Q&A: Mario Alberto Zambrano on Taking the Leap From Dancer to Novelist With Lotería

The game Lotería can best be described as a Mexican version of bingo, but instead of numbers, each card bears a striking image, such as beautiful sea goddess La Sirena or ominous skull La Calavera. In Mario Alberto Zambrano’s debut novel, Lotería, it’s through this treasured game that 11-year-old Luz, who is mute, tells us that her mother has disappeared, her big sister is in the ICU, and her father is in jail. But how these things happened is a puzzle for us to figure out.

Zambrano’s own life story would also make a compelling read. Prior to becoming a novelist, the young Texas native spent 14 years touring as a professional ballet dancer with an international company. It was while attending The New School that Zambrano fell “passionately in love” with fiction writing, and it was there that Lotería was born.

The author, who will be at the recently opened Hullabaloo Books in Crown Heights on Saturday evening, chatted with us about his emotional transition into writing and how his family and Mexican-American upbringing came into play in this incredible first novel.

On the Diane Rehm Show you spoke about leaving home as a teenager to focus on your dance career. You also mentioned that you wanted to escape your heritage. What sparked the interest in your culture later in life?

Soon after I quit [dance], my boyfriend was Spanish, and he was a dancer as well and wanted to be a choreographer. He wanted to move back to Spain, so we moved to Spain. I grew up listening to Spanish, so I knew Spanish but I never practiced it. So, it was rough. In Spain, no one speaks English, so you’re forced to speak Spanish to communicate and get around. The first few years that I was there I had no choice.

It brought on this kind of memory of my Latin roots, but more than anything it was my last name, Zambrano. I started seeing it everywhere in Spain, and I thought, “Are we Spanish? Are my ancestors from Spain?” My mother’s maiden name is Aguirre and that is also a Spanish name. So that got me really interested, and then it all made sense. I am kind of a light-skinned Mexican, but I am a full-blooded Mexican. Growing up, sometimes people would think I was Italian because my name was Mario. I would tell them “No, I am Mexican,” but I didn’t have that Mayan background ... that indigenous color. Not that I didn’t believe I was Mexican, but I didn’t understand where that came from.

When I would ask my parents, they couldn’t really explain. My dad grew up blond, and sometimes, back in Mexico, they would call him blanquito and tease him because he wasn’t dark. So all of that lineage back to Spain sort of made sense to me. So, from way over there, I started listening more to rancheras and began appreciating the authentic Mexican cuisine. And I got into Frida Kahlo. The narrative of religion, whether I am religious or not, as a story to have faith in, and the spiritual guidance is really beautiful.

I immediately became so ashamed that I had rejected it growing up. I think, in response to that shame, I started to embrace it in some way. It was around that time that I started to read a lot and write. It sort of crept into this idea that I was writing about the cards of Lotería, which brings fond memories of playing with my family.

You also said that originally this book was going to be a memoir. When did the shift to fiction happen?

It was more of a personal fear. It was kind of presumptuous to think it would get published, but before any of that, just writing it on my laptop felt like I was guessing a lot about my family's past—that I might be right and I might be wrong. But if I was right, and this was not something they had ever disclosed and were still trying to deal with, or this was something they had repressed, who am I to open up a can of worms through a book without ever speaking to them? I was emotionally afraid of being right about certain things.

In my family, we pretend that everything is OK. We don’t really talk about what is really happening emotionally, not only in the present narrative of our lives, but in the past. With my mother and father, I always have to pull out stories about what it was like in Mexico and what it was like when they moved over here.

My mother’s father made her quit high school so she could work. She got married at 17 just so she could get out of the house. I remember, growing up, going to my grandfather’s house, and they had this whip in the doorway, and they would always warn all of the kids, my cousins and I, like, “Don’t step out of line because your grandfather will hit you with that.” This was a symbol of fear, but we never knew what really happened.

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