Let’s Talk Illustrators #191: Erika Meza

There’s little chance at this point you haven’t heard about My Two Border Towns, written by David Bowles and illustrated by Erika Meza, and there’s good reason for that! Today I’m excited to jump on the praise train and share my conversation with Erika, who discusses her inspiration for the imagery and the evolution of the characters! Enjoy!

About the book:

Early one Saturday morning, a boy prepares for a trip to The Other Side/El Otro Lado. It’s close–just down the street from his school–and it’s a twin of where he lives. To get there, his father drives their truck along the Rio Grande and over a bridge, where they’re greeted by a giant statue of an eagle. Their outings always include a meal at their favorite restaurant, a visit with Tío Mateo at his jewelry store, a cold treat from the paletero, and a pharmacy pickup. On their final and most important stop, they check in with friends seeking asylum and drop off much-needed supplies.

Let’s talk Erika Meza!

LTPB: How did you become the illustrator of My Two Border Towns? What is your personal connection to David’s text?

EM: Well, I didn’t really learn this until once we started promoting the book a few weeks ago, but apparently David singled me out to Joanna Cardenas (our editor) as the one illustrator he would like to work with. And frankly, I am more than relieved that nobody said anything – the pressure I would’ve felt to try and live up to these expectations would’ve been enormous!!

Instead, my version of the story was that my agent emailed me the text and asked me if I’d like to do this. Before I read the story, I recognized the names – both David’s and Joanna’s – and I knew straight away I wanted to say yes to it. But reading the actual text made me want to sit down. Here were the details of home, and a very unique home at that: the dad’s opening line saying they were about to go al otro lado – our way in which we refer to the other side of the border – was enough to make me tear up. But nostalgia aside, the work was a piece of poetic beauty, and one aligning with my obsessions and my frustrations, as we later see on the crossing bridge. This was a book I would’ve done even if I hadn’t had the time to do: I would’ve made the time!

LTPB: Can you talk a little bit about the visual evolution of the characters we meet? As you got to know the story better, how did your illustrations evolve? What did you find to be the most challenging part for you?

EM: The protagonist was the tricky one. I sketched from photo loads of Mexican boys, from all over the country – since any one boy can be found at the border. A lot of economic migrants come and go (my family being one of them), and they will come from all over the country, from every economical backgrounds – and therefore, in all colors. But I couldn’t have a single boy that faithfully represented all of that!

What eventually weighed in and enabled me to focus my efforts, though, was that out of my two siblings and myself, my middle brother was the darker one. We all found it difficult to see ourselves in films, television, books – but I think he had an extra level of difficulty. He couldn’t be Batman, he couldn’t be James Bond, he couldn’t be Buzz Lightyear. As soon as I came to this realization, I was determined to make it so that any boy like my brother could see themselves on this book. And so, the rebel hair (gallito) that refuses to be the way you combed it, the wide nose, and more iconically the ears, it all became a wink to my little brother.

