I confess to ignorance about Lotería, a Mexican game of chance resembling bingo—except, instead of numbers and letters, there are images. Mario Alberto Zambrano builds his first novel from these images (la corolla, el sol, la rosa, el diabolito, and so on), reproducing them throughout the book and plotting his story around them. We’ve encountered variations on this in other novels: recipes, Taro cards, or regular decks of cards. To a certain extent, relying on such images is a bit of a gimmick, which is only to say that Zambrano’s story of a young girl named Luz María Castillo stands on its own, and I can imagine a reader’s satisfaction without the pictures. Removing them, the quick pace would still be retained, so I’ll call it a toss-up whether they are necessary for the story’s dramatic tension or not.
From the opening chapters we realize that some traumatic event has taken place because Luz, who is eleven years old, has been detained in a juvenile detention center, somewhere in a city in Southern California. She’s of Mexican descent, the only one in her family to have been born in the United States. Presumably, her parents and her older sister, Estrella, are illegals. Her father, Jose Antonio Castillo, is in jail; her Aunt Tencha is her only contact with the outside world, because, initially, it is unclear what has happened to her mother and her sister. Luz won’t speak a word to anyone. She’s been given a blank notebook, and the authorities hope that she will write down her thoughts. It’s her own decision to use the images of the lotería, to call forth her memories of the past.
It is not difficult to speculate about what has gone wrong. The girls’ father is an increasingly violent man, his violence provoked by bouts of drinking. He’s got a job as a laborer and had expectations of something better. His wife may be having an affair with her employer, though that is never clear. What is certain, however, is that the girls’ parents fight, brutally, and too often. Luz and her sister run to their room, listening to the noise until it ends. “Because that was the game, to see who could last the longest listening to the furniture being thrown without running away. But there’d be a note in Mom’s voice that would mark her breaking point, when she couldn’t anymore, and the way we could tell was by the sounds being pushed out of her body. Because when he’d kick her in the stomach or hit her across the face they were different kinds of sounds. And when those sounds would alternate, Estrella would lose.” Luz adds, “I stayed in case something happened, in case I’d have to call someone.”
The girls are also victim of Papi’s violence. When Luz is only seven, she’s pressured by an older boy to masturbate him through his jeans. When her father learns about this, he retaliates by hitting her hand so violently that he breaks her wrist. After the doctor sets it in a cast, which is taken off much later, it’s permanently dislocated. “When someone notices my wrist, with the bone sticking out and the lump on top, I tell them, ‘My dad broke it because I jerked off my primo.’” On another occasion, when he is angry at Estrella, he slaps her so hard that she’s knocked out. There are lesser incidents when their mother also slaps her daughters.
Luz’s sympathies are with her father and the lack of control he has once he begins drinking. “I figured he fought us not because he didn’t love us but because he believed in right and wrong. There were right things and wrong things. And when you did a wrong thing, you got a chingaso. It wasn’t any different when it came to Mom. It wasn’t any different when it came to him.” No surprise, then, when much later—after their mother has left them—that Luz still loves her father and tries to understand him. “There were those nights when his eyes would get bloodshot and I’d want to drink with him. Not a lot, just a sip, so I could see what it was like to become him. To be someone else and to knock things over without caring. I didn’t want to hit anyone or hurt someone. I just wanted to know where it came from, to figure out why he did what he did because it wasn’t coming from him. It was coming from that man in the bottle, Don Pedro. He’d get inside Papi’s head and in his blood and shake him until he turned into someone else.” )
Lotería is difficult reading, unfortunately falling into a category of earlier narratives that deal with parental abuse of children. Keri Hulme’s Booker Award-winning novel, The Bone People (1984) immediately comes to mind, as does Martha Grimes’ much more recent work, Ma, He Sold Me for a Pack of Cigarettes. There’s plenty of abuse of children in Dickens’ novels, also. That’s why it’s difficult to determine if Zambrano wants us to conclude that his story is typical of immigrants living in the United States. What is certain, however, is that Zambrano—formerly a professional dancer but currently at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—has made an amazing pirouette, life-changing no doubt. His second novel will need no illustrations.
Mario Alberto Zambrano: Lotería
HarperCollins, 288 pp., $21.99
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.