This year at the gala, it's pink balloons

It's been a Hispanic man's game, but now women are having a domino effect

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At North Philly's Neris Lounge, Mario Alero (above, left) debates a point with Carmen "Milly" Rodriguez, who (at right) mixes the "tiles" for another game.

This October, when members of the Philadelphia Dominoes Association meet at their annual gala dinner, there'll be a slight addition to the decor that has one player smiling.

Pink balloons.

You see, Cynthia Rivera - nicknamed "La Flaca" or "the skinny woman" - and her dominoes team won the league championship in June, becoming the league's first female champions. Ever.

Association organizers have already told La Flaca that in her honor - and perhaps that of her gender - the banquet hall will be decorated with pink balloons.

"I was flattered," La Flaca, 31, said. She grinned at the thought of the pink colors mingling with the traditional manly blue and gold colors.

Mujeres have come a long way, baby, in a sport that has, in Latino culture, traditionally been the domain of men.

No more hanging out by themselves at family functions in teams of two, drinking and cha-cha-cha-ing to salsa music. Now the women are in on the fun.

And tomorrow, there may be yet another female winner at the third annual Love Park Domino Festival, the Latino-themed event thrown by Councilman Juan Ramos.

Ramos and organizers expect about 1,000 people to attend the festival, which includes a dominoes tournament, music by a DJ and Caribbean food for purchase. Registration for the tourney is free.

Organizers expect about 320 players locally and from New Jersey, Connecticut and New York to trek to Love Park in Center City for the 10 a.m. event.

Among them will be women like Carmen Rodriguez - nicknamed "Milly."

She's traveled to Puerto Rico, Boston and New York for the love of the game, which is extremely popular in the Caribbean and Latin American countries.

Rodriguez is one of 24 women in the 300-member Philadelphia association, according to its president, Juan Pagan, who hopes to have female teams within the league one day.

The 44-year-old grandmother, who with her partner came in second behind Rivera in June's tournament, acknowledges that most men don't like to compete against women.

"When they lose, they get annoyed," Rodriguez said in Spanish. But, in general, she says she's respected by the XY dominoes players.

Rivera, mother of Nysiah, 3, and Siani, 2, says men always come up with an excuse when a female wins a dominoes match.

"When women beat the men, they will always say, 'Ella no sabe jugar. Gano por suerte,' " Rivera said. Translation: "She doesn't know how to play. She won by luck."

"They will always say that," Rivera said. "There's always a reason why we won. We got the right bones [tiles] or they let us win."

Pedro Luis Rondon, 40, owner of Tierra del Caribe in North Philadelphia, has been Rivera's partner and claims that male players are as happy to play against a female as they are against another man.

"They must respect her," Rondon said, in Spanish. "One hundred percent. That's the way it is."

And, apparently, provide pink balloons. *