Mexican-American girl plays the cards she’s dealt in ‘Loteria’

Esta novela nueva me rompió el corazón un poco.

If you don’t understand this or have to look it up online (as I did, to write it), you’ve just experienced a taste of what many Latino families face every day in the United States — even their children, who may speak only English.

Translation: This new novel broke my heart a little.

In “Lotería,” Mario Alberto Zambrano’s richly imagined, wrenching debut, an 11-year-old Mexican-American girl ends up in custody of the state after a family tragedy that has left her sister hospitalized and her father in jail.

Left alone in a room with nothing but a journal and a deck of lotería cards, Luz Maria Castillo, confronts her past in an attempt to clear her father of charges.

Lotería, also known as Mexican bingo, is a game of chance, played with 54 colorful face cards, each of which poses a riddle. Luz’s past, too, presents a series of riddles, questions she tries to answer and mysteries difficult to solve: Why did her mother leave a year ago and where is she now? Why was her father so mad at Luz for what she and her cousin did together? What is “that feeling when your body is not even yours anymore?”

One by one, the cards — La Sirena (the mermaid), El Diablito (the Devil), El Corazon (the heart), La Estrella (the star) — trigger Luz’s memories, giving way to brief vignettes that eventually piece together her story.

To open up about her private life is something Luz has never done, has been forbidden to do, so the journal she keeps is addressed to God. “What I write is for you and me and no one else,” she says. Questioned by a sympathetic counselor, Luz is sure the woman sees her family’s misfortune as “one of those stories you hear about on the ten o’clock news. Like one of those women who leave their kids in the car with the windows rolled up while they go grocery shopping.”

Behind Luz’s tough and mouthy facade is a child attempting to understand what’s happened to her through careful observation of the unequal world she inhabits. Like her Papi, Luz is dark skinned, and it confuses her to see her mother and sister both using their lighter skin to their advantage. She weathers her father’s frustrations with a job where he cannot move up — “maybe it was his English” says her mother — and senses his jealousy when her mother finds work in the household of a white doctor.

Born in the U.S., Luz’s ignorance of her family’s native tongue earns their scorn, though her down-to-earth English often takes flight: “They used to pinch me when I’d say something wrong. Not a bad word either, not a maldición. Just a word that came before another, one that turned something into either a woman or a man. La something or El something. As if the moon weren’t Romeo one night and Juliet another.”

Zambrano sets his novel in Magnolia Park, one of Houston’s oldest Hispanic neighborhoods, and flashes back to Luz’s early childhood in the border city of Reynosa, Mexico.

Between the Spanish dialogue and slang sprinkled liberally throughout the book, and its emphasis on cultural dissonance and family violence in the Latin-American community, “Lotería” shares much in common with recent work by Justin Torres (“We the Animals”) and Junot Diaz (“The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”). Its focus on Mexican-American life evokes the classic coming-of-age novel by Sandra Cisneros, “The House on Mango Street.”

As in “We the Animals,” the Castillos find bridges to sanity in their Mexican heritage; they sing along to rancheros (country music) and performer Rocio Durcal; they create “a second family” out of Mexican friends and fellow churchgoers; they play lotería and win big every week after church. Sadly, none of this goes very far to further their chances in America, where the deck is stacked against them.

Luz doesn’t trust those in charge not to use what she says or writes in her diary against her, well aware that her family’s history of domestic violence is inextricable from her father’s plight. Because, in another parallel with Torres’ novel (there are several), no one is exempt from the beatings at home.

“We all fought,” Luz writes. “We all hit each other. Papi punched because he was a man, but we hit him too.” Love and cruelty go hand-in-hand in their house, and some of the book’s most affecting scenes illustrate the collapse of the division between them. Sexual abuse adds to Luz’s shame and secrecy.

El Gallo, the rooster, the one card missing from Luz’s deck, is described as a Mexican scrapper whose only talent is to “scream loud and fight.” But his absence foretells her story’s end: Luz must find her voice before she can answer the riddle of who she is and where she belongs.

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