What happened to Estrella? Why won’t eleven-year-old Luz speak? From the beginning, Mario Alberto Zambrano’s Lotería is shrouded in this mystery. Luz’s older sister lies in intensive care and her father sits in jail. Her aunt is not a U.S. citizen and cannot take custody of her, so Luz is now a ward of the state, traumatized into silence by whatever happened. At her social worker’s urging, Luz’s only confidant becomes her journal. Using a deck of lotería (Mexican bingo) cards as her inspiration — each chapter is inspired by one card from the deck — Luz’s story slowly starts coming together.
The book’s exposition kind of reminded me of The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. Both feature a young Mexican American girl whose life unfolds through a series of vignettes. But where Mango Street follows its protagonist as she comes of age, Lotería is limited to a handful of years of Luz’s young life; Zambrano’s book is certainly the darker of the two.
In her eleven years, Luz has had to deal with domestic violence; she and her sister have witnessed her father beating their mother and have occasionally been the target of his abuse as well. Though Luz was born in the United States, her sister and parents came from Mexico; it’s especially awkward for Luz, who doesn’t speak Spanish very well, whenever they go visit family in Reynosa, Mexico. The sisters have a love-hate relationship that’s common with siblings their age, but they always turn to each other whenever things get rough inside their household. No matter their disagreements, whatever put Estrella in ICU has obviously taken its toll on Luz.
Since Zambrano begins the book by throwing readers into the middle of the story, it did take a while for me to find my footing. It’s a little confusing at first; each chapter starts with an image of a lotería card, and the chapters are extremely short (usually 3-4 pages) and are based on memories inspired by each card. It’s a nonlinear book, and a lot of times, the memories have nothing to do with Luz’s present day situation. But eventually, the story starts coming together and you get a better picture of the girls’ lives. It’s not linear, but generally speaking, the book starts in the middle, goes back to the beginning, and builds up towards the big reveal.
The structure isn’t perfect, but I do like the idea building a story around a deck of lotería cards. I grew up playing lotería (and I live across the border from Reynosa!), and though we never used dichos (which are explained at the beginning of the book), I think those riddles lend themselves well to the mystery of the novel. One thing that might set some people back is the sprinkling of Spanish phrases in the novel; a lot of it can be gleaned from context, but some of it will require translation. Personally, I think it adds to the book. I loved all of the artwork that went into lotería cards; they’re very similar to actual lotería cards, but they add a uniqueness to the book. Overall, it’s an interesting book and pretty quick read. If you like family dramas with a hint of mystery, I say go for it.
Lotería was published on July 2, 2013 by Harper Books, an imprint of HarperCollins. This book is on tour right now, so check out what other bloggers are saying about it.