The culture of the Latinidad is as vibrant and diverse as the people in it. That beauty is reflected by the artisans who take their experiences and turn them into masterpieces. It’s this artistry that gives the world a glimpse of our heritage and preserves it for future generations forever. One such artist who utilizes the colors, memories, and people of her homeland is Illustrator Mirelle Ortega.
Represented by the Bright Agency, Ortega is a freelance illustrator from Veracruz. As a young girl, she knew she wanted to create art before she could even put a name to her passion.
“I remember being very, very young and being asked what I wanted to do,” Ortega recently shared in an interview with FIERCE. “I pointed to the cartoons on tv and I was like ‘I want to do that.’ I wasn’t sure what “that” was but someone had to be making it!”
For Ortega, cartoons were more than just the doorway to her future career.
CREDIT: Mirelle Ortega
These pieces of her childhood have offered Ortega some of the biggest inspirations for her own work. “I think animation is definitely a huge influence in my work, particularly style-wise,” Ortega explained. “It was also kind of a great blueprint for me in terms of how to craft a story.”
As an illustrator, Ortega’s job is to tell a story through her art. In fact, sometimes she’s only given one image to tell an entire tale. An example of this is the gorgeous book covers she creates for middle-grade fiction. Ortega is the illustrator behind the covers for Anna Meriano’s “Love Sugar Magic” series. The artwork on the cover of a book can sometimes be as important as its description on the back.
Especially when you’re crafting something for children. Ortega’s artistry is able to convey the magic of Meriano’s stories with a single image.
“It was my first big project with a big publishing house and I was very nervous,” Ortega explained of the covers. “But I was in love with the concept from the start and I was even more in love with the book when I did get to read it. I was really trying to convey all of the fun and whimsy of the world Anna created in the covers.”
“Love Sugar Magic” isn’t Ortega’s only contribution to the world of Middle Grade fiction. This year saw her work on “Vote for Effie,” the first novel in the “Effie” series from author Laura Wood. Debuting in January 2019, the series explores the life of middle schooler Effie as she runs for class president.
This project was slightly different from “Love Sugar Magic” because Ortega created both the cover and interior artwork. As a matter of fact, it pushed the illustrator out of her comfort zone. “It was a bit of an artistic challenge for me,” claimed Ortega. “I’ve always felt my strong suit as an artist is color and the illustrations in this book are black and white. But it turns out I really enjoyed working in black and white. With these illustrations, I was really trying to convey the personalities of the characters and the feelings in Laura’s words.”
Though Ortega works on various projects every year, these covers have a special sentimentality.
CREDIT: Mirelle Ortega / HarperCollins Publishers
“Growing up I always read a lot, and I read a lot of middle-grade books,” Ortega added. “I personally feel I learned a lot from those books about life and how other people live and feel differently. I think the beauty of it is that middle-grade writers tackle very big ideas and concepts and they make it accessible for pretty much everyone. So I am extremely happy to be a part of that.”
While these works have been significant to Ortega, her most personal projects come from a place closer to her heart. Besides growing up in Veracruz, Ortega also stayed in Mexico to study at the Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey.
Even when she relocated to study in San Francisco, the illustrator still remained close to her Mexican roots through her art.
“I don’t think my culture could ever not be a part of my art,” Ortega explained. “It’s a part of who I am and it’s something that shaped the lens through which I see the world. I grew up in rural Mexico and I LOVE my home. I feel like a lot of the things I do are a reflection of that.”
With this touch of home in mind, images from her childhood often pop up in her projects. This past year, Ortega contributed to No Estamos Todas— a visual project that helps create awareness of gender-based violence in Mexico. For her contribution, Ortega drew from Veracruz. The Latina illustrated a hauntingly beautiful depiction of a lone girl juxtaposed by a group of almost ghostly Jarocha dancers.
Since cartoons of her childhood are also a huge influencer on Ortega’s style, it’s no surprise she’d put her own spin on her favorites.
In her collection of Mexican fairytales, the illustrator reinterprets these classic stories. Incorporating symbols and imagery from the Latinidad, her ethnicity-bent upgrades offer a fresh and colorful take on timeless tales. With her Chiapas-styled Alice in Wonderland, Rapunzel with long, brown hair and Mexican Cinderella, Ortega created new takes for little Latinas to love.
It’s these images inspired by her home that Ortega would most like to be known for.
“I’ve been doing a lot of illustrations about my home back in Mexico and exploring themes that are a little more personal to me,” Ortega shared. “People have responded really positively to it. I actually get super emotional sometimes when people write to me and say things like they really identified with a drawing or that it brought back a lot of happy memories for them. They’re really personal drawings and to see other people share those emotions is mind-blowing.”
Ortega’s dream of becoming an artist has been actualized and her reflection of home is clear in every aspect of her art. As a society, our understanding of each other can only grow if more artists and creators follow a similar path. As we share pieces of ourselves, we share our cultural identities. Without a doubt, that’s the point of art.