It was my Irish Catholic grandmother from Missouri, a refugee from the Dust Bowl, who first turned my attention to the work of Leo Politi. She loved his books and paintings, and that was strange. She did not seem to find much connection with the Latinos that populated her adopted city, but maybe in their search for gainful employment on the farms up and down the state they triggered some empathy with what she knew in her life, the life of the farm, its hardships and difficulties and back-breaking labor.
Politi was born in the central valley farming town of Fresno in 1908. His parents were Italian and they owned a vineyard there and raised horses. During the Great War, the Politi family returned to their native land taking six year old Leo away from his American life but they could not stop him from drawing. He drew on every piece of paper he could find and at fifteen, won a scholarship to study art.
In 1931, at the tender age of twenty-two, Leo returned to California and fell in love with a young waitress named Helen Fontes. While she brought customers their dinner orders, Leo sketched her. He bought her a ring at Woolworth’s for fifteen cents. Married and living in Los Angeles, Leo began drawing and painting the people and shops on the most famous Latino street in the city, Olvera Street, which is now a well-known tourist attraction. His work morphed into illustrated children’s books, and he won many awards, including the prestigious Caldecott Medal in 1950 for his book, The Song of the Swallows. His work celebrated not only the Latino community he found on the street, but the vibrant colors of the cultural milieu. He particularly loved the yellows, the browns, the burnt sienna sunsets, all earth tones and village color palettes of Latino heritage going back to Mexico, Central America, and South America. Politi seemed to connect with that culture, steeped in Catholicism and Church rituals. His scenes came from the pueblo, the early days of Los Angeles, rich with music and dance and crafts. For his love of Latino culture, he is a unique figure in California art, a true treasure of the city. However, during his lifetime, he was often poor and destitute, and he sold some of his work for pennies just to provide his family with food and clothing. His work now is worth much more.
Politi died in 1996. According to his obituary in the Los Angeles Times, “a park near Dodger Stadium bears his name, as does an elementary school in the Pico-Union district” not far from the special street he loved. The article goes on to say that like his subjects, Politi was always “simple and humble.”
I recently acquired new copies of four books I remembered from my grandmother’s library. They are the most celebrated children’s stories of Leo Politi published by Getty Publications. The tales are simple and heartwarming, but at first I thought they could just as easily be too naïve, too simple. I remember, over the years, hearing that some Latino activists were up-in-arms over the depiction of the simple Mexican characters in the books. This is a miscasting of Politi’s work. His Los Angeles, however, is an idealized place, a small pueblo where people supported each other in their small businesses and looked out for one another in daily life. I find Politi’s books no different than Thornton Wilder’s Our Town or his fellow artist from Fresno, William Saroyan and his Ithaca as portrayed in the novel The Human Comedy. These fictional towns like the Los Angeles in Politi’s work are based on truth. They are the places denoting a simpler time, but the naiveté they portray does not negate their importance to the American narrative. The story of America is the story of small towns, and turning those long ago places into sepia memories is part of American history.
In Pedro The Angel of Olvera Street (1946), a young boy with a gift for song prepares with his community for the coming Christmas holiday. The Latino businesses and the people of the community pull together to put on the yearly Christmas pageant. Olvera Street becomes a stand-in for Bethlehem, and the tradition of Las Posadas is re-enacted in a beautiful candle-lit ceremony through the streets. For this book, Politi was a runner-up for the Caldecott Medal in 1946. He would go on to win the award for Song of the Swallows (1950), the illustrated story of the swallows returning each March to the Mission San Juan Capistrano. Juanita (1948) was a Caldecott runner-up and details the Easter celebration on Olvera Street through the eyes of a daughter of a shop keeper. Emmet (1971) is the story of a wayward pooch who causes trouble in the neighborhood but winds up saving lives when fire breaks out.
All the books are beautifully illustrated in the vibrant colors of Politi’s best work. They are treasures to have and hold, and I am so happy Getty Publications has reissued them in hardback editions. Leo Politi is Los Angeles’ own painter and story teller, an artist who has left a lasting impression on the city. Olvera Street might seem a little too touristy today, even a little tacky, but it is part of the history of the city. Today it exists as a Mexican marketplace that tries to preserve that history in modern times. It is well worth the time to walk the streets Politi walked and see the sights, sounds and smells he tried to capture in his most vibrant work.