CLOVIS -- Margarita Engle's writing prowess is inspired by the intricate beauty entangled in the harsh reality of Cuba's history.
Much of Engle's award-winning novels stem from the past, from characters who lived on the small Caribbean island.
Engle's works, accompanied with elaborate illustration, are kid's novels that tell tales of perseverance in the days of slavery and the countless Cuban revolutions.
The political events contrast the beauty of Cuba in regions like Trinidad, where Engle's grandmother, Josefa Urial Peña, was a child in the midst of turmoil.
Peña is the inspiration for the latest book 'The Wild Book,' which Engle has sculpted on the words of her late grandmother, who grew up in the early 1900s along the south-central coastal region overlooking the Caribbean.
Bandits had ruled some territories and would present farmers with pre-written hostage notes, unless monetary demands were met.
Peña, who was born in 1901 and died in 2005, was a guajira (a campesina or country folk, farmworker), according to Engle.
"She was ashamed to be a guajira; she wanted to be a city girl. She had many brothers and sisters, and she struggled with a learning disorder," said Engle.
"It was called 'word blindness' in the early 1900s, and she went through this her entire life. She felt inferior, so it's a story of perseverance against a backdrop of turmoil right after the U.S. occupation."
Veracruz native Yuyi Morales illustrated the cover of 'The Wild Book." Her art is depicted by a young, dark-haired girl writing in a leafy-covered book, symbolizing the roots of a blank page. A transparent dove hovers over her left eye, symbolizing the eyes of a dyslexic. At bottom is an alligator, a characteristic of Cuba.
"Titles are like poetry," Engle said of her books, "there's something unexpected. I'm not on purpose putting things together; unexpected things join each other."
Engle's work has earned her the Pura Belpré Medal, the Newberry honor, and the Jane Addams Award, among other honors.
She is the first Latina to receive a Newberry honor.
Rosa, the main character in 'The Surrender Tree,' which was translated to Spanish, nurses the victims of the revolution. The piece earned Engle the Newberry in 2009. 'The Surrender Tree' is set in the late-19th century.
Engle's parents, artists Martin and Eloise Mondrus, have an influencial and romantic past that started on the island.
Martín Mondrus traveled to Cuba after seeing the richness of the country in a photo layout of a 1947 issue of National Geographic magazine.
"He was an American artist in L.A. He saw pictures of her hometown with the colonial architecture. He went there to paint, and on the first day there, he met an art student, my mother," Engle said.
"He only spoke English, and she, Spanish. And they met in a colonial palace that was converted to an art school in 1947."
The palace is now the Museo Romántico, a museum that exhibits romantic-era art.
Mondrus continues to produce art in Los Ángeles.
Engle, who taught at California State Polytechnic University in the early 1980s, was further influenced by the work of Tomás Rivera, whom she said "is a pioneer author and poet, and migrant farmworker."
Deep-rooted in Cuban history, Engle also authored 'The Poet Slave of Cuba,' an biographical account of Juan Francisco Manzano.
"He was a slave in Cuba in the early 1800s, who taught himself how to read. As a child, I really wanted to learn about him," she said.
Engle was raised in Los Ángeles, and her family made frequent trips each summer to Cuba. She formed a deep bond with her mother's extended family. As an adult, she continues her travels to Cuba, but recalls the closure due to the Cuban Missle Crisis of the 1960s.
"I was 11 years old, and forced to separate from my extended family. I have really chosen to write about what's important to me," said Engle.
"I enjoy writing about the historical topics ... the real people from history."
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