After filming her part in “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” María Mercedes Coroy returned to her “normal” life of farming and trading in a Guatemalan town at the base of a volcano.
SANTA MARÍA DE JESÚS, Guatemala — For her big underwater scene in “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” the 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, Ms. 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 Ms. 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 hand-woven 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 Ms. Coroy, who is working on her third Guatemalan movie after appearing in two in the United States. “I go back to normal.”
Ms. 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.
While 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.
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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,” Ms. Coroy said, relaxing on a bench in Santa María’s central park. “This is my community.”
Ms. 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, the Guatemalan director Jayro Bustamante came to the town to prepare for his first feature film, “Ixcanul” (“Volcano”). He wanted to tell a story of Maya women that addressed issues like endemic poverty and inequities in education and health care, and he was determined to cast Maya actors speaking the Indigenous language of Kaqchikel.
Mr. 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.
Ms. 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 convinced her to join the cast. For the next several months, they trained at the country’s first film academy, founded by Mr. Bustamente.
“When we began filming, they were no longer amateur actors,” Mr. 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,” the Los Angeles-based film critic Manuel Betancourt wrote of Ms. Coroy’s understated performance, which revealed anguish behind a still face.
“I mouthed the words I was feeling in my head,” Ms. Coroy said, explaining her acting method. “It was easier then because I was naturally timid. I’m much more animated now.”
Her second film with Mr. Bustamante, “La Llorona,” transformed a traditional Latin American ghost story into an indictment of a fictional dictator, but one clearly reminiscent of the Guatemalan leader, Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt. Five years before his death in 2018, General Ríos Montt was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity for the systematic slaughter of Maya men, women and children in the 1980s after he took control of the country in a coup.
Ms. Coroy plays Alma, a Maya housemaid whose son and daughter were among those murdered. A spectral figure in white, she haunts the dictator in his home.
A casting director saw her in the two Bustamante films and picked her for the part of an Indigenous guerrilla in “Bel Canto,” an American film starring Julianne Moore. For two-and-a-half months, Ms. Coroy filmed in Mexico and the United States, the longest she had ever been away from her family. She froze in New York, she said, and didn’t like the food.
The actress prefers not to discuss politics. But Mr. Bustamante said artists in Guatemala worked in an increasingly hostile climate.
“You realize you’re in a country where there is a dictatorship without that name,” Mr. Bustamante wrote in an email interview. “There is a murky sort of oppression and no rights or freedom.”
When “Ixcanul” was released, he wrote, “there was a general rejection by the Guatemalan people of this sort of subject matter. With La Llorona, it was much more dangerous. We received anonymous threats.”
“Wakanda Forever,” a global blockbuster distributed by Disney, also addresses the oppression of the Maya.
Ms. Coroy’s character, Princess Fen, catches smallpox brought by the Spaniards to the Yucatán Peninsula in the 16th century. A shaman gives her a drink that allows her to live and give birth underwater. When her winged son Namor, played by the Mexican actor Tenoch Huerta, returns to the Yucatán, he sees Spaniards beating the Maya they have enslaved.
In Guatemala, some Maya families encourage their children to speak only Spanish and wear Western clothing to escape ongoing rampant discrimination. But that’s not how Ms. Coroy was raised.
“My parents tell me I should be proud,” said Ms. Coroy, who eventually returned to night school and finished college. “There is no way that you can hide that you’re Indigenous.”
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. While 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. Ms. 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.’”
While 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,” Ms. Coroy said. “There are no paparazzi.”