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Listen to Mario Alberto Zambrano on NPR.

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Listen to Mario Alberto Zambrano read an excerpt from Lotería.

EL ARPA

They used to pinch me when I’d say something wrong. Not a bad word, not a maldición. Just a word that came before another, one that turned something into either a woman or a man. La something or El something. As if the moon weren’t Romeo one night and Juliet another.

They’d pinch me if I called something a boy instead of a girl, or the other way around. Why is it La mano instead of El mano? I can think of Papi’s hands and think they’re masculine, then think of Mom’s and think they’re feminine. If we were talking about the hands of a clock it could go either way. The hands of a clock could be bi.

Once I asked Estrella what a bisexual was and she glared at me like if I’d asked her if she’d ever kissed a boy. “Where did you hear about bisexuals?”she asked. “Where did you?” I asked. “From Angelica, she told me Luis Miguel is bisexual. That he spends time with women in front of cameras but at night in hotel rooms he spends time with hombres.” “What!” “Yeah,” she said. “He’s gay!”

“But you just said he’s bisexual.”

Why isn’t a harp female? I’ve only seen the one in Lotería. Every time we play on Sundays at Buelita Fe’s house they give me a chance to deal, and so when it comes I throw it down on the table and call it out with confidence, “¡La Arpa!” But Estrella laughs at me, and then everyone else does too.

“Why is everyone laughing?”

Papi says to me, as if he’s my guidance counselor, “El arpa, mija. Not La arpa.”

“How are you supposed to know?” I ask them.

They say the same thing all the time, that if a word ends in ‘a’ it’s probably a feminine word. And if it ends in anything else it’s masculine. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes a word that ends in ‘a’ is masculine, and other times, it’s feminine. How am I supposed to know what is woman and what is man simply by the arrangement of letters? It’s like at school when they teach you the rules of how to speak, then later teach you how to break those rules. Like you can’t say, Look what the cat drug in. You say, Look what the cat dragged in. Stupid verbs, stupid rules. But the point you’re trying to make is there, right there in front of you as you stand and stare at it. Pointing. La luna. El luna.

The moon!