Less than a month after San Antonio artist Rafael Gonzales Jr. started selling his Pandemic Lotería game, a local store picked it up and saw it rocket to the top of its best-selling items.

Gonzales posted his first pandemic-themed lotería card on Instagram at the end of March. Titled “La CabRONA,” the card depicting the coronavirus gives a new meaning to the Spanish insult. He designed more cards for the bingo-like game and started shipping games to customers who ordered directly from him in early May. After that first run, Gonzales said it was too hard to keep up. He and his wife were sorting cards, packaging the game, and shipping to customers all on their own.

“We sold 800 units in two days,” he said. “The initial run was only supposed to be 1,000. I had to cap off that preorder around 850, and we stopped there.”

To get help, Gonzales turned to Ginger Diaz, owner of the arts and gifts store Feliz Modern, whom he knew from a prior collaboration when he and his wife ran a pop-up hot chocolate shop out of the store. He told Diaz he had about 150 lotería games left and asked her if she’d like to sell them in her store. 

“She sold them out in like two hours,” he said.

Now, Feliz Modern is restocking the full game for customers for the fourth time, Diaz said. With locations in Olmos Park and the Pearl, the store is currently open by appointment only.

Between Wednesday and Thursday, Feliz Modern sold nearly 500 units of the game, she said. Previously, the store’s best-selling item was a cloth face mask featuring comic-book-style censorship symbols. Now, the Pandemic Lotería has outsold it twice over, she said. Feliz Modern has sold 600 of those masks, and 1,300 of the Pandemic Lotería.

She thinks the demand comes not only from the topical nature of the game, but for the ease of bringing people together to play it.

“It’s just like, ‘My aunt/my uncle/my cousin will love this,’” Diaz said. “It’s who they’re buying it for and who they want to play it with. It’s about connection. Anyone can play it at any age, and you can play it remotely or together.”

Gonzales was stunned by the demand for his project. He started designing pandemic-themed lotería cards as a creative outlet, he said.

“I was watching the news more, going through that shared experience of gathering all that information, and getting used to our new normal,” he said.

The Pandemic Lotería features 37 cards putting a spin on the traditional game. Cards include “El Fauci” with Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; “La Coping Mechanism,” featuring an image of a cocktail; and “La Sirena,” one of Gonzales’s favorites. The card shows a can of tuna, a nod to people stocking up on groceries to prepare for the pandemic. The traditional lotería card for “La Sirena” features a mermaid.

“The imagery there is funny to me and it’s representative of my humor and what I was trying to portray with this project,” Gonzales said.

Rafael Gonzales Jr. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Though Gonzales didn’t grow up playing lotería, the project feels more personal when thinking of his wife’s family, he said.

“She comes from a family of, like, five aunts and an uncle,” he said. “They have all gotten together every Saturday since I’ve known them at every family function and play a game of lotería.”

The project also brought together local makers during the coronavirus pandemic, Gonzales said. He worked with Pride Printing SA to manufacture the lotería cards and tablas, the board that players use to mark image matches as they are called out during the game. He felt it was important to partner with a small local business for his project, Gonzales said.

“Initially when we were just going back and forth and getting everything print-ready, [Pride Printing SA owner Mike Martinez] was so excited about the project and loved what I was doing. … Mike took it personally, and I know his team has worked really hard to get it all done,” he said. “I feel like this lotería project, in general, is rooted in community.”

A San Antonio native, Gonzales has degrees in biology and religious studies, but never formally studied art, he said. He spent the past few years teaching himself graphic design. His father instilled an appreciation for art early in his life, Gonzales said.

“My dad drew a lot,” Gonzales said. “He liked painting things. Even though he never stepped foot in our church, he would be responsible for the sets for Christmas plays and that sort of thing. He was always painting things and doing projects.”

Even though his Pandemic Lotería took off, Gonzales said he doesn’t anticipate taking his art full time. He likes his job at the University of Incarnate Word, where he works as the compliance officer and lab manager for the pharmacy school. But he has been able to give more time to graphic design with other side projects after the lotería’s success.

“That’s been nice, too, to do other graphic design work,” he said. “I would really like to have more of those opportunities, away from the university. But, yeah, in my near future I don’t see myself devoted full time to this.”

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.