In Conversation with Margarita Engle and Rafael López
The author and illustrator behind "Bravo!: Poems About Amazing Hispanics", featuring George Meléndez Wright.
Image from "Bravo!" by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Rafael López. Published by Henry Holt and Co.
“Let us save rare species/before it’s too late!”
So reads the last line of Cuban-American author Margarita Engle’s poem about George Meléndez Wright, in her children’s picture book, Bravo! Poems About Amazing Hispanics. Engle’s book, illustrated by Mexican illustrator, Rafael López, shares stories from a spectacular spectrum of humanity, history, and talent through vivid, imaginative portraits and first-person, biographical poems. And these poems circle a common theme: Hispanics and Latinos who faced challenges in enterprising ways—people like George Meléndez Wright.
In her poem about Wright’s brief but brilliant life, Engle highlights his achievement of ascending to chief of the Wildlife Division of the US National Park Service; his advocacy for predators in the parks; his radical vision. In his illustration, López brings out a similar aura of hope and courage: Wright’s gaze is uplifted, young, and optimistic. Behind him, in glowing shades, is his beloved Yosemite National Park.
As long admirers of Engle and López’s work in Bravo!—and in particular, of their portrayal of George Meléndez Wright, the first Hispanic hired to a professional position within the National Park Service—we were thrilled to get the chance to speak with them in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month.
What follows is an abridged and lightly edited version of our conversation.
The George Wright Society: What brought you to George Meléndez Wright’s story?
Margarita Engle: I first heard about him through the Ken Burns special on the National Parks. They just mentioned him very briefly as the first chief of The Wildlife Division. I’m in California and I thought: This is part of California history.
And whether he was Latino or not—what an important thing to be the first scientifically trained chief of the Wildlife Division. And to have made some of these policies that we still use today, like don’t kill the predators. ‘Don’t kill the predators’ is understood very thoroughly now; that if, for instance, there are too many deer, you can’t establish young trees, because the deer will eat all the newly planted trees. There are some just really basic concepts that he introduced. And then I started reading about him and about the National Parks that he helped [lay the groundwork for]: the Everglades and Big Bend. Then, of course, saving the trumpeter swan is a big thing.
Why did you decide to include Wright in Bravo! ?
M: Because I’m a botanist by training, I was fascinated, of course, with the biological work he did. But also, you know, the fact that he grew up in California. Then being of Salvadoreño ancestry. There’s such a huge Salvadoreño population in the US. This is something that children can be proud of. To all the people who assume that Latinos are uneducated and they just came recently. He’d been here a long time and was highly educated. He really is a wonderful role model for children.
Rafael López: I agree with you Margarita. I was surprised to find out about a Latino in this field. And to me that was kind of a ‘wow.’ What a welcome thing. He was such a pioneer in the methodology of scientific research. He was not only just hired [by the Park Service], but he was actually an innovator. And his legacies still apply today.
M: When they’ve done surveys recently, they find that Latinos have a much higher rate of belief in climate change and the need for action. And partly that’s because so many of us work outdoors. I mean we’re the farmworkers; we’re the gardeners; we’re the landscape people. There are many organizations, in bird conservation and forest conservation—there are a lot of groups that are recognizing that Latinos are enthusiastic about climate action in general. (Latino Outdoors is one of the groups.) And not just not just in the US but all over Latin America, especially indigenous peoples.
I’m really curious about your process as co-creators. How did that work?
R: Go ahead, Margarita, because you’re the beginning of the story.
M: The procedure is very traditional. An author writes a manuscript. Hopes to find the publisher. The agent sends it to the editor. The editor chooses the illustrator. And then the editor is a diplomat, who negotiates between the author and illustrator. In theory, we’re never supposed to talk directly to each other, we always take any questions we have to the editor. But once we the book was out and we got to go to conferences and meet each other—now we’re great friends. We’ve also worked together on several other books. So eventually this very strict traditional rule starts to be a little more lenient.
But it starts out that the editor chooses the illustrator and the illustrator makes all decisions about how to define a poem. It’s the illustrator’s prerogative from that point forward.
R: I did research not only on the subjects that she’s talking about, but I also did research about Margarita –before I got to know her. Who is she? Where is she from? What kind of books has she written before? And that prepares you more for what to do, what to try, what to experiment with.
