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Lotería: Part Young Adult novel, part telenovela

Mario Alberto Zambrano

A homework assignment may seem like the least-pressing issue when your sister's in the hospital, your father in jail and your mother M.I.A., but this is precisely what 11-year-old Luz Castillo devotes herself to from the start of Mario Alberto Zambrano's first novel. Stuck in state care and unable to talk about the events that landed her there, she is handed a journal and a 54-card deck of Loteria, her favourite game – a sort of visual-literary Mexican bingo that involves riddle-telling and icons.

"Write," pleads her aunt Tencha, an undocumented immigrant unable to take her home. And so Luz does: about sitting on the roof with her sister Estrella and watching neighbourhood low riders pass by, or the fastidious ritual of her mother getting dressed for church. Her father getting his first job in the U.S. Family fights that end in broken tequila bottles and mopping up wounds with toilet paper.

Zambrano, a ballet dancer and choreographer by trade before devoting his work to writing, presents us with a book of 54 memories, each dedicated to a Loteria card. Their progression shows how Luz's mind wanders in the wake of a terrible event, simultaneously avoiding and reflecting on what happened by taking seemingly unrelated events and mining them for reasons as to why her family's in pieces.

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The ways in which the Castillos sag and eventually fall apart under the weight of their problems are, sadly, somewhat familiar: a drunken father, a miserable mother, and two sisters who've invented a twisted game of chicken to see "who could last the longest listening to the furniture being thrown without running away." There are plenty of kitchen-table standoffs and stare-downs that veer into the melodramatic, but are likely how a girl still young enough to see a dysfunctional family as normal makes sense of such memories.

What's most enjoyable about Lotería is how Zambrano takes the awkwardness of growing up second-generation – not an immigrant, but not exactly at home – and makes it seem less a marker of difference than a common fact of growing up in the U.S. in the late nineties. She is the only American-born citizen in her family, and the only one who doesn't call the Mexican border town of Reynosa "back home." While visiting grandparents, she's chastised for speaking funny Spanish; at Wal-Marts in Houston, her dark skin makes her look more Mexican than her mother. While Estrella plasters photos of Rob Lowe all over her room and suntans with Crisco in the backyard, Luz dances obsessively to Selena (the original, not Gomez) and sings ranchera ballads with her father till late hours of the night.

Another hallmark of growing up Mexican-American is, unfortunately, not seeing many of these experiences reflected in the larger culture around you. Last December, The New York Times noted that despite comprising almost 25 per cent of the United States' public school population, hispanic students rarely see themselves reflected in the books made available to them. One report found that of 3,600 U.S. children's books published and surveyed in 2012, about 1.5 per cent of titles were about Latino people. Public schools in Tucson may now be able to limit the teaching of such books under recently instated Arizona laws meant, apparently, to prevent ethnic studies courses from teaching racial resentment – something that might otherwise be called critical race theory.

This is a particular shame when it comes to teen fiction. Plenty of what does exist features smart, challenging characters who deal with coming-of-age story lines largely without the pop appeal of wizardry or werewolves as a metaphor for puberty. One of the first, The House on Mango Street , was published in 1984 and followed a young woman's poetic musings on how being female in a Latino Chicago neighbourhood could often get you stuck in housework, in marriage, in motherhood, and other gender-role throwbacks of a marginalized community with strict traditions. By the 2000s, the narratives had shifted somewhat. There was Nancy Farmer's dystopian The House of the Scorpion , particularly notable for starring Mexican teens in a science fiction, and Matt de la Peña's Mexican WhiteBoy , incidentally one of the books affected by Arizona's new laws last year. In 2012, Benjamin Alire Sáenz published Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe , a deeply affecting and award-winning book in which two teenage boys fall swiftly and messily in love.

Against this backdrop, Zambrano's book is at times hard to place. Part Young Adult novel, part telenovela, part short-story collection, some chapters, though beautifully written, seem bit improbable for an 11-year-old. In La Arpa (The Harp), Luz questions the idea of gendered nouns by reflecting on the sky, "as if the moon weren't Romeo one night and Juliet another." There is a lingering sadness in every detail, from the routines she's developed for preparing her father's drinks to her adorably dorky Adidas sneakers that spell out SAMBA on each foot.

The way a spinning coin rattles faster just before it stops, the last few chapters are dealt quickly, no longer just hinting at feelings of dread as Luz finally cracks her silence open and recounts, unsentimentally, the events that have brought her up to this point. Luz is an observant narrator just on the verge of understanding how unfairly brutal her life has been, and her story wouldn't be out of place outside the Y.A. fiction shelves.

Chantal Braganza is a writer and editor living in Toronto.

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