Featured in Vallarta Lifestyles Magazine, Winter/Spring 2009 issue.

Growing up in Mexico without playing the game of Loteria is as inconceivable as growing up north of the border without dreaming of a trip to Disneyland. Similar to Bingo, Loteria is a game of images, words and chance, involving a deck of 54 cards, each with a different image. The most popular version of this game, produced by Don Clemente, Inc., features images so widespread, they have reached iconic status throughout Mexico and the rest of the world.

La Malagua, a local art collective, has taken it upon themselves to preserve this Mexican tradition by producing their own version of this traditional game. And in doing so, they have managed to take their individual artistic statements out of the conventional gallery space and into the hands (literally) of the public at large.

The game of Loteria can be traced back to 15th-century Europe, reaching Mexico during the late 1700s by way of colonial settlers from Spain. It was first embraced by the Mexican aristocracy but soon gained popularity with the masses. By the early 20th century, it was not uncommon for traveling fairs to go from pueblo to pueblo, where locals would flock to play the game.

There are 10 boards to each game, each with a random selection of 16 images. As images are called, players place a bean on top of each matching image on their board. The first person to fill the board wins the game. Whereas Bingo numbers are randomly drawn from a round wire cage, Loteria features a caller (or griton) who draws cards and announces their names to the players.

To make things even more interesting, the caller improvises riddles, often in verse form, and it is up to the players to guess what card is being called. For example, instead of calling “La Estrella” (the star), a caller might announce “La guia de los marineros,” or “the sailors’ guide.” While not essential to the game, calling the verses is probably the most colorful aspect of it, for different versions of them have evolved through time, from innocent riddles to naughty ones, full of double entendre.

La Malagua Reinvents a Classic

Working together for over a decade, Yesika Felix, Ireri Topete, Sergio Martinez and Fernando Sanchez, otherwise known as Colectivo La Malagua, are a rarity: four local artists working and evolving together, sometimes participating in joint projects, other times separately, sometimes disagreeing, often learning from one another. “The idea of embracing the game of Loteria as an artistic challenge can be traced back to 2001,” said Ireri Topete. Drawing from different sources, such as mythical beings (cupid, demon, siren), nature (sun, moon, parrot) and ordinary folk (the drunk, the dandy, the Indian), the challenge would provide ample opportunity for the artists to meld their own styles with the existing images.

La Malagua’s intriguing tribute to the Huichol, titled “Zitakua-Malagua, Emerging Graphics,” found its way to the Mexican Consulate in Chicago in 2007, by way of the sister-city relationship between Puerto Vallarta and Hyde Park, IL. It was during this exhibition that Milwaukee-based Latino Arts, Inc., an organization dedicated to promoting Hispanic culture, made a formal invitation to La Malagua to produce an exhibition based on the game of Loteria, to be displayed in 2009.

Just as in a card game, the artists shuffled and dealt the cards among themselves, thus determining which ones they would tackle. Each artist would use their favorite technique to create the images, with the only boundaries being that all finished pieces had to be the same size and vertically oriented. Miguel Perez, a US-based collaborator to the collective, asked to be part of the project, so each participant relinquished a card to him. It was fortuitous that Perez was unable to fulfill his task on schedule, leaving the image of “El Musico,” or “the musician,” unfinished. Perhaps it was fate that this circumstance would allow La Malagua to incorporate their own image onto the game’s vernacular as a substitute.

But beyond the images of La Loteria themselves, La Malagua’s intention included using the project as an educational vehicle. The sale of several of the project’s original paintings (many of which are still available for purchase!) allowed for the production of 1,000 boxed sets, featuring an oversized deck of cards, the 10 traditional boards and a list of verses to announce the cards. “All you are missing are the beans,” commented Sergio Martinez.

It is only fitting that a traditional Mexican game would be designed and printed in Mexico, by Avelino Sordo Vilchis and Impresiones Pandora in Guadalajara. When the artists traveled to Milwaukee for the exhibition installation, they did so with games in hand, organizing games and workshops for local children, a testament to their commitment to uphold and preserve Mexican traditions. As such, the Malagua’s Loteria is Mexican art at its finest: art that can be transported, gifted, used and enjoyed over and over again. And hopefully, perhaps in the near future, the original works will be enjoyed in Puerto Vallarta, as well.

The Malagua Lotería is available for purchase at the locations listed below. Each set costs $300 pesos.

Biblioteca Los Mangos

Fco. Villa 1001, Versalles • (322) 224-9966

Galería Arte Popular Mexicano

Libertad 285, El Centro • (322) 222-6960

Hotel Belmar

Insurgentes 161, El Centro • (322) 222-0572