Becoming Pablo O’Higgins is a study of character that questions identity, integrity, authenticity and ultimately loyalty. This newly released biography by Susan Vogel successfully stages the high drama and color of the Diego Rivera-led golden age of post revolutionary Mexico. It is a complex and dynamic environment of culture and polemics that a young, quiet and impressionable Paul Higgins, born in 1904 to a conservative Presbyterian bourgeois family in Salt Lake City, would find himself drawn to. It would form the backdrop to the life of the artist known to history and legend as Pablo O’Higgins.
Vogel introduces the reader first to early Mormon history culminating in their settlement in Utah. We learn of the populating of Salt Lake City by miners causing complex political and moral conflict and labor disputes. We learn through Vogel’s research a convincing account of Paul’s origins, which are questioned by many as we soon learn that the future artist kept his youth a secret from all. Vogel attests to Paul’s family ancestry, of Paul’s own stern father, the first judge in Utah and the half-hearted marriage to Paul’s mother Alice. Paul is introduced to the reader only after this substantial history, which proves significant as what Vogel establishes gives reason for the push and pull of much of Paul’s long term conflicts.
Paul is said to have attended two years of high school in Salt Lake City and is said to have studied art for a brief time with LeConte Stewart, but the details are not absolutely certain as time was divided between Utah and San Diego. It is also uncertain what, if any formal art training Paul received in San Diego. Much extant literature names San Francisco as his birthplace. Did he or did he not work as an offshore man as he claimed vehemently in his years as a communist? According to Vogel, Paul’s mother suggested in 1924 that her son journey to Mexico City and meet the famed Diego Rivera, the Mexican communist muralist, and offer his assistance. Paul’s reluctant father drove him to the border from San Diego with 100 dollars in his pocket to begin his life in Mexico. From this point the history is well documented and unequivocal.
Paul, who quickly assimilated Mexican living, changed his first name to Pablo and although he had only English decent, added the O to his last name and became Pablo O’Higgins. Pablo was not trying to convince anyone that he was Mexican; he had blond hair, bright blue eyes and was tall. But according to Vogel, Pablo’s intentions were to align himself with the PMC, the Communist Mexican Party. Throughout his life, Pablo kept his past before Mexico a secret with perpetual attempts to prove himself as something other than a gringo. Pablo hid the fact that he was from Salt Lake City, from a bourgeois family, or especially the fact that his father upheld the ruling in the infamous Joe Hill murder trial that Joe Hill would be executed, and he was- obvious reason for the mystery of Pablo’s youth. These facts would have eliminated the Mexicanist-communist Pablo O’Higgins from having any future with the “party,” particularly as Joe Hill became a martyr for the proletariat and The Ballad of Joe Hill was sung for generations.
The first thirty-five years of Pablo’s life in Mexico are explored in great detail. We find him in fraternal fashion allied with the Mexican worker who was energized from the successful revolution and armed with a new constitution. Like a true communist, Pablo considered his vocation as a muralist no different than the work of any laborer and painted the peasant, the capitalist antagonist as well as revolutionary and soviet themes. As the depression would eventually temper the flair of the golden age and the approaching Second World War would eventually usher in the era of McCarthyism, Pablo’s life became increasingly difficult, as it did for all who had been a “member” or still had ties with communism. Vogel does a laudable job of weaving the details of these complicated thirty-five years of Pablo O’Higgins life and includes characterizations of many endearing relationships, Pablo’s own development as an artist and focuses on one of his most inherently valuable contributions to art, co-founding the People’s Graphic Workshop, the TGP, a propaganda motivated print works to combat threats like Fascism with facilities still in operation today.
According to Vogel’s biography Pablo O’Higgins lived life on a large scale. He did not ascend the heights of success as did many of his contemporaries as he simply lacked the skills that come from substantial training. But it is expressed that Pablo cared less about the human form and more about the human being. The reader gets to understand this artist/activist/humanist and overlook the conflicting stories of his past and ever-present mystery, the truth of which will never fully be known or accepted. Yet there was a sudden change in Pablo’s life leaving the reader wondering if they understand him at all.
Pablo married María de Jesús de la Fuente in 1959 and together they lived for twenty-four years until Pablo died in 1983 aged 79. Vogel glides through these last twenty-four years of Pablo’s life describing one apparently lived in bourgeois opulence. Pablo isolated himself in his studio when not entertaining the upper-crust of Mexico City with his wife. But María is portrayed as a controlling and manipulating spouse who played the part of an agent more than a loving wife. One wonders why, when Pablo, still young when he married, allowed himself to be controlled by María, who personified many qualities Pablo had fought against for for thirty-five years; his compassionate soul may have turned cold. The vague accounts of Pablo in this twenty-four year period are not adequate for the reader to formulate a solid conclusion, especially as Vogel concludes the biography stating that Pablo was still a “painter of the people,” which according to those interviewed was no longer the case. The book concludes with a shroud of mystery and inconsistency, the same as that connected to his youth.