Many of us are familiar with the Mexican bingo-style game Lotería, whether we played it at home with our families, at day-care with our childhood friends, or with classmates to learn basic Spanish vocabulary. Recently, fourth-year art major Alyssa Guerra Brown took the brightly colored illustrations that inspire so many fond childhood memories and gave them an entirely different meaning in her exhibition at , “La Lotería.”
The exhibition, which Brown had been doing research for since last fall, featured watercolor prints, photographs, and an installation of dozens of austerely beautiful black and white renditions of Lotería’s 54-card deck.
During an initial glance, the colorful prints and photographs in the first room were inviting and attractive. But immediately, it was made clear that these were more than pretty pictures. A sign inside the room stated that “La Lotería is a game of chance … You choose to play but there is no guarantee that you will win,” establishing a metaphor between the card game and an immigrant’s struggle to get across the border from Mexico to the United States.
This metaphor was the central theme to Brown’s work, which was largely informed by a trip she took to Tijuana in 2006 to build homes and provide meals to deported immigrants. At the time, Brown did not realize she may be using these in a gallery setting one day; she only knew she was documenting something she “never wanted to forget.” The images found a place in the show, giving viewers a perspective they have likely never had, and thus satisfying one of Brown’s goals.
“I wanted them to experience — even for just a moment — what it feels like to be an immigrant looking through the cracks of these huge sheets of metal,” Brown said. “ … What it is like dreaming of the day when they are on the other side.”
The second room of the gallery space was much different from the first. Only a few prints with watercolor were displayed, and so the focus turned to the huge wall of bold black prints of Lotería cards on white paper and a pedestal of the carved linoleum blocks that made the prints in the center of the room.
The installation, as well as the black and brown chipboard prints on the adjacent walls, was just as engaging as the work in the first room. It was easy to be drawn into. I moved back and forth near the wall for what felt like a very long time, trying to take in every small, repeated detail, remembering my own fond personal memories of playing the children’s game.
However, after enough time spent with the piece, I could not help but begin to feel uneasy.
The awe-inspiring number of skillfully carved and printed images seduced me into a place where I could not think anything except for how appreciative I was of this as a piece of art. I forgot the prevalent message associated with the work. Then just like that, it snapped back at me.
Brown did not merely replicate Lotería’s cards, but also made four of her own, tucked away inside the beautiful wall of prints. “La Ilusión/The Illusion”: a social security card with the name “GUERRA” written across it. “El Rio/The River”: the immigration crossing sign found at the All-American Canal or El Rio Grande. “La Bestia/The Beast”: a fast-moving freight train. “Los Olvidados/The Forgotten”: a border of skulls, complete with security cameras.
As I got closer and closer to the work, the more I noticed and the more uncomfortable I became; therein Brown’s work achieved success, truly realizing the artist’s goals of drawing her audience’s attention to an issue that is very close to her. “La Ilusión,” in particular, held special meaning for Brown.
“My grandfather bought someone else’s identity so that he could give his family a better life,” Brown said about the card, whose number is comprised of her and her grandfather’s birthdays combined. “I only talk about this openly now because my grandfather has passed away. By telling his story, I feel that he is still with me, every day.”
Brown, who grew up in Sacramento, said that she initially studied ceramics before transferring to UCSB, but that she fell in love with printmaking — especially the carving aspect of the work. Her 58 six-by-four-inch blocks were proudly displayed on their own under a scattering of pinto beans, a marker traditionally used when playing Lotería. Though Brown was happy with the end result of the blocks, she said it was difficult to keep going with the project at times.
“When I got to carving block 20, I was totally stressed out,” Brown said. “My hands were swollen and I had cut myself with my carving tool multiple times because I was carving without a bench hook, but I stuck it out.”
Brown added that she had had plenty of support from her family, who drove the seven hours to see the show, and also from her boyfriend, who encouraged her and made “the many cups of coffee” she needed to finish.
“I was contemplating not even doing the whole traditional deck of images,” Brown said. “But I knew my project would have more of an impact with all of the images than just a select few.”
Overall, Brown’s efforts have been a success. Not only did she create a complete exhibit with these gorgeously and painstakingly rendered cards, but she also subverted the light-heartedness of the original Lotería in an effective and eerie way. Brown’s show, “La Lotería” will certainly remain imprinted in both my artistic and my social consciousnesses.
“I hope I gave a voice to the immigrants that have been silenced,” Brown said. “There is no guarantee in life, but we all can strive for a better life.”
Brown will continue to strive in the arts as a soon-to-be graduate. Anyone interested in finding out more about “La Lotería,” or any of Brown’s other projects, can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.