Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Leo Politi

Pedro, the Angel of Olvera Street (Leo Politi, 1946) Politi, a resident of Los Angeles, paid tribute to the city's ethnic neighborhoods in many of his books for children. In this 1947 Caldecott Honor book, the reader sees Los Angeles through the eyes of young Pedro and his grandfather, the older man remarking on the changes he's witnessed as the area transitions from small town to big city. In both his words and images, Politi conveys his deep appreciation for Mexican and Mexican-American culture. A large colorful market scene depicts the flavors, colors, traditions and folk arts of Mexico.The first few pages are a sort of tour of Olvera Street. Pedro shows readers the puestos, the little shops, the food, the artisans (in a double page color illustration of a blacksmith, a sandal maker, a glass blower, a candle maker, a pot maker and a silversmith) and the treats that line Olvera Street.

In Pedro, Politi introduces readers to the holiday Posada tradition that begins with a procession of "pilgrims"--including Mary and Joseph looking for a place to stay--and ends with children breaking a pinata. Because Pedro is known to have a lovely voice, he is selected to be an angel that will lead the Posada. As with some of Politi's other books the parental figure is a grandparent, in this case Pedro's grandfather.

What is especially interesting is that all the residents of Olvera Street are dressed in what appears to be more traditional (and kind of stereotypical) Mexican clothes--sombreros, huaraches, long skirts and shawls or sarapes. Is that really what Mexicans and Mexican-Americans looked like in Los Angeles in the 1940s? Or perhaps it's Politi's way of emphasizing the cultural roots of this community? I've searched for photos of Mexicans / Mexican Americans in the Library of Congress' American Memory site and a number come up that were taken during the Great Depression (including a few by Dorothea Lange), none which show Mexican Americans dressed any differently than, I'm guessing, the average White or African-American person of that period. Which is interesting to me because I've been thinking a lot about how much Latino children's books (books that feature Latinos) are very limited to being specifically about some aspect of a cultural group or the Spanish language. It's very rare to see a brown face in a book for children where that character isn't representative of something Latino. And while I think it's great that there are more and more books for children featuring Latino characters, I'm still bothered by the absence of books in which a brown child is doing things a child of any race in the U.S. would do, s/he just happens to be brown. You know, no blatant sign following the child announcing I'm BROWN! It seems like this approach to writing about brown children hasn't changed in sixty-some years, and it makes me ask the question: is that the only way books with little brown faces see the light of day?




  1. Excellent method to locate photos from that time period---photos that counter what Politi did.

    I've done some work on his book about the swallows. Have you seen it?

  2. Thank you, Debbie. I haven't seen your work on Song of the Swallows but would love to. Will check your site (assuming it is there!)