As a child in the 80s, José Zelaya drew what he saw: El Salvador’s civil war. Even then, Zelaya knew he wanted to work for Disney. “In El Salvador, I remember telling my mom, ‘Mom, one day, I want to work for Mickey Mouse,” he said. “My mother said, ‘There is nothing impossible for God.’ And that’s stayed with me since I was 6 years old.”
But the reality was that El Salvador was going through a dark period of time, and his parents didn’t want to stay and risk having their son recruited as a child soldier. The civil war started a few years after the 40-year-old was born in San Miguel, and it didn’t end until he was a teenager. By the time he was 12, he and his family had relocated to Los Angeles.
Despite a bumpy road assimilating to a new culture, Zelaya never lost his passion for art, El Diario reports. As a high schooler, he entered a contest to design an anti-tobacco poster, and wound up receiving a scholarship to an animation school in Santa Monica.
On one lucky Friday, Disney employees checked out his work, and by Monday, he was working for the company. “It was that easy,” he said. His first job title was additional character designer on 90s kid favorite Recess. In the following years, he also worked on Futurama, Lloyd in Space, Lilo & Stitch: The Series, and The Emperor’s New School.
His most important work – at least to those closest to him – may be on Jake and the Neverland Pirates, because nothing is a bigger sign that you’ve made it than having a character look like you. He and the Disney Junior show’s main character, Jack, share a face. “Sometimes my family tells me that [Jake, the pirate], looks like me,” he said. “You always put your own expressions, your own self, because as an animator, you are the actor.”
Zelaya is invested in the next generation of animators. Last year, Zelaya held a workshop for members of the Animation Student League of Northridge. After talking about how he designs a character, he took the time to give the students feedback on their work. (Check out what he told them here.)