The Mexican game of lotería—imagine bingo but with richly illustrated characters and riddles instead of decidedly nonmagical numbers and letters—features a universe of memorable personae, from the buxom La Sirena to the immaculately tailored and monocled El Catrin. It’s a game that reveals much about the Mexican worldview: What might it say, for example, that it features images for death, a skull, a heart (pierced by an arrow), a cactus and a crown, among many telling others? Mario Alberto Zambrano, former ballet dancer–turned-author of the debut novel Lotería, not only explores new and unexpected interpretations of these figures and their value in the Mexican imagination in his debut novel, but he uses 53 of all 54 of the game’s imagistic cards as a structural framework for crafting a poignant tale of a girl coming of age between two cultures in the wake of a scarring family tragedy.

“I grew up playing lotería with my family,” Zambrano says. “I always thought they were like tarot cards. I’d sit down and give a reading—to no one, just to myself— because I thought they meant more than their face value. I wanted them to mean something else.”

The fascination with the characters in the deck persisted into adulthood for Zambrano. As he recounts, he was once moved to glue a series of tablas (large playing boards) onto a dining room table and varnish it. Staring at the glossy array of heroes and iconic figures, he knew he had the beginnings of an idea.

“There’s a story here,” he thought to himself. “And so I started working.”

Originally conceived as a memoir with a temporal frame loosely modeled after Mrs. Dalloway, the work eventually evolved into a punchy novel written in the voice of Luz Maria Castillo, an 11-year-old girl who is a ward of the state. Refusing to speak to her caretakers, spending her time writing in a journal and using the lotería cards as prompts, she narrates the events that led to her family’s dissolution and her uncertain future: the close relationship she has with her sister, Estrella, the terrifying seesaw of physical abuse and pure love she receives from her father, and the mysterious wanderings of her mother.

While the narrative builds toward a heart-rending climax, the most satisfying element of the novel is the protagonist’s voice. At once defensive, highly intelligent, skeptical and rebellious, the character of Luz, while attempting to navigate the difficulties of her circumstances, also represents the negotiations that many Mexican-Americans—Zambrano included—manage in the difficult place between two cultures.    

“I share an identity crisis with these girls,” Zambrano says of Luz and Estrella. He mentions that, like the protagonist, he also struggled with what it meant to be Mexican when he was a child. “I didn’t want to be Mexican growing up in Texas at that time,” he acknowledges. “I was someone who would not speak Spanish to my family.”   

At the age of 11 (the same age as Luz in the novel), Zambrano did something to escape the confusion and difficulties of his identity—he started dancing. Though he began studying jazz, ballet, baton and tap dancing in what he calls a “rinky-dinky studio where you go once a week,” he was soon dancing every day. “The dancing made me feel like it was a place where I could be myself.” By the time he graduated from high school, he had been accepted into Chicago’s Hubbard Street Dance company. Soon thereafter, he found himself looking toward a more European dance aesthetic. At the age of 19, he moved to the Netherlands and launched a dance career that spanned a decade and included successful stints in companies throughout Europe. During those years, the thought of writing a novel never occurred to Zambrano. Though he would eventually end up with an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, literature still felt like a world unavailable to him.

“I didn’t even read as a kid. There were those prissy ballerinas at the Houston Ballet Academy who were reading Orlando by Virginia Woolf. It felt like Versace or Gucci, this brand that I didn’t have access to,” he laughs.

A decade’s worth of dancing professionally, though, combined with the alienation of living abroad at such a young age, led to a profound sense of Loteria exhaustion and depression for Zambrano. He began to feel “wounded” by the sense that his love for dance was dissipating. Even now, he struggles to find the right words to describe that loss, as one does when discussing divorce, for example, or the death of a loved one.

“I loved it so much. This is a thing that loved me back in a way that took me out of a hometown where I felt like I had nothing and no one to connect with.…It gave me everything I asked for,” he explains. “Yet that love affair fell apart. It was a devastating realization to find out I didn’t love it anymore. I was completely destroyed.”

Though Zambrano turned to writing after deciding he had to “start at the beginning” after his dance career ended, it is evident that dance has shaped his novel. He professes a love for work and discipline that stems from his time as a dancer, and there is also his stylistic awareness that comes from dance. He speaks lovingly of the form and structure of literature as if it were physical, as if it were the body of a dancer itself, describing the works of his favorite authors (again, Virginia Woolf comes up) as “sculptures.” Finally, the time he spent abroad also gave him a love of Mexican culture that he had never known while growing up in Texas.

“There aren’t enough voices representing Mexican culture or the diaspora of people in America, the Mexican community living in America,” he says.

The success of Zambrano’s work, then, is not just that it adds to the voice of the Mexican-American culture, but that it reinterprets and augments even its most familiar tropes. Curiously, there is no dancer in the deck of lotería cards, and there is no writer either—yet. But somehow there is still so much of Zambrano, and of Luz Maria Castillo and of Mexican culture in general, in each intriguing card.

David Garza’s favorite lotería card is La Garza. He lives in New York City.