About the Author

Alec Dempster

Alec Dempster was born in Mexico City in 1971 but moved to Toronto as a child. In 1995 he moved back to Mexico and settled in Xalapa, Veracruz, where his relief prints eventually became infused with the local tradition of son jarocho music. Alec's conversations with rural musicians, presented along with thirty linoleum portraits, have been published recently as Faces and Voices of Son Jarocho. He has produced six CDs of son jarocho recorded in the field but is perhaps best known for his two loter&iacutea games – El Fandanguito, Lotería de Sones Jarochos, and the Lotería Huasteca – which include over a hundred prints. He has had solo exhibitions in the United States, Canada, Mexico, France and Spain. Alec now lives in Toronto. His own son jarocho group, Café Con Pan, has recorded two CDs, the most recent being Nuevos Caminos a Santiago. They are currently the recipients of a Popular Music grant from the Ontario Arts Council.

Books by this Author
Down in the Bottom of the Bottom of the Box

The Truth

There is an important truth;
that seems both consistent and constant to me:
The truth is that the truth is never
What anybody wants it to be.

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Lotería Huasteca

Lotería Huasteca

Woodblock Prints
by (artist) Alec Dempster
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My first foray into the Huasteca region began with an overnight bus journey from Xalapa, the capital of the state of Veracruz. Sleep was difficult due to stops in small towns along the way, and when the bus came to my final destination in Naranjos it was still dark. I dragged my feet and belongings to a place by the curb, beside a tower of freshly made rounds of white cheese placed carefully between moist banana leaves. Eventually, a pickup truck parked in front of the terminal and the driver was greeted enthusiastically by a group of fellow travellers who had assembled around me. It turned out that we were all headed for the same music festival in 'Citla', an hour's drive up into the hills. Most of us clambered into the back, and from there we were privy to a majestic sunrise over the rolling hills of the Otontepec mountain range. I had no idea I was setting out on a journey that would eventually result in a book, nine years later.

At the time I was familiar with son huasteco music, having listened to the legendary Trio Xoxocapa at La Sopa restaurant in Xalapa on many a Friday evening. My understanding of the huasteca region was facilitated by Arturo Castillo Tristán (a retired elementary school teacher, poet and cultural promoter) from whom I received a surprise phone call in 2004.

Arturo began by explaining that he was calling from Citlaltepec, and that he admired the artwork and recordings I had done related to the culture of southern Veracruz. He invited me to attend the upcoming son huasteco festival he was organizing, and enticed me with a place to stay and food to eat, as well as a space to exhibit my prints. This was an offer I could not refuse. A few weeks later I was in Citlaltepec, where I quickly grasped Arturo's real motive, which was for me to become enamoured of the region, its people and its music.

Arturo, who was familiar with my lotería jarocha game, was eager for us to work together in the creation of a lotería huasteca based on the huasteco musical repertoire. Lotería is a game of chance similar to bingo. With origins in Italy and Spain, it has been played in Mexico since the seventeenth century by people from all walks of life. Whether sitting around the kitchen table or in a church courtyard, the players participate expectantly with their printed boards, observing the grid of colourful images as names are called from a deck of cards. To this day its popularity hasn't waned; the game can be purchased at market stalls or stationery shops all over Mexico. A few pesos may be pooled at the start of each round, increasing the thrill of a possible win. The prizes may be even more enticing when lotería sessions are held to raise funds for initiatives such as refurbishing a church.

The illustrated cards are pulled from the deck by a caller who recites phrases alluding to a standard series of 54 images that include the frog, the ladder, the moon, the deer, the soldier and the sun. There are stock phrases such as "The blanket of the poor ... the sun!" or the caller can improvise something. For the lotería huasteca I illustrated 54 new themes relevant to the huasteca region printed with corresponding quatrains by Arturo Castillo Tristán.

Initially I hesitated to embark on the project since the culture of northern Veracruz and the rest of the Huasteca was foreign to me, unlike son jarocho, the folk music from southern Veracruz, which had become second nature after prolonged immersion, marriage and an inexplicable affinity for the music. The thought of the months it would take to create a completely new series of fifty-four prints for another lotería was also a consideration. Nonetheless, the ebullient weekend in Citlaltepec that followed was all it took for me to commit to the project. I succumbed to the percussive throb of collective dancing, the nimble fantasia of countless violinists, impromptu poetic duels between singers, an eye-opening stroll through a huastecan market and my first taste of zacahuil (an enormous tamale usually reserved for special occasions).

Back in Xalapa, I began in earnest by compiling a list of the traditional songs, called sones huastecos, that I thought might illustrate the new lotería, only to discover that several had the same titles as the sones jarochos constituting my lotería jarocha. To distinguish the two games we decided to focus on the region's cultural diversity rather than limit the project to son huasteco, which is only one of the many components that define the Huasteca. With the help of huasteco scholars Román Güemes Jiménez and Nelly Iveth del Ángel Flores, I assembled a long list of potential subjects for the prints, which was whittled down to the fifty-four illustrations included in this book.

(Continued in Lotería Huasteca...)

