In October, 1947, Jack Kerouac met a pretty, young Mexican woman named Bea Franco on a bus going from Bakersfield to Los Angeles. She was fleeing an abusive husband; he was gathering notes for what would become On The Road, the defining book of the Beat Generation. For fifteen days, they stuck together, from the streets of East Los Angeles to the cotton and grape fields of California’s Central Valley. In his story, Kerouac devoted twenty-one pages to the affair.
Years later, still unable to find a publisher, Kerouac pitched his chapter about his adventures with Bea as a short story entitled “The Mexican Girl.” It appeared in the Winter, 1955 issue of The Paris Review. Soon after, On the Road was published, and Kerouac achieved overnight fame.
Lotería is a Mexican card game that is played like bingo but with images instead of numbers. It is also the title of Mario Alberto Zambrano’s first novel about a traumatized child and her family, whose lives on this side of the border go disastrously wrong.
Zambrano uses lotería cards as a device to tell his story. Narrated by 11-year-old Luz Maria Castillo, the story is divided into 54 short vignettes, each beginning with a full-color picture of a lotería card. It is a gorgeous and expensive-looking book. (Applause for artist Jarrod Taylor here.)
A brief primer: The cards are printed with simple images: The Rose, The Drunk, The Mermaid, The Sun, etc. Each image has a corresponding dicho, or saying, but the dealer often improvises these sayings with inside jokes. Once the dealer calls out the saying or joke associated with the card, the players look for the image on their own tabla, or board. The first player to mark off a line of images wins. Lotería is good family fun. But in Zambrano’s Lotería, the Castillo family holds the worst hand ever. Poverty, border economics, and dysfunction tear them apart and rob them of hope.
If you stand in front of the Kentucky Club bar in Ciudad Juárez and look four blocks north, you see the U.S. and Mexican flags flapping on top of the Santa Fe Bridge to El Paso. Families with roots on both sides of the border once passed fluidly back and forth over that bridge to visit cousins, go to school, grab lunch, get a tooth pulled, or for a night on the town.
The drug wars and immigration crackdowns have radically curtailed that flow, though it’s still possible, albeit scarier, for Americans to pop into the Kentucky Club on the Mexican side for a drink and sit on the same barstools where Al Capone, Elizabeth Taylor, and Marilyn Monroe once perched.
Review: Everything Begins & Ends at the Kentucky Club
The high stone wall guarding Gabriel García Márquez’s vacation house in the hills of Cuernavaca, Mexico was a foot thick and topped with broken glass. Bougainvillea spilled over the top and formed a magenta canopy over the wall’s wooden door.