Leo Politi, Pioneer of Multicultural Children’s Books

Mexican-American characters and stories set in Los Angeles fifty years ago.

“The Blessing of the Animals,” a mural by Politi on Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles.

While you would expect the publishing wing of the Getty Museum to offer volumes about classical antiquities as well as studies of European paintings, you might be surprised to learn they also publish children’s books. Their recent catalog lists some three dozen juvenile offerings but, to my way of thinking, the most interesting are four reprints of picture books by Leo Politi that appeared some fifty years ago. Politi pioneered “multicultural” children’s book; he was an Italian-American who featured Mexican-American characters and themes in his stories. Moreover, each of these works celebrates Politi’s beloved Los Angeles region, where the Getty makes its home.

These books are best read in the company of Ann Stalcup’s Leo Politi: Artist of the Angels, a biography for young readers (ages 9–12). Here you will encounter memorable anecdotes, including the famous “Indian Suit Story”: When his parents decided to leave Fresno and return to Italy, they allowed six-year-old Leo to travel in his Indian suit with feathered headdress and to wear that attire every day after he arrived in the village of Broni. At the age of twenty-one and after studying on an artist’s scholarship in Milan, Politi (presumably more suitably attired) returned to the United States in 1930, met and married his wife Helen, and eventually settled in Los Angeles.

To make a living, Politi became as a sidewalk artist doing chalk and charcoal portraits for tourists on Olvera Street, the still vibrant Mexican-American mercado (full of potters, weavers, and other artisans) in downtown Los Angeles. Politi loved Olvera Street and that affection was returned. A devout Italian Catholic, he felt comfortable in an immigrant community not his own but that also venerated saints and prized family; on their part, merchants on Olvera Street looked out for him and always made sure the “artist” had a place to set up his easel.

One day in the 1940s, a tourist–May Massee, the famous children’s editor at Viking Press–saw his sidewalk art and persuaded him to do a picture book. The result was Pedro: The Angel of Olvera Street where a grandfather remembers the bygone days of the Pueblo of Los Angeles and tells a story about a young boy who leads processions on Olvera Street during Las Posadas(nightly ceremonies that precede Christmas). It’s a lovely story and Disney Studios wanted to make a movie of it, but Politi felt film makers could never do justice to his little book and, despite his family’s financial needs, refused the offer.

What is remarkable about Pedro: The Angel of Olvera Street (1946) is that it established a pattern still evident in Latino/a picture books today. It is folkloric: customs of the La Raza are its subject and its style is “primitif.” Likewise, recalling the work of Diego Rivera and other Muralistas, Politi’s palette (ochre yellow, burnt sienna as well as other brown tints, a lively blue-green) have since become visual shorthand for Mexican Tropicale.

That book was followed two years later by another, Juanita, also set on Olvera Street. This time the central event is not Las Posadas but the Blessing of the Animals, a ceremony that still occurs the day before Easter. And this time the featured character is a girl, Juanita, who receives a dove on her birthday. With her parents singing“Las Mañanitas” (the traditional Mexican birthday song), and folks lined up with their various animals for the annual blessing, the feeling of the moment, and of the book as a whole, is that of a family wedding reception–all smiles and happiness.

Song of the Swallows (1949), the third book, is set about an hour south of Los Angeles in Capistrano; here, as you may know, thousands and thousands of these little birds return to the Mission San Juan Capistrano on St. Joseph’s Day (March 19). In Politi’s story, Julian, an old gardener at the Mission, tells the young Julian about “las golodrinas” and how they fly 6000 miles to return to Capistrano on this particular day. So, the two of them work hard to prepare gardens and build pools to encourage the repetition of this miracle. On the appropriate day, shouts of “Vienen las golodrinas” (Here come the swallows) are heard, Julian and Juan ring the bells at the Mission, and everybody looks up at the crowded heavens.

The fourth Getty book, Emmet, appeared in 1971 or more than twenty years after the other three. It concerns a mischievous dog who regains the approval of the neighborhood after he helps capture an arsonist who torched the corner grocery store. But more than a portrait of a canine rascal, the focus of Emmet is historic Los Angeles with its Victorian houses and neighborhoods that rival those of San Francisco; all these are pictured with a fisheye-lens-like perspective that creates enclosed circles and cozy cul-de-sacs that recall, say, friendly villages in the Babar books.

Leo Politi died in 1996 at the age of ninety-six. In his old age, he continued to ride the bus and care for his aging wife; and late in life he was immensely pleased when an elementary school in Los Angeles was named after him. He also wrote books about other communities and locales–Chinatown and Japantown in Los Angeles, the Italian-American fishing community in Monterey, the seasonal butterflies returning to Pacific Grove. Maybe some day we will see these worthy offerings reprinted. That would be nice. It almost seems too fitting to observe but . . . Politi’s son Paul wrote the classic song “Those Oldies But Goodies [Remind Me of You].”

Originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (August 2010).

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02. May 2016 by
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