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Loteria Jarocha

Loteria Jarocha

Linoleum Prints
by (artist) Alec Dempster
More Info

El Aguanieve
The rain in Santiago Tuxtla has two flavours: the torrid din of a summer downpour and the penetrating cold of a slow winter drizzle, called aguanieve. In December, damp weather often muffles the sound of nocturnal processions along streets and down alleyways when musicians gather, moving in multiple directions, each with a chorus of followers. Time and place are blurred by the mist and steady rain saturated with the collective incantation of a familiar refrain: “Oranges and limes, limes and lemons. The Virgin is more beautiful than all the flowers.” The tranquility, however, is sometimes interrupted by northerly winds which invade the night with violent gusts, shattering windowpanes and rattling tin roofs. Many of the verses associated with this son mention tears, rain and the sea. Longing and departure are also common themes. Perhaps El Aguanieve originated along the coast as a lament for sailors out at sea, with other lyrics attaching themselves to it on its journey inland to places like Santiago Tuxtla where this son has been played for many generations.

El Balajú
Most people sing El Balajú without considering what the title might mean or what the son may be about. This is not surprising because balajú is an archaic word that has disappeared from the dictionary and common usage. Some clues may be found in the verse which is usually sung as an introduction.Because he was a warrior
Balajú set off to sea.
This is what he said to his mate,
– Come and navigate with me.
Who—ll be first to cross the ocean?
Shall it be you” Shall it be me?The maritime theme makes sense in relation to a definition published in 1859 referring to balajú as a schooner found in the Caribbean as well a type of boat used on the Bay of Biscay. The origin of certain verses and songs has been traced to very old songbooks. A songbook from Santiago Tuxtla includes a couple of pages of verses for El Balajú. One verse mentions The Port of Veracruz, Havana and El Muelle Inglés. The latter may refer to a historic port in Panama.

La Bamba
In 1958 Richie Valens rebranded the most emblematic of sones jarochos, in a rock and roll setting. He took his cue from early versions of La Bamba sung by musicians from Veracruz who had found a place in Mexico City's burgeoning film industry and night club scene. Verses associated with La Bamba indicate that it may have originated in the Port of Veracruz during the seventeenth century when the population lived in fear of attacks by “Lorencillo?, a dreaded Dutch pirate. I first heard a more traditional interpretation of La Bamba in 1995 on a tape of field recordings made in Los Tuxtlas. A year later I heard a similar version after stumbling off a bus in Santiago Tuxtla. I had walked just a few blocks under the searing July sun when I came across a group of old musicians huddled together playing La Bamba under the protective shade of a storefront awning. They were from different communities taking part in the annual celebrations of the town's patron saint. After attending a few fandangos I realized that La Bamba is still very much at the heart of the traditional son jarocho repertoire.

El Zapateado
Six short notes are enough to announce the arrival of El Zaptateado with a cavalcade of nails quickly following suit across rows of expectant strings. Two brazen chords are unleashed and begin to sway back and forth like a pendulum, creating the thick sound emanating from the fandango. Meanwhile, the guitarra de son weaves an endless string of melodic variations within the harmonic tug of war. Dancing couples take turns facing each other on the tarima to engage in the rhythmic dialogue. Singers jump into the fray with a piercing cry of “Ayyyyy!” as a signal for the dancers to quieten their steps. In spite of the sudden lull each verse must be forcefully sung over the rumble of hard soled shoes, boots, and the cumulative drone of strings and staccato melodies. Throughout the son disparate voices ring out from all around the tarima, drawing from an old well of memorized poetry. The dancers wait impatiently on the sidelines for the end of each verse. Only then is there an opportunity for a change of partners, indicated by a gentle tap on the back.

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The Hobo's Crowbar

Under a Billboard at Bathurst and Eglinton

Under a billboard at Bathurst and Eglinton
Using nothing but my eyes
I bought some clouds?
Because they were big and self-sufficient

but I bought them too for protection?
Since a friend of mine
Once safely walked this same street
under similar clouds

They passed over the same sidewalks she passed over
But the past can't be touched, and you can't touch clouds
And there's something wrong inside me
and the clouds might solve it . . .

I bought them also because they're grey without being depressing?
And slow, but not in a way that makes me impatient
Because having nowhere to be or go
Doesn't stop them from being or going

They travel like jokes
So I accept them as natural
See how they activate my wit
without taking credit

Because they ask nothing
And pull me gently away from
the great loneliness
to which no one gets accustomed

but the clouds.

He Just Happened, She Occurred

She implied, he inferred
She decided, he concurred
He was frightened, she was stirred
She got well, he was cured

She was voice, he was word
He encouraged, she deterred
He was tree, she was bird
She made obvious, he obscured

She objected, he observed
She subjected, he served
He upset, she unnerved
He just happened, she occurred.

Nine Extra Thoughts (No Extra Cost)

Why, at this point, would anyone want to make history? Humans have been making history for 10,000 years?the time has come to make something else.

A bird-watching word butcher is both word botcher and bird watcher.

The problem troubled people most often face is recognizing when there isn't a problem.

If talking stops working stop talking.

If you're really beyond it, there's no reason to behave as if you're above it.

Now when I look back I wonder why I ever looked back.

If you can't join them, judge them.

It's easy to see through people, much harder to look carefully into them.

How can people live with themselves when they know that they have to die with themselves?

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