Characters we can’t forget from 2021

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

In the early 1980s, José Zelaya would seek refuge from El Salvador’s agonizing civil war in the oasis of his imagination. His favorite TV shows were Disney programs, and before he had started kindergarten he was drawing startlingly accurate likenesses of the world’s most recognizable cartoon rodent, along with fanciful creatures modeled on the real fauna and flora that surrounded his home.

Today, as the only native Salvadoran graphic artist and character designer working for Disney Television Animation, Zelaya remembers the colors of the birds, animals and plants of his homeland, the mauves and fuchsias and emerald greens that infuse his work on animated series such as “The Lion Guard” and “Jake and the Never Land Pirates,” and such films as “George of the Jungle” and “Lilo & Stitch.”

In the now almost vanished country that existed before the war, he learned the ways of rabbits and birds, snakes and goldfish and water-skipping basilisk lizards that inhabited the hills and forests around Soyapango, then a largely rural suburb of the capital, San Salvador.

At Disney, his bosses and colleagues agree that Zelaya is a rarity in their world: a self-taught genius.

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