In late March, as the anxiety and uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus steadily grew in households around the state, San Antonian Rafael Gonzales Jr. tried to find the humor in things.
Gonzales, whose day job is working as a lab manager at the University of the Incarnate Word, is a self-taught graphic artist who designs prints that typically revolve around his Mexican American heritage. On March 24, he kicked off an ongoing project to design a collection of “pandemic lotería” images featuring familiar items that have recently become the norm—such as masks and swab tests—for cards that will also be familiar to anyone who’s played the traditional bingo-esque game. “I started watching the news a lot, and I sort of needed a distraction from how heavy everything was getting,” he says. That’s how he came up with the first card of his deck, “La CabRONA” (a play on the Spanish insult).
In his hometown of San Antonio, Gonzales grew up around the game. But it wasn’t until he married his wife, he says, that it became a fixture in his life. For every birthday and holiday, and on most Saturdays, her family would get together to play lotería. “I think for a lot of people lotería means, first and foremost, family,” he says. “I think there’s a level of comfort from that. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. There are things that we can focus on that can be nondestructive ways to get our minds off of what we’re going through now.”
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A lotería deck typically includes 54 different cards that depict characters like “El Musico” (“The Musician”) and “La Dama” (“The Lady”), and objects like “El Paragua” (“The Umbrella”) and “La Sandia” (“The Watermelon”). But Gonzales has updated these classic cards to capture the world of the pandemic. “La Mano” (“The Hand”) is now holding a bar of soap, and a new card named “El Trabajo” (“Work”) displays a laptop open to a Zoom meeting. His favorite card is a take on “La Sirena,” which typically features a mermaid; in this version, it’s a can of fresh tuna. “I like relating to Hispanic culture and the things I grew up with, so you’ll see those themes in what I do,” he says.
For each card, Gonzales tries to brainstorm a different buzzword that has cropped up in response to the virus and then turn it into something that would be recognizable in lotería. The “El Cazo” card, typically depicted as a bowl or saucepan, stumped him at first. Finally, he landed on turning it into a margarita, naming the card “La Coping Mechanism.”
In another card, “El Corazón” (“The Heart”), Gonzales wanted to highlight his city’s Folklores Coffee House, a South Side shop that, despite shuttering its storefront, has been delivering hundreds of meals to elderly locals. “I love what they’re doing here in town,” he said. “I just thought they were a major representation of what San Antonio is about: helping others, even though they’re facing their own issues.”
Though Gonzales initially started the project as a creative distraction, the outpouring of support from people online has prompted him to print out his cards and make the game a reality. Gonzales is already offering shirts that feature his lotería prints, but a full deck and game boards are on the way soon. “My whole goal is to just bring a smile to people’s faces, especially when we’re going through all this heavy stuff,” he says. “I don’t want to make light of this situation either. People understandably have fears about it and worry about people dying from this. But we’re all going through this collectively, and if I can just bring a little bit of light to people, then I’ve achieved what I wanted to.”