Katia temkin
April 26, 2021
In The Mix

In Her Own Name

What's in a name? Plenty, as Coral Peña has discovered.

Whitney Friedlander

Coral Peña briefly considered using a stage name when she began her career.

She saw people she admired, like Oscar Isaac, getting parts where their race was either ambiguous or even white — even though they were of Hispanic descent. She wanted casting directors to "not look at my name, and immediately go, 'Oh, she's not right for it.'"

She not only kept her last name, she made sure to keep the tilde over the n.

"The more I thought about it, the more I thought I don't want any ambiguity," Peña says, because it would be "hurting my integrity and also hurting the way that I looked at myself." The accent mark also helps people pronounce her name correctly.

Peña has gotten attention for her talents as well as her heritage.

Audiences for the 2017 film The Post noticed that she held her own in a scene with Meryl Streep, and that hers was the only speaking role of color in the acclaimed film. She's also played a CIA analyst in NBC's The Enemy Within, a CTU agent in Fox's 24: Legacy and half of an interracial, same-sex couple in the 2020 teen romance movie Chemical Hearts. Plus she's the narrator for the current season of PBS's Antiques Roadshow.

And now, in the second season of Apple TV+'s space drama For All Mankind, she's taken over the part of Aleida Rosales. In season one, Olivia Trujillo played this child of an undocumented custodian at the Johnson Space Center. The second season jumps ahead 10 years to find Aleida a brilliant engineer who can't hold down a job and struggles with her immigration status.

Raised in Harlem by a single mother, Peña is Dominican and came to the U.S. on a green card before becoming a citizen as an adult. She says cocreator–executive producer Ronald D. Moore and others stressed to her how collaborative they wanted the character's development to be. They are "excited about what Aleida represents," she adds, "in terms of this country and in terms of what they're trying to say with the show."

She's been looking to use her public platform to help others. At press time, her social media profiles linked to a Google document she'd created, a list of Black trans people who need financial support. The header says: "Do more than donate, read their stories."

Peña has seen proof that words matter, but, she says, "I've pulled back on being as vocal on social media because I want to hold myself accountable to making those words become actions."

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 3, 2021.

For more stories celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month, click HERE.

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