As a recent newcomer to Los Angeles I’ve discovered there are actually three distinctly different Los Angeles’—West Los Angeles, which contains the things for which this fair city is known—Hollywood, Beverly Hills, making movies, the Santa Monica pier; then, there’s East Los Angeles including downtown and the historic area of the city’s first settlement―Olvera Street and El Pueblo plaza; and, finally, there’s South Central extending to Long Beach and other beach communities, where the Watts Towers were built by Simon Rodia and the area was made famous by the riots during the 1960’s. Maybe there are other Los Angeles’ that I’m yet to discover, but the area I’m privileged to get to know somewhat in depth is that of East Los Angeles, specifically Olvera Street and the El Pueblo plaza—this is because I’m down there four days a week drawing portraits of people.
Before this time I was aware of the books written and illustrated by Leo Politi because when I worked with children I had the pleasure of reading some of them to children, but I didn’t know that he was an artist who lived and worked primarily in the downtown Los Angeles area. Off the plaza on the lower outside wall of the El Pueblo Administrative Offices (the Biscailuz Building ) there is a charming mural of The Blessing of Animals, which was completed by Mr. Politi in 1978. I could characteristic the style of all of the Leo Politi’s work as colorful, gentle and loving. Seeing this mural awakened an interest in me to find out more about him.
The tradition of blessing the animals by the priests from La Igelsia de Nuestra Seᾖora Reina de Los Angeles (The Church of Our Lady, Queen of the Angels) on the Saturday before Easter continues to this day. At this year’s event on March 30th I met Ann Stalcup, where she had a table selling Politi post cards and her biography of him.
Those of us modern writers are up against a challenging rubric—when not only have we written a book or books right after our own hearts, if we are lucky to have them published by a reputable publisher, we soon find that the promotion of our books fall upon us. Not all writers find this kind of work suitable to their nature, yet they must make an effort or their books will languish and the general public will not be aware of their existence, but don’t get me started on this!
Anyway, one thing and another, Ms. Stalcup agreed to let me have a copy of her biography of Leo Politi for a cut price because I said I would like to review it for this magazine. Her book is amply illustrated with Politi’s work, including a carefully-rendered, end-pages drawing of the downtown and Bunker Hill area of the 1930’s.
As a writer/artist who has written, illustrated and yes, self-published, a number of children’s book, the life of Leo Politi is of special interest to me. Here was a life well lived by a man with a great deal of talent, a warm loving heart, AND the belief that all people have been created equal in the eyes of the Creator—his pioneer work, if it could be called that, was he wrote and illustrated stories about the children of many different ethnic backgrounds—Mexican, Chinese, Italian, and Japanese—cultures represented in different sections of Los Angeles.
Leo Politi was born on November 21, 1908, on a farm near Fresno, California, to parents of Italian extraction. At the age of six his family moved back to Italy, to Broni, a small hill town in northern Italy. There Leo became known as Il piccolo Americano (the little American) because of the Indian costume he wore, leading the children up and down the street of Broni. While still young he determined that his would be the life of an artist and from then on he carried a sketch book wherever he went.
At the age of 21 in 1930 he returned to California—he traveled by freighter through the Panama Canal and up through Central America to reach Los Angeles, falling in love with Mexican color and culture. In 1934 he married Helen, a young woman from the Fresno area, but they did not want to live in Fresno so found themselves a house to rent on Bunker Hill in Los Angeles, and that’s where Leo’s career as an artist began.
In the 1930’s Olvera Street was more an alley than street, but over time became more picturesque and radiated the history of Los Angeles. Artists, craftspeople and merchants gave it color and sound, with candle makers, glassblowers, silversmiths, furniture makes and blacksmiths hard at work. At first Leo did charcoal portraits of the tourists who visited El Paseo Restaurant. He made barely enough money for them to survive. Soon he became interested in nearby Chinatown, Little Tokyo, and the colorful little houses of East Los Angeles or Chavez Ravine. (Some of these places disappeared when the freeways and Dodger Stadium were built.)
Leo first fictional child was Little Pancho, whom he drew pictures of for Script Magazine. When Little Pancho was published his fortunes improved, but it was with his second book, Pedro, the Angel of Olvera Street, that his career as a children’s book author and illustrator took flight. Pedro is set during Las Posadas (the shelters), a Christmas procession that involved Olvera Street shopkeepers and their children.
A few years after its publication Disney wanted to buy Pedro but Politi refused to sell—money never interested him; he insisted on the artistic integrity of his work.
Leo’s third book, Juanita, centers on another Olvera Street tradition—the blessing of the animals. During Politi’s long life, he wrote and illustrated many books, adding to his list Song of the Swallows (about the journey they make each year from Argentina to San Juan Capistrano) (this books received the Caldecott Metal); A Boat for Peppe (about an Italian America community in Monterey); Little Leo; Mission Bells; The Butterflies Comes; Angeleᾖo Heights; Meiko (about a little Japanese girl who lives in Little Tokyo); Moy Moy (about the Chinese New Year in Chinatown); Rosa; The Little Clown, Bunker Hill, Los Angeles—Reminiscences of Bygone Days; Piccolo’s Prank, Tales of the Los Angeles Parks, The Poinsettia, Angeleᾖo Heights; Emmet; Three Stalks of Corn; Redlands Impressions; and Lorenzo, the Naughty Parrot. Whew! That’s an impressive body of work.
Politi says this about his work:
I compose a book very much as if I were making a piece of sculpture. First I put down the bulk. When I feel the bulk has body and right proportions, I begin to work on the detail. I work with the pictures and the text at the same time and make one supplement the other.
In all my books I try to embody certain universal things—the warmth and happiness of family life; my love for people, animals, birds, and flowers. My love for the simple, warm and earthy things, from the humblest house to a little tree to the tiniest sea shell; for the things made by hands, the sewing of a dress, the painting of a picture; and for the singing of songs and the movements of the body in dancing—all those arts which are instinctive forms of expression.
I feel that it is only through the respect and continuity of our heritage that we can build a foundation with strong roots for our future.
Although “multicultural” is a common word now, it wasn’t when Leo first started writing. His prinking of foreign language words and phrases throughout his book is also a concepto nuevo—a new idea.
Among Politi’s many honors none meant more to him than having an elementary school—the Leo Politi Elementary School in Los Angeles, named for him. Wisely, the school administrators have made sure they have a complete collection of Politi’s books in their library.
Many Angeleᾖos attended the memorial service for Leo Politi when he died in March of 1996 at the age of 87. Harvey D. Kern wrote then, “Los Angeles has lost a part of its very soul.” I would beg to differ, as the wonderful thing about the legacy of an artist is that his work lives on for generations to come.