These traditional Mexican games bring families together. Here’s how to play them

Traditional activities call for young, old to take a turn and win big while bonding during celebrations|

Read more stories celebrating the local Latino community here.

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It isn’t a holiday for Angie Sanchez unless she and just about every member of her family sit down for a rollicking game of loteria.

The traditional Mexican game is a lot like bingo, only each board, called tablas, displays images from a special deck of cards. Most card sets comprise colorful and whimsical depictions of elaborate and detailed drawings of icons from Mexican culture: a rooster, a watermelon, a mermaid, a soldier, a prickly pear cactus and a skull, to name a few. Each card is like a small painting and each board has thumbnails of 25 of them.

As play unfolds, a caller draws cards from the deck one-by-one. The caller announces each card. When a player has the selected image on their board, they cover the image with a marker like a bean, M&M candy or small rock.

The goal is to cover the card with markers and when you do it, you scream, “Buenas!” loud and proud.

“It’s a game everyone can play together, regardless of how much Spanish or English they speak,” said Sanchez, who grew up in Sonoma Valley and now runs VIDA, a nonprofit supporting Latino arts and culture. “The younger generations know the words, while the older generations maybe didn’t go to school and don’t know the words, but they can still play because they can identify the pictures.”

Loteria is one of several different games to mark celebrations and milestones in the Latino community — both here in Sonoma County and in most Spanish-speaking countries around the world. The others, piñata and a dreidel-like contest dubbed la pirinola or toma todo, are fun and engaging in totally different ways.

All the games bridge generations by incorporating everyone: The youngest kids and the oldest abuelas.

“I don’t think I’ve ever met a Latino person who hasn’t played at least some of these games,” said Sanchez, whose parents are from Michoacán and Mexico City. “They are staples for our culture.”

Treasures inside piñatas

One of the most well-known activities is the piñata, a game that originated in China and has since become a mainstay at Latino celebrations. This is the game that revolves around colorful eponymous totems, each filled with pieces of candy or small toys. To play, kids don a blindfold, get spun around and try to whack the papier-mâché piñata with the handle of a broomstick or bat until it bursts.

At most gatherings, it’s the grownups who engineer the game. One is raising and lowering the piñata by pulling on a rope wrapped around a tree branch or a something elevated with the purpose of avoiding the the piñata from being hit while laughter and close call groans come from those watching. When a new participant comes up, another adult blindfolds the person and spins them around to disorient them, which makes it harder to find and hit the piñata.

As people take turns hitting the piñata, party-goers chant “Dale! Dale!”. This means, “Hit it! Hit it!” and continues until someone bashes the piñata open.

“The piñata is as much a part of birthday parties as birthday cake,” said Tawnie Johnson, a preschool teacher who lives in Windsor.

Johnson said he has gotten her children many different types of piñatas over the years — some in the shapes of rainbows and llamas, others in the shape of cartoon characters.

Locally, many Latino families purchase piñatas at Mexican markets like Lola’s, or at party stores like Party City. Some families also have had success finding custom-made piñatas on artisan-driven websites such as Etsy — vendors such as SendALittleSparkle in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and MexiBrandCo, in Mexico, are popular options.

In Johnson’s family, piñata parties are rollicking affairs and whenever the piñatas break, the kids rush to claim the Mexican candy stuffed inside.

Most of the kids who play are giggling and screaming with delight as they collect their spoils.

La pirinola or toma todo, which translates into “take it all,” is another traditional Latino game that many families like to play on holidays.

Think of this game as Mexican dreidel — the centerpiece is a top with four or five colorful sides. To play, participants sit in a circle and spin the top in the center. Each side has a different command (in Spanish) about what that player should do with the pot: Take two units, put in two units, take everything, or take nothing. When the top stops, the spinner must follow the command that faces up.

Most families play toma todo for beans, rocks or candy while others make it more interesting and play for pennies, nickles, dimes and quarters.

Loteria is an age-less game

While all these games are common in Latino households, no game is more popular than loteria.

Maria Silva Cardiel, who lives in Windsor, said her family plays loteria all the time, both here in Sonoma County and down in her hometown of Chamácuaro, Guanajuato, in Mexico.

Back home, one of the city’s elders set out a small table on the street after dinner and people would come from all over the neighborhood to play loteria. Cardiel noted that on her last visit in 2021, the game was a nightly affair, with people lined up two or three deep to either play the game or see what the oldest players had.

She described the atmosphere on that visit as “electric,” and noted that every night she’d watch in amazement as 12-year-old boys from the neighborhood played against her 80-year-old grandmother.

Cardiel added that most times, her abuela emerged victorious — much to the delight of the crowd.

“The games would attract all sorts of different people,” she remembered. “People would say, ‘Oh, you’re playing loteria, I’ll join you,’ and suddenly we have all the kids from the neighborhood playing with all the grandmothers. It was like a big party. For a lot of the older folks, this is how they socialize.”

Now, when Cardiel sets up loteria in the county she uses a monochromatic set she purchased from Mexico City by artist Alec Dempster. Everyone chips in $3 to play and the winner usually takes a pot of $15 or $18.

When there are multiple generations playing, different rules apply. For instance, some of the older generations don’t use actual names to describe the cards the caller turns over, but instead use their own phrases to describe what’s happening in the associated imagery.

“Instead of saying, for example, el sol, they’ll say something to describe the image, words that suggest it’s the sun instead,” Cardiel said. “I don’t know if it comes from a poetic kind of thing, or if it’s an old-school trick, but I always used to find it interesting how they could come up with different descriptions of specific pictures on each card.”

Like any game, loteria traditions differ by family and culture. Carlos Chavez, a Healdsburg resident who emigrated as a teen from El Salvador, said when his family plays loteria, everyone has a chance to be caller.

Chavez said his family referred to the caller as “cantando las tarjetas”—literally “singing the cards”—and noted that it gave everyone a chance to be “brave and engaged” as they used song to call out the names of each card from the deck.

“It helped kids to recognize the characters and pronunciation,” he said. “Made it fun and educational.”

Games help gather census information

One particular loteria game helped engage the county’s Latino community in an entirely different way: It helped motivate them to participate in the 2020 United States Census.

Sanchez, of VIDA, created this game in conjunction with La Luz Center with support from the Latino Community Foundation. Dubbed “censoteria,” the game included dozens of facts and figures about the U.S. Census, and was designed to debunk myths or fears associated with the local population count.

Instead of revolving around elaborate drawings on a deck of cards, the game comprised easy-to-identify icons that depicted voting, contributing to society and the importance of receiving money for public initiatives. Participants read through facts in each square to play and in turn, every session became a learning experience.

In the months leading up to the 2020 count, local organizations would sponsor census events and play censoteria. Once the group engaged for a while, event coordinators would break out the traditional loteria cards and have some fun.

“I don’t like PowerPoint and I realized that if I was trying to teach something to my parents, they weren’t going to like it either,” Sanchez said. “Thankfully, everyone loves loteria.”

Read more stories celebrating the local Latino community here.

Haz clic aquí para leer la versión en Español.

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