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Life and la loteria

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"Yo quiero jugar el Life," shouted Renatito, as we sat down to play a game one morning early last year. It was Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. I had the day off, my boyfriend Oswaldo didn't have to go in until 3 o'clock, and Renatito's papi had left him in our care since it was a school holiday.

Oswaldo and Renatito had never played my favorite childhood game since Milton Bradley's "The Game of Life" hadn't made it into their Mexican homes. But, they sure caught on quickly. Oswaldo was the banker and Renatito, the car dealer, trying to convince us which car was best for whom. We made our selection, placed our respective pink and blue pegs in the cars, and gave the wheel a spin. As the cars made their way 'round the loopy board, we became an underpaid journalist, doctor and teacher. Renatito couldn't believe he was going to earn $25,000 as a doctor (medico) on payday.

As we took turns getting married and putting baby pegs in our back seats, I couldn't help but notice that things hadn't turned out for me as I'd thought they would since the last time I played this game. I was getting close to my 30th birthday, playing the Game of Life in Spanglish, in my hometown, with my boyfriend of three years and someone else's child. I was happy--don't get me wrong--just not playing the game the way I had imagined. I'm sure that Oswaldo and Renatito never thought that they'd be playing the Game of Life on the carpet of a townhouse in Carrboro, N.C., USA--the boyfriend of a gringa and the new Mexican kid at school. Who would have guessed? We were having the time of our lives!

When the two of them were stuck on an unknown word and called me back to reality, I had to inform poor Renatito that his uncle had left him a SKUNK farm and he had to pay $10,000 to get rid of it. Renatito squealed with laughter, "That's not what I thought 'Skunk' was!" Shortly thereafter things looked up, as Oswaldo struck it rich, winning $150,000 on his Lucky Day bet. Fortunately for us, he shared the wealth and increased all of our chances for retirement in style. When the day of reckoning finally came, we all made it to the big house, and decided to put the Game of Life aside and go for ...

"!La loteria!" screamed Renatito.

The tables were turned when Oswaldo brought out the famous Mexican "bingo-style" lottery game that he bought me for my birthday last year. Instead of numbers, la loter'a has illustrated pictures of varied objects, people, and animals. Everything from el corazn (heart) and el nopal (cactus) to el alacrn (the scorpion) and el diablo (the devil). As Renatito flipped through the deck of cards and read them aloud, he talked of how his grandma played this game with him in Mexico and Oswaldo echoed memories of playing with his mom as a young child. They said it was just like bingo, popular with all ages, with big betting often accompanying a good round. But this time we played with pennies, not pesos.

Renatito sang out the cards with pride: "El Soldado." "La Bandera." "I've got that one," he'd say in Spanish. Soon after, when Renatito, the masterful dealer that he was, mysteriously got "la loteria" and did his victory dance, Oswaldo and I just cheered him on. "Re-na-ti-to! Re-na-ti-to!" He was beaming. Not only did he retire a millionaire, but he'd won the lottery to boot.

For a moment, I felt like I was in an episode of a modern-day, bicultural, bilingual Wonder Years--Los Anos Maravillosos--with the adult voiceover reflecting on those special moments in one's unplanned life. It was a special day. A good use of an MLK holiday, that's for sure. A day when "Having twins and collecting presents" was no match for el nopal y el corazn. A day when I was glad that our lives had taken different paths than we had imagined. A day when I just enjoyed sitting on the carpet with my hombre Oswaldo, and our amigo, Renatito, playing a little bit of Life and la loteria.

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