Natalia Cordova-Buckley is having a major year.
Known for her role as Latina superhero Elena “Yo-Yo” Rodriguez in Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which earned her the spinoff web series Slingshot, the Mexican actress is now lending her unique voice to Disney/Pixar’s upcoming animated film Coco as the legendary artist Frida Kahlo.
Coco, which had a record-breaking release in Mexico in October, is giving a voice to Latino culture through it’s setting during Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, and Cordova-Buckley couldn’t be more proud to be a part of it.
“To be able to have girls find their reflection in me is really special to me,” Cordova-Buckley, 34, tells PEOPLE. “It’s a profound moment in my life to have started my career in the United States mirroring the kind of woman that I am and that I’ve always strived to be in a character.”
Here are five things to know about the multi-talented actress with an incredible story:
1. She was bullied about her voice as a kid
“I got teased for my voice because I have a very low, husky voice,” Cordova-Buckley says. “The kids wouldn’t chase me around when we played tag because they would say that I screamed like a gorilla. It wasn’t just my voice, but the fact that I have a pretty strong personality and was always very outspoken and opinionated. I felt very rejected and, in turn, sort of had a hard time finding belonging in the society that I grew up in.”
2. When she was bullied, she looked up to Frida Kahlo (and now she plays her!)
Having the opportunity to voice the Mexican painter in Coco is a full circle moment for Cordova-Buckley.
“I found in Frida an inspiration of being an outcast and a rebel and that it’s OK as long as you stay true to yourself,” she says. “Since I was a young girl, she was a big light for me and a big beacon of guidance and so to give voice to the woman that told me my voice was important, valued and worth a lot was the universe coming full circle and pretty magical. Now I can give voice to a woman who, in some way, gave me my voice.”
3. She grew up in Mexico before moving to the U.S. to pursue acting
Cordova-Buckley was born in Mexico City and was raised in Cancun. As a young girl, she celebrated the Day of the Dead many times, but never enjoyed Halloween.
“I never understood why we would value Dracula and all these monsters that would kill and ravage humanity when we had people that had left us to praise and uphold,” she says. “Since I was young, I’ve always had a very deep connection with my grandfather, Francisco Cordova, who was a big actor and a very musical, very talented writer and director.”
She continues: “My dream was always to be able to meet him. I would dream as a young actress that I would have a chance to go to the Actor’s Studio and answer the question: ‘What would you want God to say when you went through the pearly gates?’ And my answer was always that God would tell me, ‘Your grandfather is waiting for you at the theatre to start rehearsing and that I would get to be an actor with him.’ My dream is that when I die I get to meet the man that gave me my artistry.”
4. She was a classically trained dancer first
Cordova-Buckley developed a talent for dance at a young age and trained under renowned ballet teacher Fernando Alonso, who is the co-founder of the Cuban National Ballet. At the age of 17, she was accepted to the North Carolina School of the Arts’ program before graduating and going on to study theatre at Cal-Arts in California.
“I think I would’ve been an actress before I was a dancer if I wouldn’t have gotten teased for my voice,” she says. “The teasing was innocent but they would still talk to me with a low voice, and so I think becoming a dancer was a way for me to still be artistic but not have to use my voice and instead use my body. It wasn’t until a theatre teacher came up to me and he watched a performance of mine and said to me, ‘You have a real talent for expression. You shouldn’t just do dance, you should try acting.’”
With her teacher’s advice, Cordova-Buckley started taking acting classes and fell in love — and no matter the performance, she would always kneel beforehand and dedicate it to her grandfather.
“When I started acting and theater, I was a little bit older and I think I felt a little more empowered with my voice and less shy about the quality of my voice,” she says. “I started to feel a bit suffocated in my artistry with classical dance and my grandfather sort of spoke in a spiritual way for me to expand my art and go for acting. Now, I’ve stopped dancing, not all together, but professionally and I started doing acting.”
5. She is outspoken on the issues that are important to her, including Mexico’s current political climate and women’s empowerment
“I’ve always been very politically driven in my country,” she says. “My father is too, and I think he unconsciously installed that in me. I’ve always been very outspoken about the injustices that the government of Mexico has distilled upon it’s people and country.”
Another cause close to Cordova-Buckley is women’s rights and empowerment.
“I grew up in a highly patriarchal culture immersed in the belief of machismo, and I was very hurt by it,” she says. “I was told many times, ‘You look prettier when you’re quiet.’ I grew up feeling very lonely as a woman, not just because of the men, but because of the women who felt we should be silenced and we should be quiet. So I spent a lot of time sort of feeling alone as a young girl.”
She adds: “It’s not a fight just of women but a fight of humanity to get rid of something that divides us.”
Coco hits theaters Nov. 22.