Jess Espanola: Hungry In the Philippines, He Drew For Food; Now He Has a Simpsons Emmy
KCET Departures asks, "What's your or your family's Los Angeles arrival story?" Today, we hear from Emmy Award-winning animator and The Simpsons assistant director, Jess Espanola:
"I came from the Philippines. I was born a poor boy. My mother was raped and my father abandoned me.
"My mother was a victim of World War II. When the Japanese invaded the Philippines, her father - my grandfather - was killed. He was fishing by the sea and he didn't come home. So my mother and her sister grew up without their parents. My grandmother left them with relatives to go to work as a maid in Manila.
"When she was about sixteen years old, my mother ran away from the province - from Guimaras, an island where they speak the Ilonggo dialect. She went to look for her mother.
"She found her, but after such a long time apart it was hard for them to develop a rapport. So my mother moved to the house of a fellow Ilonggo woman whom she met in Manila. My mother became a maid for her - just like her mother was a maid - so she could go to school.
"My mother was beautiful, she was intelligent, she was popular in school for her talent in declamation. She started being courted by her classmates. Then the father of that family where she served, he noticed her and then he raped her.
"She got pregnant as a result. And since rape in the Philippines was taboo at that time, she kept this scandalous ordeal secret. She just went away. She was 'adopted' by her friend and went to another nearby city called Caloocan, which is now part of metropolitan Manila.
"That's where I was born. Her friend gave me my name - Jesus - because I was born December 23. My mother took on odd jobs, like doing laundry for neighbors, to try to earn a living. Sometimes she would sell slippers or women's clothing. Then she met a man who became her husband, and we moved from Caloocan to Pampanga, another province with its own dialect.
"When I was five-years-old, I first held a pencil and paper and I started drawing with my left hand - without even learning how to write my name. My mother, because her religious superstitious belief forbade me to use my left hand, instructed me to use my right hand in holding a pencil. I was in Coloocan at the time and this continued until my teachers at elementary school in Pampanga noticed that I could draw."
"In the countryside, people are poor. Even though they are producing the food by farming, they are hungry. That's the irony of it.
"Most of the time I would go to school without eating - no breakfast, no lunch, literally no food. Since the teachers knew my situation, they would hire me to draw for them. That's how I earned my money to buy food, beginning when I was twelve-years-old."
"After I graduated from elementary school as a valedictorian, I dreamed of a high school education. But my stepfather didn't want me to go to school any more, he just wanted me to go to the farm and work. So I left.
"I had almost no money, one bag of clothes and a big dream of becoming educated. I didn't want to waste my talent and abilities. Because at that time, I already realized that through education, I could get out of poverty.
"I was able to go to public school. But I still experienced hunger, even in high school. Because it was the same situation - I was living with a poor family.
"I was hired as a dishwasher to earn money to pay for my schooling. There was no machine, you had to do it manually. The same was true with my mother and her laundry service.
"During my first year of high school, one of my practical arts teachers - that's like a vocational teacher - saw my talent. He was an eighty-year-old man. He had a portrait studio many years before but had to close it down during World War II.
"He gave me extra-curricular training outside the class. He taught me to use watercolors and to improve with pencils and charcoals. He saw something in me and gave me special attention. I was able to use that for my survival."
"In 1983, Burbank Animation Studios, from Australia, put up a studio in the Philippines - basically because of cheap labor.
"I had graduated from the University of the Philippines, College of Fine Arts - I worked my way through school; I had to drop out once because I couldn't afford to stay even when I had free tuition as a college scholar. In 1985, I was hired to work at the animation studio.
"The next year, Hanna-Barbera came to the Philippines. First, they hired a studio, but after two years they put up their own, called Fil-Cartoons Inc. It was the biggest animation studio in the Philippines of the 1980s and 1990s. I eventually moved to Fil-Cartoons Inc. I drew the Flintstones, Yogi Bear, Scooby Doo, Tom and Jerry, Captain Planet and the Planeteers, Pirates of the Dark Water, The Addams Family, and Johnny Quest. We are doing three shows side-by-side, most of the time.
"Here in the U.S., we do just one show at a time. But many shows from here were sent to the Philippines for cheap labor and production costs. And at the time, animators here lost their jobs.
"Also at that time, Hanna-Barbera was taking jobs from other studios - shows like Paddington Bear, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventures, Police Academy, The Dream Stone, Timeless Tales From Hallmark episodes, Young Robin Hood.
"In 1991, I was sent for two-and-a-half months by Fil-Cartoons to the mother studio, Hanna-Barbera, on Cahuenga Boulevard.
"I flew from Manila to LAX. I stayed at Academy Village Apartment in North Hollywood near the studio. At that time, I didn't like Los Angeles - it was a different way of life.
"I felt lonely here. In Manila, I used to see people around a lot in the streets - Manila is a busy, stimulated place. But here, I didn't see anyone, only cars passing by.
"So I departed Los Angeles as planned. I thought I was going to grow old in the Philippines. But Fil-Cartoons was slowly falling down and Hanna-Barbara was not sending any more shows to the Philippines. The economic situation in the Philippines, especially in the animation industry, was not getting better.
"In 1994 I was recruited by the manager of an entertainment company located in Van Nuys. This man loved Filipino talent - he wanted to hire only Filipinos and some Irish guys. He told me that he wanted to establish an empire of Filipino animators.
"This man promised to sponsor some of us for our green cards. But one month after we arrived, he was no longer part of the company. At that time, we were just tourists here. We were only allowed to stay for six months.