The overall environment was not as difficult. I lived for ten years in the border, in Tijuana, and still come back to it every time I visit the family. I know it well. The challenge, though, was that the kind of story David had written could only happen in the town he wrote it at, which is largely inspired by Nuevo Progreso, on his Texas side of the border. Tijuana is a huge, fast, complicated city, and this called for a smaller place. So what I ended up doing was to create my own town: I spent hours and hours on Google maps, going round familiar streets in Tijuana, exploring Nuevo Progreso for the first time, and sketching anything and everything that caught my eye anywhere. Buildings, lampposts, clocks, telephone booths, kiosks, food stalls, characters. I put everything and anything in my sketchbook. And then, once I had enough, I referred only to that when building the world: the result is that, on the spread when we present the Mexican town (that took two weeks!), you have details like a dental practice from Nuevo Progreso right on the corner with my favorite Tijuana bar. And lets face it; the best details in the backgrounds could’ve never ever ever be made up: the giant dog on the veterinary clinic on the cover (a Nuevo Progreso jewel), the hand-painted signs, the businesses… there is even hidden, real characters, like my mum, my best friends, my aunt – or Don Francisco Gutiérrez – who suffered from polio at a young age and moves in an avalancha – a kind of skateboard – who lives in Tijuana, Don Wicho, who dresses up as characters for children and sells elotes in the Colonia El Rubí, or Don Rosario, the paletero who went viral in the early days of the pandemic, when I was starting to paint this book. He’s technically not a border character; he’s from Zacatecas and lives in Chicago. But he was so lovely, and I was so touched – and the text called for a paletero! So I just gave him a plastic bag of Calimax (A Tijuana supermarket), and named him an honorary border character: the border, after all, welcomes everyone and anyone. Which brings me to the one big regret I have for this book: not including the Haitian community. I hadn’t been home in a while when I painted this book, and then I was able to go home for two months in the start of 2021… it was a wonderful, heart warming surprise to see so many Haitian migrants playing an active role in Tijuana’s economy. They speak the slang, they hang out in the cool places – they are even working serving tacos in taco stands, which is top tier Mexican cultural integration, I’d argue!

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book? Is this your preferred medium? How does your process change from book to book?

EM: This is definitely my favorite medium, yes. But – is it a medium? I don’t really know. It is a mix of gouache (for the intense colors), watercolor (for the ones I don’t want to mix every time), Posca markers (for the details), watercolor pencils (for the character sketches, their features and their skin tones) and Photoshop (for the skin tones, to keep them consistent, as well as the later edits. It definitely is the way I prefer to draw: directly on the paper, allowing unexpected mistakes to happen. It may drive some art directors nuts, but the Kokila team gave me freedom to just allow all kinds of happenstances that made the world richer – which is, I would argue, how my process changes. I just allow the book to reveal itself. Sometimes it happens when I start erasing things, or when I try to correct an ink mistake, or when the cat knocks something on the table. I’ve found that, sadly, when I start to be micromanaged in the art (which is fair! it is just different styles of work!) my books kind of look the same, for I’ve taken the usual shortcuts. Those that stand out – like this one! – are always, always the ones where I was allowed to have fun.

LTPB: What are you working on now? Anything you can show us?

EM: Hooooooo… I’ve been busy. Very busy. I cannot show you anything just yet, but the covers should be announced very, very soon – I have coming up another book about Mexico! This one ended up being extremely personal, allowing me to show the inside details of a Mexican home, and I chose to use my grandparents as reference for it. Second book is a childhood dream book: I was asked to do a book about Monarch butterflies. I am dying to share that one; it is *lush*! I’ve hand-painted thousands of butterflies for it, on meter-long original spreads! And the third one… the third one is a secret. A big, big, big secret. But – without revealing what it is about – I can tell you that I had never, ever, ever been as free as I’ve been on this book. I am about to start painting it, and I’m both incredibly excited and completely terrified!

LTPB: If you got the chance to write your own picture book autobiography, who (dead or alive!) would you want to illustrate it, and why?

EM: It would frankly depend on the style of my life you went for. IF we were for the facts and nothing but the facts, in a very realistic way, then I would need to recruit Leo Espinosa – his handling of urban landscapes, diversity and dynamic movement would suit my Mexican towns, the border and the sudden change to Europe. And he would be able to handle the downs of the story magnificently. But if it were a picture book that took all that and turned it into a whimsical, almost comic tale – the one I tell at parties when someone asks me how I got here – then, I would need my evil twin Flavia Z. Drago. I know she would be able to create a world that is joyful and colorful and very Mexican, and yet still leave subtle clues on her trail that told the *whole* dimension of the story. Plus, I would really love to see what I would look like in her style!

Many, many thank-yous to Erika for talking to me about her debut picture book! My Two Border Towns published last week from Kokila!

Special thanks to Erika and Kokila for use of these images!

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September 21, 2021 at 10:37AM noreply@blogger.com (Mel Schuit)