Reviewed By Alex Temblador
- Harper (2013)
- 288 pages
After three years of diligent work, Mario Alberto Zambrano’s first novel, Lotería, provides readers with a new literary experience. Think Sandra Cisneros’s vignette style, combined with a strong, youthful voice reminiscent of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, and then add bingo—but in this case, Mexican bingo, known as lotería. Lotería is Zambrano’s debut in the world of literary fiction after he made a drastic change from professional ballet dancer to author, and it is inspiring to discover that his work does not fall short of our high expectations for any literary writer’s first book.
Zambrano’s coming-of-age protagonist is an 11-year-old Mexican American girl named Luz, and Lotería is a first-person journalistic account of her life written by Luz to God, primarily in English with periodic switches to Spanish. Luz recounts how she came to be in her current situation: a ward of the state; her father in jail; her sister, Estrella, in the ICU; and her mother gone, disappeared. Zambrano accurately balances the languages, staying true to a bilingual character who thinks and speaks in two languages while helping readers who are not familiar with Spanish to understand what is occurring through context clues.
Luz writes her stories with the help of fifty-three of the fifty-four pictures found in a deck of lotería cards. In lotería, the equipment and rules are the same as bingo, but instead of numbers, there is a deck of cards that corresponds to a picture on the bingo tablet. And lastly, instead of yelling out, “Bingo!” players yell out, “Lotería!” Each chapter begins with a picture and rhyme from a different lotería card, thus incorporating image and text into the novel. Zambrano’s cross-genre structure succeeds in its use of image and supplementary text because the images involve readers in a Mexican cultural game that correlates specifically to the content and storyline of the novel.
Rather than a linear storyline, readers are moved from the present, where Luz is in a building for wards of the state, to the past, where she recounts situations with her family. Each memory plays a part in explaining how she and her family have come to their present state. With this, Zambrano is emphasizing how life is as much of a game of chance as is the drawing of cards in a game of Mexican bingo. The interwoven plot, switching between the past and present, captures how an individual does not think of memory in a past-to-present linear manner but in randomly chosen episodes.
Luz’s brief stories introduce us to her family. Her father is an alcoholic whose drinking habits are adopted by the whole family, including Luz on many occasions. He is being held in jail for reasons undisclosed to us. Her sister, Estrella, lighter in skin tone than Luz, seems to be running from her heritage, emphasizing her Spanish ancestry and rejecting her identity as a Mexican American—something she considers to be dirty and violent. Luz’s mother is both physically abused by her husband as well as a perpetrator of acts of both verbal and physical abuse against her husband and her daughters.
Zambrano portrays the lives of many Mexican American families that have long since hidden away such negative aspects through the pressures of machismo and misdirected allegiance to family. Luz is irrevocably enamored with her father despite the harm he does to her and her mother. Luz’s aunt, Tencha, convinces Luz that the abuse is justified: “Papi wouldn’t hit us unless he had to. There was a right way and a wrong way. Papi did things the right way. And when it was time to protect us, he would. ‘You think he’s not allowed to hit you?’ she said.” In addition, Luz tries to emulate her father by copying his drinking habits, his singing, and his abuse, and she also tries to protect him by refusing to speak to counselors about the mysterious crime of which he has been accused.
The family unit as a whole hides the abuse and indecent sexual activities that occur in their home by making up their own versions of their lives. As Luz explains, “We tell our own stories. We have our own tablas.” It is this quote that illustrates the conceit of the novel: stories. People make and mold their own histories to hide behind or even to protect themselves and others. Although readers are under the assumption that Luz is truthfully recounting each story to explain how she and her family have arrived in their present situation, it is this theme that has readers reconsidering Luz’s reliability. She has her own stories, her own tablas, and she molds her past through the stories she recounts, both to protect her father and the rest of her family and to come to terms with her own difficult reality.
Throughout the novel there are scenes that recount sexual indecencies that Luz witnesses or experiences. This uncomfortable and provocative thread, which many times includes minors, is retold by Luz in a casual manner. Most of the time, Zambrano does not explore Luz’s feelings concerning these occurrences but rather depicts her attitude as nonchalant with statements like “I touched him and that was it” when speaking of being sexually violated by an older cousin. Statements like this contradict the serious trauma that a child of Luz’s age would suffer from these experiences and leave readers to wonder as to Zambrano’s authorial choice of depicting Luz as not being consciously affected by these experiences. This unexplored trauma might be the largest flaw of the novel. Similarly, in the last chapter Luz tells of one final sexual experience, a strange and unsatisfying place to close the novel. Instead, Zambrano might have ended with the previous chapter, titled “La Luna,” that sums up the entire story, hints at what Luz might do with these journal entries, and explains the love she has for her family despite all their problems.
Luz’s spunky voice keeps us engaged in the convoluted intricacies of her broken family. And yet, it is her innocence and youth that allow Luz to make significant insights into life, love, and the lengths to which we will go to protect someone we love. Zambrano’s novel is full of possibilities and chances, real people trying hard to line up their pieces through rhymes and stories, waiting for that perfect moment to yell out, “Lotería!”
Alex Temblador is currently an MFA student in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Central Oklahoma. Although she has yet to publish her first book review, she has published short stories in Cigale Literary Magazine and Scissortale Review and has a forthcoming essay publication in Caribbean Vistas. Alex is currently living in Oklahoma City and completing her first novel.