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With his new show, Jorge Gutierrez wants Latino kids to know: 'You come from heroes'

Zoe Saldana voices Princess Maya in <em>Maya and the Three.</em>
Zoe Saldana voices Princess Maya in Maya and the Three.

Updated October 26, 2021 at 8:46 AM ET

When director Jorge Gutierrez set out to create the new animated Netflix series Maya and the Three, he wanted the warrior-princess at the center of the show to be strong and powerful. So he thought about the women in his own life.

"I've been surrounded by warrior women my whole life: My sister, my mother and especially my wife, Sandra," he says. "I met Sandra when she was a 17-year-old rebel." Gutierrez and Sandra Equihua were both 17 when they met at a punk rock concert in Tijuana. He remembers telling her, "If you and me get together, we're going to be the Diego Rivera and the Frida Kahlo of cartoons. I'm going to get super fat and you're going to have a crazy eyebrow."

To that, Equihua laughs. "Jorge was just blasting out these zingers. He was just funny from the start."

Together, the couple went on to create cartoons such as El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera for Nickelodeon. They both worked on Gutierrez's 2014 film The Book of Life, a Day of the Dead-themed movie produced by Guillermo del Toro.

Their new Netflix series, Maya and the Three, is set in a fictional Mesoamerican kingdom called Teca, complete with pyramids and an underworld. The series follows the adventures of a Latin American warrior-princess. Maya is 15, and wears a red stripe painted across her eyes as she goes on a quest to fulfill an ancient prophecy.

"If it is to be, it is up to me," she says, voiced by Zoe Saldana.

Saldana says Maya is "independent and boisterous" — a bit like the pirates whose tales Saldana's Caribbean grandmother used to tell her.

Gutierrez and Equihua lent their voices to play Maya's parents, King and Queen Teca. "The three" are Maya's brothers, Daggers, Shield and Lance, who wear armor designed to look like jaguars. Along with the triplets, voiced by actor Gael García Bernal, Maya faces off with Zatz, the prince of bats (voiced by Diego Luna), and a slew of vengeful gods, voiced by a star-studded cast of Latino actors. Alfred Molina plays the god of war, Danny Trejo is the god of earthquakes. Kate del Castillo is the goddess of death and Cheech Marin plays the god of wind and the god of storm. Rosie Perez is the goddess of gators and Rita Moreno is Ah Puch, a goddess who leads Maya on her quest.

"Oh my god, how was [Gutierrez] able to get so many Latinos in one room together?" Saldana jokes. "We should all do this more often."

Gutierrez seems equally as impressed at having brought the cast together to help him tell his epic story. "I joke that it's a Brown people Lord of the Rings," he says, adding that his fantasy adventure was inspired by tales of the Aztecs, the Mayans, the Incas and modern Caribbean cultures. "It's a story about this rebel girl who learns what it means to be a leader and a hero," Gutierrez says. "I've basically never seen a Mexican princess in movies and TV shows like this."

He says Maya and the Three is part of a quest to represent Latinos onscreen — "especially for kids that don't get to see themselves as heroes and don't get to see themselves go on these epic quests and adventures. When you don't see that stuff growing up, you start to wonder, 'Am I not meant for greatness? I'm not meant to be a hero?' And I just hope that this is a reminder: Not only are you all heroes, but you come from heroes."

Animators Jorge Gutierrez and Sandra Equihua voice King and Queen Teca.
/ Netflix
Animators Jorge Gutierrez and Sandra Equihua voice King and Queen Teca.

A "love letter" to folklore and mythology

Gutierrez says he's always loved mythology. The 46-year-old animator was born in Mexico City, where he visited the famous National Museum of Anthropology and its displays of ancient cultures. "I remember going home, being super excited and telling my father all about it. And he said, 'Yeah, Jorge, we come from the blood of warriors.' And so that stayed with me."

He says he was fascinated by images in the Popul Vuh, the sacred account of Mayan history and folklore. And as a teen, he visited the Machu Picchu ruins in Peru. "It was like walking into the clouds and walking into the past. And then I became obsessed with Incan folklore and iconography," he says.

I just hope that this is a reminder: Not only are you all heroes, but you come from heroes

For Maya and the Three, Gutierrez adapted some traditional folkloric characters and created new ones. He mashed up his story with bits of J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy stories and The Wizard of Oz. Sandra Equihua designed some of the characters in the show, which she says is the couple's fantasy version of ancient Latin America.

"We're paying homage to as many cultures in Mesoamerica and Latin America as we can," she says. "We're not anthropologists, we're not historians, we're not trying to make a documentary. We're not going to be able to nail everything exactly on the head. So it's our love letter to it."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.