray and are always coming up with fun and fanciful shit. This is an example that I LOVE! Did you notice the ‘La Selfie’ image at the top of this post? Creator, developer and my new 20-something hero, Gerardo Guillén has created the Millennial version of La Lotería! And in typical millennial fashion, you can follow the company on Instagram at @millennialloteria. #followustoo @TexMexFunStuff
No more El Diablo, El Corazon or La Corona…now we have La Selfie, El Tinder and La Dick Pick!
It comes with 46 cards, 10 boards and 80 bitcoin tokens. Bitcoin tokens? I can’t even! I bought 10 sets. Buy yours on Amazon here. If you want one or 10 of the classic sets you can get those here…
So I hope that clears a few things up for you…
Finally, I mentioned that my friend Julie educated me on all of this shit and she deserves some serious street cred for that. Her store (formerly our store) is called El Estudio! and it is located on the main drag in Merida, Yucatan, MX. When in the hood, stop by and see her and get some cool Lotería merch! You’ll recognize the store by the logo below…which is basically she and I as Catrinas – another blog post!! Peace out and thanks for reading!
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Are you looking for more inspiration from México? Check out the TexMex Fun Stuff Blog for more sights, sounds and badass-ness uncovered while exploring México searching for handmade fun stuff for you!
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2 thoughts on “La Lotería Ain’t Your Grandma’s Mexican Bingo!”
Normally I do not learn post on blogs, however I wish to say that this write-up very forced me to take a look at and do so! Your writing style has been amazed me. Thanks, quite great article.
Why Gracias and thank you! Glad to shed some new light on an old tradition!
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