La Pintora Lita

I’m drafting an article for Wikipedia on La Pintora LIta (“Lita”), who gained fame in Mexico in the middle of last century for her remarkably beautiful portraits of bullfighters, businessmen & their wives, and politicians. She also made pencil portraits of her children, especially of her daughter, Mimi, and these were filled with astonishing love.

Lita was my grandmother. One day, not long after she had broken her shoulder in on the way home from Ralph’s in Los Angeles (and not far from where OJ Simpson would end up in infamy) she asked us if we’d rather she be our grandmother or continue her life as an artist. We, my brother and I, were 9 and 10, but we spoke immediately and univocally that we’d rather she stay the famous Lita. (Famous: a letter sent to her some time in the late 50s go to her even though it only had, “La Pintora Lita” as the address.)

But she didn’t really return to her art and she instead descended slowly into retirement. Yet, surrounded by some of the best of her work, and by all the loving portraits of her children and grandchildren, surrounded as we always had been, and by the consciousness of her fame, I almost missed that descent until much later. 

She died 20 years ago; her birthday, on 6 September, remains something that my brother and I remember. (My mother, Mimi, would call me on its anniversary, but no longer: she passed away last August, after a swift decline in Guadalajara, which she never really liked as much as her beloved DF.) Her wake–there was no proper funeral and no one expected it, as we are all atheists, but there was a wake, and that was amazingly and brutally cathartic–made me want to gather the leaves of her work and effects before they were all scattered. As a scholar who studied a lot of dead people’s work, I was and remain familiar with what happens to people after death. Unless they are lucky, their effects and memories are caught and carried on by many, diffused and refracted across personalities and distances: puzzle jigsawed. This is our fate.

But I thought that Lita’s would be different; after all, she was famous. But not, I learned soon, famous enough, and not famous enough to overcome the resistance of the living to memorialize her–a process that is often painful because, at the least, it can force into evidence the memory of things long hidden. And no one but those having nothing to lose like that process of discovery. Certainly not some members of my family. 

And even in the absence of the threat of harm it still takes a tremendous amount of energy to uncover and then put together someone else’s past. It’s one thing to compile a memory book of photographs, it’s quite another to go to the many who own the portrait and ask for the permission to record it for posterity. That’s especially the case when the visit to the owner of the portrait puts the seeker in the odd position of a frame whose identity betrays the seeker. I mean, of course, that if my mother had asked for permission to record–photograph or whatever–the portrait owned by the family of the deceased bullfighter or businessperson, she would have to confront the thorny fact that people knew her, if at all, as Lita’s daughter, not as someone who strove, all her life–and with mixed success–to be her own woman. The acquisition of the past is never without its consequences, and these can be very personal indeed, especially if one’s own present is never as secure as one would wish.

I Googled Lita today. I’ve done that before, but the reality given by Google changes as people use it. But nothing pertaining to Lita–Dolores Laura Balch (married name was “Potts”, but she never ever used that, at least as long as I knew her)–came up. Her most famous work nowadays  (and its still on display, I believe, in Mexico)–is a black and white pencil portrait of a young Indian girl with her baby brother; or perhaps a young mother with her baby. It’s called El Mexicanito, and upon Lita’s death was the subject of some family dispute. But that’s boring.

What I’d like to see if it’s feasible to gather representations of her work so that I can write my Wikipedia article. Her life is interesting enough to merit such an article, and it also provides a lens on mid-20th century Mexican culture. And US postwar culture, particularly as it would relate to women.

That last part is of some interest. Lita was abandoned by her husband of 17 years right after the War, sent to Mexico to stay with her father on the promise that her husband with join her shortly. He didn’t; in fact, it turns out he had another wife, in Los Angeles, and turned to her. But LIta and her two children (a third was kept with the father and would later join the Navy at a preposterously young age) were left abandoned with a family still reeling from her father’s Lupus and the losses of the Great Depression, in Hermosillo, Mexico.

She stayed there a very short time and, for reasons I don’t quite understand, to this day, left for DF with my mother and uncle (8 and 3) and fairly quickly found work as a commercial artist. She had never done that before. But the great Cantinflas recognized her talent (which I think a friend had exposed him to; Cantinflas had a patron’s generosity) got her a job as the artist in a fairly large company. Her talent was such and her brains, too, that she very quickly was able to establish her identity as, effectively *the* artist for the Mexican bullfighting ring.

Think about that. Here is he, a woman of a certain age with three children, whose Spanish was thick with American vowels, but who had decent family from both sides of the border, creating portraits of bullfighters at a time when Hemingway’s romance of the crowd was strong and masculine–and perhaps that’s why she, an American woman achingly pure and proper, could enter into the ring and do so well and be so loved.

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