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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.
So, in writing a memoir, I was starting to piece things together that, as a child, I didn’t realize. But now, as an adult looking back, little things were starting to mean more than what they did when I was a kid. Like a door being locked before you went to bed. As a kid, I thought that was strange, but looking back on it, having that flash, I think those little things started to scare me. I don’t think I was emotionally ready to look into it.
Did your family know what the story was going to be about?
Um, yes. More or less. I told them it was about a family and their two daughters and they come to south Texas and there’s an abusive father figure. One thing leads to another and there’s a tragedy. When the book came out, they read it, and they did see some similarities. But it gets tricky because they never hit me—we never hit each other. So, I imagined what it could have been like for a different family, and turned it inside out and that was the story of los Castillos in the book. So, I had to give [them] a little bit of an explanation, like, this doesn’t mean that emotionally this is a metaphor for what it felt like growing up or anything.
In certain Mexican-American families, like you said, it’s hard to talk about difficult issues, especially abuse, and instead there's a tendency to concentrate on the happier times. Did yours ever ask you why you're writing about such heavy topics?
It’s funny because, even up to this point, the things that they are uncomfortable talking about, they won’t bring up. Even the questions that the book raises, they won’t mention it. They will concentrate more on, like, “Oh, my God, we’re so proud of you! You published a book, that’s so fantastic! The Lotería is so much fun and we used to play.” And I am very happy that they are proud of me, but at the same time, I question, like, “Did you even read the book?” Like, there are other things within the book that we can talk about. It doesn’t have to be really heavy. It’s OK to be serious sometimes. I guess they are uncomfortable. I mean, I left home when I was 16 and would come visit two weeks at a time, so perhaps they don’t feel close enough. So the time I do have with them, they want to keep it light and easy.
But even besides that, these issues are hard to bring up. I know some families that are able to do it, but it always takes that courageous brother or sister or aunt to put their foot down and open their mouth and say what needs to be said. It’s such a relief when it’s out in the air.
I was happy to hear you liked the book in the beginning of our phone call, because there are some people that think this story could be untrue, and they think I am using the game of Lotería and Mexican culture as a vehicle, like a literary tour of our culture. Everyone has the prerogative to their own opinion, of course, but it’s sad to know that it doesn’t ring true to other Mexican-Americans and that saddens me—but what can you do?
Despite those negative responses, you have received a tremendous amount of positive feedback. As a writer, how does it make you feel knowing there are people who love this book so much?
I was nervous about it, and I don’t know why, because I am Mexican-American and I do come from that upbringing, so why am I afraid of not getting the right pitch or the right tone if that is who I am?
When I was in grad school and I was workshopping the book, no one was Mexican-American—not that they have to be, but I didn’t know how they would react like, ‘You’re not the real thing, you’re just pretending.’ But what is interesting is that I am getting both responses from that community.
When did you realize you had a special book on your hands?
Honestly, I really didn’t think this was going to be my first book that would get published. I was just writing. After my dancing, the cards were a way to create a little scene or a vignette. It was a writing exercise, especially during the memoir stage. And then, when I left the memoir stage, I created this fictional character named Luz and she had a story. At The New School, my thesis was about the first 21 cards, and my advisor said to me, “This is really good. You should use this for your MFA program application.” So, when the [Iowa] Writers' Workshop accepted it, and they gave me a full scholarship, I was like, “What? I’m in a writers' workshop? How is that possible? She’s 11 years old! I don’t get it.”
So, after that phone call, from February until July I didn’t write a word because I was freaked out by it. I read my manuscript like 70 times, and I didn’t get it; it was so simple. I mean, it’s engaging, it’s about a wounded girl. But at the same time, it was simple, with simple language. But the response from the workshop was really supportive, and they were really great, so that encouraged me to take it to the next level.
Mario Alberto Zambrano reads from Lotería on Saturday, September 28, at 7, Hullabaloo Books, 771A Franklin Avenue, Brooklyn, 917-499-3244, free