Isabela Merced wants to remove the words "good" and "bad" from her vocabulary; no replacements needed. "I can be controversial because people will bring up questions like, 'Oh, what about murderers? What about this? What about that?' They like to go to the extremes, just to test me," the Peruvian American actor and musician tells Teen Vogue, eating her lunch over Zoom from Los Angeles.
"At the end of the day, they're just words that were made up. Concepts that we choose to believe," the 21-year-old continues, taking another bite. “We have power over the importance we give to things that happen to us. We underestimate that. It's as little as taking the words and saying, 'These don't mean anything to me.'”
On the surface, it might seem like Merced is just generally philosophizing, being a nihilist for the sake of being a nihilist. But the empowerment she's speaking of has become a central buttress for her, and to understand why, you have to pull back the curtain of her life: a childhood in the Midwest, months spent with relatives in Peru, a fire that shook her family’s world. All of these experiences helped shape the person she was when her acting journey began as a preteen, one that would lead to roles in Transformers and Dora the Explorer and soon, the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The ebbs and flows, the many fragments, they are all chapters in her life, all at the heart of a young woman who is figuring out how to think about the world and her place in it.
Merced was born in Cleveland on July 10, 2001. Her mother Katherine, a first-generation immigrant from Peru, and father Patrick, a firefighter for the Cleveland Division of Fire, raised her and her two brothers. She's the middle child and the only girl, which meant, she says, she was always fighting for attention.
She found solace in the academic world, and it became the testing ground for her first life-changing realization: "I figured out early on that it isn't about who's the smartest; it's about who can memorize the answers,” Merced explains. “I got good at absorbing information, using it when I needed it, and releasing it immediately. I guess that was my first experience with learning lines."