The art of lotería

320px-Gallo.svg“Se va y se corre con la vieja del pozole! ¡La dama! (She goes and runs with the old woman of the pozole!  The Lady!)

Pórtate bien amiguito, si no te lleva: ¡el diablito! (Behave yourself, my good little friend so that he doesn’t tak you: The Devil!)

Yo con mi elegancia y distinción: ¡el catrín!” (With elegance and distinction: The dandy!)

If you spend enough time in Mexico, you will run into a traditional board game for sale all over Mexico, from bookstores, to department stores to traditional markets. It is called La Lotería or The Lottery.

The game came to Mexico from Europe, but it probably has origins in China. The European version dates back to Italy in the 1400s and became popular all over the continent. By 1769, it had become part of Mexican culture, played by the upper classes, who had time for such diversions. Soldiers popularized it during the War of Independence, spreading it all over the country.

Wood block print by Alec Dempser depicting a kind of Huasteca tamale called zacahuil for the Lotería Huasteca board game

Lotería has always been a handcrafted game with huge variation in style and how finely the cards are made. Originally, the cards and the boards were hand painted, with content varying depending on the craftsman making the set.

A sort of a standardization occurred in the 19th century, when Frenchman Clemente Jacques started a business called Pasatiempos Gallo, registering a lotería set called Gallo Don Clemente with the 54 images seen on most lotería sets today. The images reflect Mexican traditional life and culture, from skulls representing Day of the Dead, to chalupa boats representing the canals of Xochimilco, to the rooster of farm life, the soldier, the nopal cactus…. Although the game has lost popularity in modern times, you would be very hard pressed to find a Mexican who has never put beans on board in a bingo-like fashion.

This does not mean that all lotería sets must look like those designed by Don Clemente. Often with a didactic or promotional purpose, sets with themes have been made over the years, such as a set that was produced by the Catholic Church with images related to religion and another with images from the fine arts.

The game lends itself extremely well to printing, which is recognized in Mexico as both a craft AND as an art form. Artist Alec Dempster’s work has included creating sets of lotería combining artistic printing processes to promote Mexican regional culture, principally that of the Huasteca region. Dempster has an interesting history and relationship to Mexico. He was born in Mexico City, but only because his foreign parents happened to be here at the time. He was raised in Canada, but his Mexican back story always stayed with him. As an adult, that part of his story drew him back here, not only to live, but also become an expert in Huasteca son music after an extended stay in Veracruz. In fact, he is a recognized expert and promoter of Huasteca music and culture in Canada and among the Huasteca son community in Mexico.

Alex Dempster with book at presentation in Mexico City

He is a graphic artist and author with many prints, books and other products to his credit, many of which can be seen at Much of his graphic work has classic themes and styles from traditional Mexican printing and more than a little in common with the printwork that proliferated in Mexico in the decades after the Revolution.

His most recent work is the Lotería Huasteca,  a book and a set of cards in artistic black-and-white done in wood block printing. Nothing digital about this design. Dempster cut blocks of wood by hand to create the original images. The “mass” production of cards and boards is done in offset printing.

The book serves to reinforce the didactic purpose of this lotería game, with detailed descriptions of each of the images used in his version, along with the meanings these have in Huasteca culture. Some are versions of those found in more typical lotería games such as the rooster, the sombrero, the mermaid and the drum. For these, the descriptions focus on the meanings these have specifically to the Huasteca, as part of the Mexican whole. But most of the images are specific to Huasteca culture from food to agricultural work, to handcrafts, musical instruments and celebrations. Often these have indigenous names rather than Spanish ones. These include La Acamaya (a kind of shellfish), (Carnaval) Carnival, (Caña) sugar cane, El Nukub (a kind of percussion instrument), La Curandera (healer) and many more. The boards simply have the images and the names, but the cards used to call out the images come with verses that describe the image in an poetic way, taking advantage of the tradition of calling to teach about the concept.

*** Update- the game is available in English and Spanish. The English version is available at The Porcupine Quill or you can contact Alec  for either the English or Spanish version.


The art and craft of printing is not something that is normally associated with Mexican handcrafts but the making of toys and games are. However, there is also a long tradition of handcrafts inspiring art and art inspiring handcrafts. This intermixing has been to the benefit of both and serves to keep both “Mexican” no matter the physical origin of the hands that make them.


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