"I was jobless for three of those months. I spent, little-by-little, the money I'd saved. I would buy a burrito at Taco Bell for ninety cents and then use ten more cents for coffee.
"I found work at a studio located in Glendale that made CD-Rom games. This lasted two years. The company sponsored me for my work visa and for a green card, but before my immigrant status came through, the studio closed. I lost $6,000 to a lawyer and I lost my sponsorship.
"Soon I was hired by Film Roman, the company that does King of the Hill and The Simpsons. After three months of being a character layout artist on King of the Hill, I was promoted to be an assistant director.
"I drew all of the characters on King of the Hill. In feature film animation, you're only assigned to one character that you're good at, but in TV animation, you have to do them all.
"Then, Futurama, another creation of Matt Groening, was starting at Rough Draft Studios on Brand Boulevard in Glendale. I moved and worked there for four years as assistant director. Rough Draft is like my second home. I loved working there.
"I sponsored myself in case I lost my employment again. I had to apply for an 0-1 visa. 0-1 is given to scientists and people with 'extraordinary' ability. I was able to get that visa but then I was denied on my green card because I was told that I lacked documents to prove myself as an extraordinary artist!
"With all my credentials that I worked in Hanna-Barbera and all those shows, immigration didn't believe that I had extraordinary ability. So I lost another $6,000.
"Immigration takes a long time. Eventually, I got approved, in 2006. It took ten years before I got my green card, and I'd already spent $25,000 renewing my work permit and paying the lawyers.
"I was able to petition my immediate family here. In 1995, my wife and my two kids came. My daughter was four-years-old and my son was six. They spoke Tagalog so fluently. Now, they understand Tagalog but they can't speak it anymore.
"Since moving to the region, I've lived in Carlsbad, briefly, then Glendale for three years, then Eagle Rock for the past thirteen years. Eagle Rock is a big Filipino community. Just like Carson, National City in San Diego and Daly City in San Francisco."
"In 2002, the Futurama episode 'Roswell That Ends Well,' won the Emmy [for Outstanding Animated Program.] I was an assistant director to the supervising director who did the show.
"At the time, assistant directors were not included in the nomination. But once the director of Futurama became an Emmy governor, he insisted among the governors that assistant directors should be included in the nomination.
"I moved to The Simpsons in 2003. Working on The Simpsons is fun, just like working on Futurama. We all enjoy it, we laugh when we read the script or the storyboard. And its not just me and my colleagues - I've witnessed a table reading by the voice actors. When they say their lines, they are laughing, they are having fun.
"Homer Simpson is my favorite character to work on. He's the funniest - he's stupid, but he has some level of intelligence with his personality and he also has compassion.
"My personal artistic influences don't show up in the work, because I have to follow the script, I have to follow the style of The Simpsons. But I can contribute to the funniness of the comedy. Sometimes the writers and producers laugh out loud at my jokes. I apply my sense of comedy - Filipino comedy, slapstick comedy.
"Charlie Chaplin was on TV when I was growing up. I used to watch him. I also enjoyed Hanna-Barbera shows and Warner Brothers cartoons - I love Speedy Gonzales.
"The Philippines doesn't usually figure into the show. I do remember that when the Simpsons family went into financial crisis, Marge started buying cheap Filipino groceries. Bart started complaining to Marge about why she buys those kinds of food? There are other jokes where Filipinos are mentioned, but when the final cut of the episode comes out, the particular scene has been edited out.
"Some Filipinos might get offended [by such jokes] but I don't. Because it's a reality. I mean, the Philippines is a Third World country! What can you expect?
"When I was in high school, for my birthday my girl classmates saved all their coin allowances. They asked me to sit on the chair at the center of the classroom with my eyes closed. When I opened my eyes, they gave me a wallet full of coins as a gift. I can't forget that. It's embarrassing - they were all girls and when you are a teenager you want to be a tough guy to impress girls - but I was in need.
"I use Facebook to stay in touch with people from where I came. On Facebook, I told those girls, 'This is what you did for me!' I still remember it. One of the girls said she still has the portrait I did of her.
"In 2008, The Simpsons episode 'Eternal Moonshine of the Simpson Mind' won an Emmy. [For Outstanding Animated Program Less Than An Hour.] This time, I received one. I'm told that I was the first Filipino to win. Americans of Filipino descent have won in other career fields, but I'm not a U.S. citizen yet. Next year, I will apply for citizenship.
"My friend David Casuco is a writer here for a Filipino newspaper. He interviewed me about the Emmy and wrote an article that was published in all the Filipino newspapers here and on the Internet. Popular newspapers in the Philippines picked up the story. And two big TV stations in the Philippines interviewed me - ABS-CBN-2 and GMA-7 for their programming. I told the interviewers that I would speak to them in Tagalog so that my fellow Filipinos, especially those who are not given proper education or higher education, could understand what I wanted to say about the value of hard work.
"If you have a talent that you love, then utilize it, develop it to improve yourself, keep on practicing your skill and have your dream. Even if you are at the point of starving, keep on persevering.
"A lot of people, they easily give up when they experience difficulties and suffering. But I kept myself busy working, with prayers and with inspiration. Instead of being rebellious, instead of thinking, 'I'm going to find my father and kill him,' I decided, 'Why not just make myself better?
"That's something I've noticed - when a person grows up living in a well-off community, with all that money can give, their personality or character can become weak. My experience of suffering, my hunger - has made me strong."
-- Jess Espanola (as told to Jeremy Rosenberg)
Photos: Courtesy Jess Espanola. Emmy photo by Mathew Imaging