El Soldado: an Excerpt from LOTERIA

loteria a novel

This weekend we have an excerpt from Mario Alberto Zambrano’s fantastic debut novel, Lotería. Lotería is a Mexican version of bingo featuring bright, colorful images. Using the Lotería cards as her muse, Luz picks one card from the deck with each shuffle. Each of the cards’ colorful images—mermaids, bottles, spiders, death, and stars—sparks a random memory. Pieced together, these snapshots bring into focus the joy and pain of the young girl’s life, and the events that led to her present situation. But just as the story becomes clear, a breathtaking twist changes everything. A surprising, spellbinding tale richly imaginative and atmospheric, Lotería is an exquisite debut novel from an outstanding new voice in fiction.



elsoldadoWhen she disappeared Papi didn’t eat for weeks. We’d find him holding photographs of her in one hand and a lighter in the other, flicking it on and off, thinking of whether or not to burn her face off. Sometimes he did because we found photos in the family album where there was a burnt circle over a woman with a blue dress on. But I never heard him say he wanted to burn her face off. He just didn’t want to see her face.

The clothes Mom left behind were there to remind us, because who knew if she was coming back. Papi held the lighter but it wasn’t like he didn’t miss her, wasn’t like he wasn’t trying to figure out where she ran off to. Estrella and I thought about where she went, and whenever we’d mention it to Papi he’d tell us to shut up.

That’s when Estrella started having ideas. She thought maybe they got into a fight and this time it was so bad that something happened. “But why would he burn her face off?” I said. “He wouldn’t do that unless she hurt him too.”

And why would he want to forget her? He burned her face, but then held her photograph. Even though he didn’t want us talking about her, I saw him holding it, flicking the lighter on and off. And maybe it was because she said something or did something. She told him she was leaving and he hit her. But then what about us? Why would she leave? She could’ve come to us in the middle of the night and whispered, “Get in the car! Come on.” And maybe I would’ve said no. Maybe Estrella would’ve said yes.

A few weeks after Mom was gone, it was a Sunday and Papi was still sleeping and we tried to make noise in the kitchen. Estrella washed the dishes while I opened and closed cabinets. When he came out of his bedroom he didn’t even notice we were standing there. We could’ve been monkeys and it wouldn’t have mattered. We asked him if he wanted some eggs.

I was putting the dishes away and put the bowls on the wrong shelf. Estrella said I wasn’t putting them where they belong. Mom would never put them there. Then he snapped, “¡Cállanse!” and went back to his room.


Mom didn’t take much with her. Before Papi had a chance to throw everything away Estrella and I took some stuff and hid it in our room under our beds. Most of it clothes. Only one suitcase was missing from the garage and we figured she had packed as much as she could. No photos, no knick-knacks, not even all her shoes. Just whatever she could pack into one suitcase.

There was a T-shirt she used to wear to go to bed, baby blue cotton. Estrella brought it into our room, and I was shocked she hadn’t taken it. I thought it was something she’d want. It was too big for me, but I put it on and liked the way it felt against my skin. Estrella and I would take turns wearing it, but we were afraid the smell would disappear if we wore it for too long.

Estrella was at Angelica’s house when Papi caught me in my room wearing it. It wasn’t a school day. I remember sunlight coming in and Papi looking tanned against it, standing at the doorway with his boxers on. He had a mustache. He’d grown one after Mom had left, and on that day, it looked real pokey like a scrub.

¿Y eso?” he said. He scared me, because I didn’t see him standing there. Mom’s T-shirt would blow up around my hips if I spun around, and so I was spinning and humming a song. His arm was against the wall and his armpit was black.

“Answer me,” he said.

weekend fictionI figured he wanted me to take it off and then burn it or something. His feet came closer, so close I could smell him. He smelled like an unmade bed. “Damelo,” he said, and his voice hit the top of my head. But I didn’t move, and I wasn’t going to give it to him.

Dame,” he said, then hit me like if I didn’t hear him. I lifted my arms, and after he pulled it off, I felt naked underneath. I saw him smelling it. “What are you going to do with it?” I said. But he didn’t say anything.

I stood there in the middle of the room staring at the carpet with my fingers hooked in front of me.

Oye,” he said, and I looked up. “What?” I said.

No dices what,” he said.

¿Mande?” I said.

¿Mande, what?”

¿Mande, Papi?

I was wearing nothing but underwear and I was already ten. But all I could think of was how much I wanted him to understand what I was feeling. I lifted my head and  stood there as strong as I could because I wanted him to know that even though he missed the way she smelled, and the way she was, and the way she looked, he was taking her from me. I stared at him hard in the eyes and the light in the room was all gold and I didn’t have a shirt on and my hair was all pelos parados. I tried my hardest to say how I felt with my eyes. And maybe. Maybe You came through me. Maybe You spoke in a way my voice couldn’t, because then, it was like he saw something in the way I was looking at him, and he threw it back, in a gentle kind of way, and it landed over my face.


–photo credit (top photo) Flickr/meretsoleil2

–photo credit (middle photo) Flickr/Andreanna Moya Photography

About Mario Alberto Zambrano

Mario Alberto Zambrano was a Riggio Honors Fellow at the New School and recently completed his MFA at the Iowa Writers' Workshop as an Iowa Arts Fellow. He is a recipient of the John C. Schupes Fellowship for Excellence in Fiction. Lotería is his first novel.


  1. This is an amazing book. Such an engaging story. Thank you for sharing it with us.

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