Lotería is a bingo-like game played in Mexico and the southwestern USA with a game board and a deck of 54 cards. Recently, I saw an exhibit of these cards at a local museum of Mexican folk art, and was surprised to learn that the deck began with a 15th-century Italian board game, and that several cards are very similar to tarot trumps.
The card images have a compelling, iconic quality thanks to more than 300 years of being distilled through European and Mexican folk culture. Several cards share names with tarot: Sun, Moon, Star, Angel, and Devil. Two cards resemble their counterparts in the 1664 Mitelli deck: World as Atlas holding up the globe, and Death as a standing skeleton with a scythe.
About 1769, the national lottery was established in New Spain, and playing a lottery game at parties became popular. Lotería cards and game boards were initially hand-made by local artists. By the mid-1800s they were being printed commercially; and in the early 20th Century, the Don Clemente card style became the standard (the Tarot de Marseille of the lotería world).
Don Clemente was a French businessman who supplied the army with food and ammunition during the Mexican revolution. Soldiers received little decks of Don Clemente’s cards with their tins of sardines and boxes of bullets. By the early 20th century, Don Clemente’s style of lotería cards had swept through Mexico. The company still publishes its distinct brand of cards. Other publishers have their own style, but there’s much overlap in card imagery and titles.
Spontaneous poetry is part of the game, reminding me of the tarocchi appropriati parlor games popular in 16th century Italy. During the game, the caller doesn’t announce the name or number of a card. He calls out a poem or riddle, and the players have to figure out what image he’s referring to before they can play the card. A good caller shapes his poetry to the audience: bawdy, political satire, or family-friendly.
Just like tarot, contemporary lotería cards are influenced by popular culture. I saw a Christmas-themed deck with a cultural mix of reindeer and Las Posadas. Nearby, a pink and purple Hello Kitty deck kept company with a skateboard laminated with custom-designed cards. Publishers do spin-offs of the Don Clemente pattern, while artists create their own highly personal decks. The travelling exhibit of Teresa Villegas’ original art based on the Don Clemente deck was so successful, the company published her images as the Nuevo Versión Lotería.
These cards are fascinating and compelling. I haven’t come across any mention of divination with the cards, but I strongly suspect there’s an underground tradition. NOTE: I just found a reference to divination with these cards. See the Comment below.
Amazon has a huge selection. Search for lotería Mexican bingo
www.TeresaVillegas.com has information on the game and her exhibition, and a link to her Etsy store with prints of her original lotería art.
Loteria.Elsewhere.org is a small gallery of cards
www.Casadolores.org is a museum of Mexican folk art in an historic adobe near downtown Santa Barbara, CA
John Picacio, Hugo-winning Sci Fi/Fantasy illustrator, is creating a gorgeous re-imaging of the Don Clemente cards. He has samples of his cards alongsideDon Clemente’s on his lone-boy.com website.