Creative Genius: Q & A with Mike Alfaro

Mike Alfaro Vida Starz Millennial Loteria
Photo Credit IG @HeyGuata

As a disclaimer of sorts, I’m a half-Korean, half-white millennial who was born in Seoul but grew up in the suburban Midwest. I had never heard of Lotería before coming across Millennial Lotería, a classic game updated for Millennial sensibilities by Guatemalan-born, LA-based creative director, writer, and artist Mike Alfaro.

For those of you who are also unfamiliar with Lotería, it is usually described as a sort of “Mexican Bingo,” a comparison that captures some elements of gameplay but doesn’t do justice to the cultural depth and stakes that make Lotería so beloved. I mean, to me, the word “Bingo” suggests a game that is safe, bland, and overwhelmingly wrinkly. Lotería, too, may have many of you recalling spending time with your elders. Not so, with Millennial Lotería: I guess you could say that Alfaro gave the old game a long overdue facelift. His extensive commercial work is also characterized by this keen ability to subvert content with a refreshing, relatable twist.

In a BELatina Q &A sesh, Alfaro gave us his take on Latinidad, creativity, and about what his runaway hit Millennial Lotería means to him.

Kat McCue: I would love to hear what your take is on Lotería and its significance to you personally. 

Mike Alfaro: Lotería to me has always been about bringing people together, regardless of your race or nationality, games are supposed to be enjoyed by everyone. But there aren’t many games that represent Latinx Millennials in the US, so I’m really excited that it’s a game that can increase our visibility. Also, there are many first generation Hispanic-Americans who may have not grown up playing Lotería or speaking Spanish, so this version is a little easier for them to learn and feel connected to their Hispanic heritage. I also wanted it to be a little more racy and funny since it’s intended for Millennials, who are now all over 18 years old. In my mind, it’s almost like the Hispanic answer to Cards Against Humanity

I did a lot of research on the history of Lotería, and was able to trace back its origin to Italy in the 15thcentury when it was called “Lotto.” That’s the common ancestor that Bingo and Lotería share. This lotto game then became popular in Spain, and then came to “New Spain” when colonizers arrived in America. At the time New Spain included parts of California, Mexico, and Central America. There the game started to reflect more images of daily Hispanic life at the time and became more popular with everyday people. That’s where Lotería evolved to include images instead of numbers. 

KM: What does your family think of it?

MA: My family loves it. I have great memories of playing Lotería at “ferias” with my family growing up, but I stopped playing once I got older and video games became more popular. It wasn’t until I recently traveled back home that I found my old Lotería set and realized how outdated some of the representation of Latinos in the game feel.

I feel like as an immigrant in America, I’ve had a lot of interactions with people who still think of Latinos in a very outdated fashion, not very technologically savvy, and not up-to-date with pop culture, but personally, that couldn’t be further from the truth. That’s why I decided to do a parody of Lotería that played with people’s expectations of who Latinos are and represented us in a more modern fashion and felt more relatable in terms of the experiences Latinx Millennials have, weather they are aspirational like La Feminist or even relating to issues that affect the community like El Gentrification or La Student Debt. 

KM: You’ve done a lot of high-profile work as a creative director in L.A., but Millennial Lotería is perhaps the project that has put you on the map in the press, broadly speaking. How are you finding that experience? Are you having the opportunity to control the narrative you want to convey with the game, whether that be fun or relevance or politics or culture?

Millennial Loteria Game

MA: Yeah, this was a very personal project that initially I never intended to get this much attention from. Every card in the game comes from a personal experience in my life, each card has a story behind it, so I was making them to just express myself. Once I put them online and saw the reaction people had and how it went viral so fast, I realized I wasn’t the only one feeling that way. I felt very alone in my experience as an immigrant, but this project has helped me find a community of Millennial Latinos that are going through a lot of the same things.

That’s why this project is so special to me, and to receive so much press from it has been great because I can reach other people who might feel the same way and are wanting more representation. And while the reaction has been very positive, I have had some older people who get mad because they feel Millennials are ruining Lotería. I don’t really worry too much about those people, because at the end of the day I feel like if old people are getting mad, that’s a good indication that young people will love what I’m doing. 

KM: Based on the witty subversion that runs through your ad work and also in a project like Millennial Loteria, I feel like you drove your parents a little crazy as a kid. I could be totally wrong though! How did you discover that a field of work like advertising would be the best way for you to channel your creative energies? Or did you just sort of stumble upon it?

Best Millennial Lotería Mike Alfaro
Photo Credit IG @heyguata

MA: It’s really funny that you think that because I was totally a “good kid” growing up. I was very respectful and always got good grades, never really gave my parents any problems. It wasn’t until I left for college that I think I rebelled more and found more of my identity. I think that’s normal for a lot of people, especially when you are far from home. I definitely found a love of advertising in college, I majored in PR & Advertising with a minor in Television at Chapman University in Orange County. I realized I was really good at convincing people to buy things and communicating ideas in creative ways, so advertising was a natural fit. To this day, I see my job as something fun, and I think that reflects in the quality of my commercials. I don’t really do a lot of heavy or deceitful work, I always try to infuse a bit of humor and honesty in everything I do. 

KM: There’s a certain cultural awareness or critique that runs through your ads. I’m thinking specifically about how your Super Bowl ads for Honda lampoon the sameness of creative direction in what used to be an exciting medium, while also banking on that sameness to raise money for the Boys and Girls Club. It’s like you basically created a Commercial Lotería with that project. How important is it for you as an advertiser to make these broader connections that go beyond the product you’re commissioned to sell or represent? 

MA: I think the best work is always rooted in honesty, because my generation has a great bullshit-radar. We know when ads are being dishonest or cliché, so I tried to take that insight and twist it in a way that made people say “Wow, you’re right. Super bowl ads have become very cliché.” That gave us an opportunity to position Honda as a brand that recognizes that, and is trying to change those clichés in a fun, unique, and helpful way. We ended up making one of the biggest donations the Boys and Girls Clubs of Southern California had ever received from a single corporate donor, so the campaign was a tremendous success in that aspect. We also sold a record number of cars that year, so win-win. 

KM: A comic book question! I am totally out of my depth in discussing comics (as well as Lotería, for that matter), but one thing comes to mind that BELatina is eagerly anticipating: “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Freshman Force,” the politically satirical collection of comics that is coming out this month. As a total comic layman I am curious about whether something like that appeals to “serious fans” of the medium. 

MA: I love comic books and superheroes and I would totally read an AOC comic. I think she’s doing a lot of things to shake up the old guard. It’s important for young people to get involved in politics, we’re the future and we need to take control of it instead of letting old people tell us what to do. 

KM: I’ve been living in New York City now for over a decade, and recently have had lots of friends from here who have defected to Los Angeles. Whether it’s the weather or the chill vibes or the landscape, something about the city drew them away from the Manhattan metropolis and they swear they’re never coming back. What about LA keeps you there? Is there anything about the city that keeps you inspired in your work? In your life’s journey as an immigrant or in general?  

MA: LA is a city of immigrants from all different walks of life. I love how accepting people are here and how interested they are in other cultures. I’ve been exposed to so many different cultures and point of views that have taught me a lot and definitely influence my work. I mean, Millennial Lotería showcases how cultures can meld together with cards like El Sushi, which obviously isn’t a Latino thing, but it’s super normal for Latinx people to go get sushi in LA. We’re a melting pot of traditions and I feel really inspired from things that bring cultures together. I also love the entertainment and pop-culture world, so LA is for sure the hub of those industries. I’m working on becoming more involved in TV shows so that is a dream I hope to make a reality here in LA at some point.