The San Juan Daily Star
After Marvel blockbuster, Indigenous actress holds fast to Maya roots
By Julia Lieblich
For her big underwater scene in “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” Guatemalan actress María Mercedes Coroy had to hold her breath as her character, Princess Fen, gives birth in a hazy ocean world to a winged serpent son.
She emerges from the watery depths as a rarity even in Marvel’s fantastical universe: a female Maya superhero.
The day after filming her final scene in Los Angeles, Coroy, rather than hanging out in Hollywood, headed home to Santa María de Jesús, a Kaqchikel Maya town of about 22,000 at the base of a volcano in Guatemala. By nightfall, she was curled up in bed in her family’s bright-pink cinder-block house with vegetables growing in the backyard.
“I felt like my bed was hugging me,” said Coroy, 28, one of nine siblings in a family of farmers and vendors.
The next morning, she resumed her usual life. She and her mother put on their handwoven huipiles, or blouses, and cortes, or skirts, to catch the 5:30 bus to the small city of Escuintla to sell produce in the bustling market, a job she started after fifth grade when she had to drop out of school to help her parents.
Some days, she walks two hours with a mule to the family farm to cultivate cabbage and pumpkins. In her spare time, she weaves colorful huipiles with motifs of birds and flowers on a backstrap loom.
“People ask me what I do after filming,” said Coroy, who is working on her third Guatemalan movie after appearing in two in the United States. “I go back to normal.”
Coroy represents a new generation of Maya actors determined to hone their craft while holding onto their customs and helping expose a legacy of discrimination against Guatemala’s Indigenous population.
Although she said she enjoys acting in the United States — and posing in a pink-and-blue huipil at the 2021 Golden Globe Awards — she is more interested in her own country’s burgeoning film industry.
But whether she’s working in her homeland or Hollywood, acting can be draining, and she relies on Santa María de Jesús to recharge her.
“I love my life, but filming is physically demanding,” Coroy said, relaxing on a bench in Santa María’s central park. “This is my community.”
Coroy’s first role was the lead in a school play production of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”
Santa María de Jesus has long been locally famous for its street theater, and a decade ago, Guatemalan director Jayro Bustamante came to town to prepare for his first feature film, “Ixcanul” (“Volcano”). He wanted to tell a story of Maya women that addressed issues such as endemic poverty and inequities in education and health care, and he was determined to cast Maya actors speaking the Indigenous language of Kaqchikel.
Bustamante initially put up a sign in the town’s central park: “Casting Here.” No one showed up. A few days later he posted: “Work Here.” He was overwhelmed with prospective actors.
Coroy missed the audition. But a friend put her in touch with the director the next day.
“He told me I was the only person who looked him in the eye,” she said. When he offered her the lead, she balked. “I had no experience. I was afraid I would ruin the movie.”
But he persuaded her to join the cast. For the next several months, they trained at the country’s first film academy, founded by Bustamente.
“When we began filming, they were no longer amateur actors,” Bustamente said.
“Ixcanul,” which won the Alfred Bauer Prize at the 65th Berlin International Film Festival, focuses on a poor family in the mountains that arranges for the daughter to marry a plantation overseer. The daughter secretly gets involved with a young man — a drunk and a dreamer — who promises to take her with him to the United States. But he leaves without her and she finds herself pregnant while still engaged to the other man.
After she gives birth in a hospital, a staff member tells her that her baby has died. When the young woman finds out later that her child had lived and had possibly been sold for adoption, grief consumes her.
“Quiet and fearless,” Los Angeles-based film critic Manuel Betancourt wrote of Coroy’s understated performance, which revealed anguish behind a still face.
She has recently begun delving into Maya spirituality. Her grandmother was a natural healer who taught her about the curative properties or herbal teas and flowers. Although she worships in a Catholic church, she also studies with an Indigenous spiritual teacher and reads the Maya creation story, the Popol Vuh.
Central to Maya religion is Maximón, a trickster deity both benevolent and hedonistic. In ceremonies, adherents smoke and drink in front of his wooden figure in the hopes he will hear their entreaties. Coroy attends ceremonies without imbibing, she said.
“I respect Maximón,” she said. “I have connected with him in dreams. He said, ‘You neither speak well of me nor poorly, so I will protect you.’”
Although she’s famous enough in Guatemala that people in the colonial tourist city of Antigua, a UNESCO World heritage site, approach her politely for autographs, her neighbors in Santa María avoid singling her out. Walking in the town’s park, she might as well be any other vendor.
“There’s no movie star culture here,” Coroy said. “There are no paparazzi.”