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I’m based in Miami, Florida these days, and both here and on my travels down to Latin America – and especially in and around the Caribbean — I regularly come across a board game that I had just a glancing acquaintance with growing up. Dominoes have been around for literally millennia, of course. Originally from China, like pasta they found their way to Europe and beyond centuries ago, and still have a worldwide following. But when was the last time you played, or even heard of anyone actually playing? All that really comes to mind for me are the “goofy-stunts-from-around-the-world” reel TV news channels run every so often about international events where geeks set up gigantic, elaborate domino chains and then knock ‘em over neatly as you please. But that’s not really playing, now, is it?
Now, I do hear that lately dominoes have been staging a comeback in some quarters — in the U.K., for example, it’s something of a popular pub game and has even become a ‘thing’ among teens in recent years. But nowhere have I seen it played more than south of the border. It’s only when I visit Little Havana here at home or travel to the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, and elsewhere in the Spanish-speaking Americas, that I invariably witness the game actually being played everywhere and enthusiastically. It’s pretty much central to socializing, especially among guys. In fact, one of Cuban Miami’s most famous landmarks is “Domino Park” on Calle Ocho (aka Southwest Eighth Street), a covered pavilion filled with tables of elderly Cuban gents playing dominó (said in Spanish, the accent’s on the last syllable), clacking and slamming up a storm with their rectangular little dotted tiles.
In the countries of Latin America (and some places in the English-speaking Caribbean, such as Jamaica), the game also seems to be played mostly by older men, although down there I’ve seen plenty of young guys at it too – more so than in Miami – and a few females, as well. But many’s been the time I’d stroll through Puerto Plata, or Trinidad, or some other tropical town where more than a few folks live with their doors open and hang out day and night on their front porches, and spot dudes on those porches, and in cafés, bars, town squares, or any number of places both public and private, playing with enthusiasm and even passion on boards both fancy/colorful and rough/improvised. There are various variations depending on the country and even the city, but wherever they’re played and in whatever version, dominoes are all an important part of Latin social life across the hemisphere.
So the next time you find yourself in a bar or town square south of the border, get yourself a little dominoes action: it’s a surefire way to strike up a conversation, and even if you don’t speak the language, the dots will speak for themselves.