I’m very experimental. And with this book, it was incredibly experimental. A friend of mine had already come out with a similar book, where they were doing features of Latinos, portraits. And he’s amazing. I’ve considered him, since I was in school, one of the people that I look up to. His book had come out a couple of years before this one. And I thought, Oh gosh, here we go. I have to come up to at least that level.
So it allowed me to break away from the traditional way of doing portraits and do something more digital; more graphic and flat. And then I have to give kudos to [our publisher] for allowing me that opportunity. I did a portrait twice. I did one very traditionally and then one, very much like what you see now in the book. And I explained why I wanted to go in this direction. I said I think this will reach a younger audience, that is more into the digital era. And they said go for it. So they gave me the free rein to give it a shot and then there were hardly any comments on anything.
What was the process of Wright’s portrait in particular? Did you choose the image yourself?
R: I did my own research. I started looking at some and you know, [Wright] looked like a movie star. I wanted to find a pose and a look—like he is an idealist. That he sees a bright future for the Park Service. In many of the photos he’s looking down at people. And I wanted to find a photo where he was looking up. And I found the perfect photo.
He needed to be in Yosemite. And I inspired myself with the old travel posters of the time, in the 1930s and 40s. I wanted it to have that sort of a feeling to it. But then bring it up to date. Of course, in Yosemite I needed to have El Capitan. And you have to have that waterfall. And then the look of George, looking up, looking for a brighter future.
So everything just comes together and then you start sketching away.
You mentioned that you were interested in producing an entire children’s book on Wright. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
M: His is actually one of the shortest poems in the book. But he did so much. And I was so fascinated by him, that I thought, well, I really want to do a longer poem about him. And I did. I tried, and found no interest.
And I don’t know whether it’s because he wasn’t well known enough, or because the ending is so sad for children. Even if it’s just written in the historical note at the end, even if it’s not in the body of the main text, the fact that he died so young is so tragic. I remember editors reading it and saying, Oh, how sad. But you can’t leave that out. There’s no other way to explain how his career ended.
What is your general process for these types of biographical poems?
M: Well, it’s actually kind of unusual. Because in a way you could think of it as nonfiction and then in another way, it’s completely creative. Because I write in first person and present tense, usually. So that made it not a typical nonfiction poem. A nonfiction poem is typically written in third person and would not have had the same emotional connection. For me, the most important thing for the young child here is the excitement, the emotional connection; look what this person did. And I felt like I could do that in a first person poem.
What kind of impact do you think Wright’s legacy could have on young people—Latinos, aspiring biologists, conservation-minded individuals—if his story were more widely known today?
M: Well, I think his scientific approach, combined with innovation and perseverance. He didn’t take no for an answer about something like, ‘don’t kill the predators.’ He wasn’t going to let politicians make that decision. That was a scientific decision to him. And I think that that has a tremendous impact. He was a problem solver. And that’s what we need right now. We need some scientific problem solvers in a hurry.
R: I think for me, it was the surprise in the fact that he was in a position that I rarely saw Latinos in. I remember when I said I was going to become an illustrator, my friends were looking at me like, You’re going to be what? This is when I was living at the border, and most of my friends became either engineers or dentists or they did business administration.
So, to see a role model like George saying, Hey, you know, there are openings in different fields. And you can become one of the new pioneers in this field, if you want to. And see it from your background and your cultural point of view. And maybe you can enrich whatever has been done already in this field by bringing your own experience. I see him as a role model for people to say, Let’s get into more fields where we can end up making a difference and making an impact on our society and the world.
M: One thing that happens with Latin Americans that come from a farm background is often that their ambition is to live in the city to get away from the rural background. My Cuban grandmother was living in Miami, when I started visiting Cuba again. And I brought her a jar of Cuban, the very red soil, that’s very distinctive thinking, Oh, this will mean so much to her. And she said, Oh, that horrible stuff that was the mud I could never get out of the hem on my dress. You know, to her growing up on a farm, she didn’t feel nostalgic about it at all. Her ambition had been to live in town.
And that can go the other direction with education, when people realize they don’t have to be manual laborers, in the outdoor fields. They can be, you know, the decision makers.
R: That’s a good point too, also for the inner city people that are minorities—how many of us, how many of them, have a very little chance to go outdoors. I know that there are programs where people go out there and see farms for the first time: inner city kids, mostly minorities, people of color. And some of them have never seen a cow before except in books, right? So, there’s another reason why the life of George Meléndez Wright would be very inspirational. To push people outside, and to try those fields.