Why is it called Mexican Train Dominoes?
The history of the domino game's popular name is different in the US, Mexico, Cuba, and China
Like mobsters playing poker and British spies with a Baccarat habit, Mexican Train Dominoes is most likely called as much because Americans saw it played by Mexicans.
But it’s not originally a Mexican game, and it has nothing to do with real Mexican trains, stereotypes, or public transportation.
During the game Americans refer to as "Mexican Train", there is a "public" and "private" chain of dominoes, referred to as "trains".
This much makes sense, but to understand how a domino game with a central hub and comes with an optional train that belongs to all players came to the US we need to look at Chinese history and US and Mexican rail history.
What is the origin of Mexican Train Dominoes?
The game Americans call "Mexican Train" is originally a variation on a Chinese game called Pai Gow, which means "make nine" and uses 32 tiles or dominoes. Pai Gow predates the Song Dynasty, which began in China in 960 A.D..
Pai Gow can be found in American casinos today, sometimes played as a variation called Pai Gow Poker using a standard deck of playing cards.
Pai Gow arrives in Latin America with Chinese sugar field workers
Chinese laborers began arriving in Cuba in the 1850s to work in sugar fields. Cuba already had a deep love of dominoes. Dominoes is often referred to as "the national game of Cuba".
The exact origins of Pai Gow in North and Latin America seem to have no definitive timeline today. But it’s likely Cubans learned from Chinese workers and adapted this new game with a central hub and chain of dominoes "Longana".
Where does the name Mexican Train come from?
Longana wasn’t noticed by Americans until Mexican laborers were recruited to help build US railways in the early twentieth century. Mexicans had already dubbed it “"Dominó Cubano" when it was adopted from Cubans who adopted it from the Chinese.
A popular twist on this theory is a confused American who couldn’t tell the difference between Cubans and Mexicans playing Dominó Cubano and Cuban Longana.
According to legend, an American supposedly saw Cubans playing what was most likely Dominó Cubano, which like Longana has up to four players with a single set of dominoes and consists of multiple chains of dominoes spiraling off a central hub.
Confusing them for Mexicans and not Cubans, having locomotives on their mind, and noticing the long chain of dominoes, the American simply dubbed the game “Mexican Train Dominoes”.
In Mexico, the game Americans refer to as "Mexican Train" is called "Dominó Cubano", "Longana" in Cuba, and “Pai Gow” in China.
How did Mexican Train Dominoes come to the United States?
As the railroads became powerful forces in American industry and politics slightly before the Civil War, railroads faced an increasing demand for workers. Many American rail companies used slave labor before the Civil War to build rail lines.
After the Civil War, US rail companies sent labor contractors to Mexico, China, Cuba, and other nearby Latin American countries. They were successful in recruiting tens of thousands of laborers
to do the dangerous work of dynamiting mountains, clearing trails, and laying track. As many as 16,000 Mexicans helped lay track in the US.
It is highly likely during this period of rail history from around 1890 to 1910 that Cubans playing dominoes showed many of their Mexican rail colleagues how to play. The Mexicans referred to this new name as “Dominó Cubano”
Dominó Cubano then likely became noticed by Americans as Mexican laborers streamed into the US to help build early American railroads in the early twentieth century.
This is where the notion that Mexican Train Dominoes became popularized by Mexican railroad workers comes from. Mexicans adopted the game from Cubans who adapted it from the Chinese.
Whether an American confused Cubans for Mexicans or vice versa we'll likely never know. But it's not unreasonable Mexican rail workers showed other Americans how to play the game, or that Americans saw Mexican and Cuban workers playing dominoes with unique "trains" and just referred to it all as "Mexican Train Dominoes" given the larger contingent of Mexican workers than any other nationality.
Our best theory on the name and origin of Mexican Train Dominoes in the US
The game Americans call "Mexican Train Dominos" seems to have no relation or connection to any sort of physical public train that anyone can board.
The domino game was most likely a game that originated in China, brought over to the west by Chinese sugar field workers in Cuba, later learned by Mexicans building railroads alongside Cubans in the United States, and renamed by Americans, Mexicans, and Cubans alike.
More FAQs about the history of Mexican Train Dominoes
Is Mexican Train from Mexico?
Most likely not. It's most likely from a Cuban variation of several domino games, probably Longana, which itself is adapted from the Chinese game Pai Gow. Chinese laborers working Cuban sugar fields showed it to Cubans, who renamed it Longana. Later, Cuban laborers seeking work in the United States mostly worked alongside thousands of Mexican rail laborers. A shared language provided them with the ability to teach and learn new games.
"Mexican Train"—where up to 8 people play, start the train, and do domino matching—is an American name. In Mexico it's called "Dominó Cubano".
What is the difference between dominoes and Mexican Train?
Both Dominoes and Mexican Train, as Americans call them, push players to rid their hand of as many dominoes as possible. In Mexican Train, a special optional train that belongs to all players is played, along with several "branches".
Mexican Train is a game played with up to 8 players in a double set of dominoes.
Is the game’s name "Mexican Train" racist?
Probably not, insofar as we can prove.
One could argue, however, the treatment of rail workers by American rail operators was racist. Or if the theory an American saws a group of Cubans playing dominoes and confused them for Mexicans is correct, that's arguably racist.
What is the game's most popular name?
It varies by country. In the United States, it’s "Mexican Train Dominos". In Cuba, it's "Longana" and in Mexico, the game is called "Dominó Cubano". In its current closest adaption, it's most likely played more in Cuban culture than anywhere else.