Young Women of Color Making History: Isabella Madrigal

By Isabella Madrigal 

How are you making history? 

My name is Isabella Madrigal, and I am currently a high school senior at the Orange County School of the Arts in California where I am enrolled in the Acting Conservatory. I am an enrolled member of the Cahuilla Band of Indians and am of Turtle Mountain Chippewa descent. For the past year, I have been involved in the Native Storytelling Project, co-founded by myself and my younger sister, Sophia Madrigal, and sponsored by the Dragon Kim Foundation. Native Storytelling seeks to reclaim the national narrative surrounding the Indigenous experience and to empower Native voices telling Native stories.

Under the Native Storytelling Project, I wrote the original play Menil and Her Heart. Inspired by three traditional Cahuilla stories, Menil and Her Heart follows the disappearance of a Cahuilla girl, her family’s grief, and her sister’s journey to find her. The play aims to give voice to the global epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Eighty-four percent of Native women will experience violence in their lifetimes. They go missing and are murdered at rates 10 times higher than the national average. Despite this, 95 percent of these cases go undocumented or unreported by national news media. Menil and Her Heart is about communities coming together in ceremony and healing for these women, demanding justice now. 

For my work, I was chosen to speak at the United Nations’ Girls Speak Out Event in 2019 to address violence against women, more specifically violence against Indigenous women. I was also selected as a 2020 Champion for Change through the Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute. In addition, I earned National and local Girl Scout Gold Awards for my work.

It is time to tell the stories that aren’t being told. Menil and Her Heart was my way to bring this truth forward. Thus far, Menil and Her Heart has reached over 1,000 people. The cast has grown to 20 individuals, all non-professional actors, but that’s the beauty of it. It is Native voices telling Native stories. In partnership with my younger sister, I applied for the Dragon Kim Fellowship, and we have had the ability to perform Menil and Her Heart at eight venues, including the Dorothy Ramon Learning Center, the statewide Indian Child Welfare Act Conference, the Claremont Colleges, Yale University, and the Arcata Playhouse in Northern California.

Following each performance, we hold a talkback. One audience member echoed something that particularly struck me, something that Native writer Leslie Marmon Silko said first: we don’t heal by forgetting we heal by remembering. But it cannot be that Indigenous people stand alone in the fight for their stolen sisters. We are only in the first stages of understanding the magnitude of this issue, but I know we cannot do this alone. This violence is not isolated to one nation. Indigenous women across the globe have been under attack for centuries. The taking of our girls is part of a larger taking: a taking of land, culture, language, identity. 

It amazes me how the community came to support and partake in this journey, but it makes sense because Menil and Her Heart creates an opportunity for people to speak their truth, and when people speak their truth, they become visible. It is all too easy to continue to ignore the violence Indigenous girls face. To say their suffering doesn’t exist. That we don’t exist. But we do, and it’s worth the fight to be seen. 


Who is a woman of color who’s inspired you and why?

My father’s people—my people—are Cahuilla. In the creation story of the Cahuilla Indians there is a girl, Menil, the moon maiden. She is my inspiration. Menil was once a mortal who walked among the people and taught them how to live. One night Mukat, the Creator, forced Menil into a sleep so deep that she could not cry out or struggle against him. Mukat was banished for this, and Menil was silent. The people begged Menil to speak until finally she sang them a song. They at once understood her. I wonder what Menil sang to the people that made them know her so clearly? It was Menil who gave the people the arts. The invaluable gift of storytelling. Stories shape identity. They can call up a great strength in a people, but they can also be the unwitting tools of oppression. 

My grandfather did not want to be Indian. He passed on to my mother the story ingrained in his psyche throughout boarding school: “The further away you are from being Indian, the closer you are to God.” I am a victim of the single story. The mainstream narrative is missing a vital piece for the identity of a Cahuilla girl, an Anishinaabe girl. It is missing her story. No one is going to tell the story of a young Cahuilla girl for her. She must do it herself.

I like to think it was Menil who inspired me to create the play Menil and Her Heart. Still, I know who this play is really written for. I wrote it for Jessica Mae Orozco, Jojo Boswell, Ieesha Nightpipe, Savannah La Fontaine Greywind—faceless names of the missing and murdered. I wrote it for my little cousin Maya and my sister Sophia. I wrote it for all the women and girls who fight beside me, performance after performance, to share the forgotten story of their stolen sisters. To end the silence. I play Nesune (“heart” in Cahuilla) in Menil and Her Heart, sister to a taken girl. Sister to Menil. But Nesune is not taken. She must decide to stay and continue the fight. 

I choose to stay. To speak through my art, to heal through my art. To interweave ancient Cahuilla stories alongside a contemporary narrative for justice now. Continuation is not a question of if but how. Though fiery hatred rises inside me when I remember the missing and murdered, my play was not born out of anger. Healing cannot come from hate, only from love and resiliency. Now I know what Menil sang to the people that made them know her so clearly. She sang them her story. 

Follow on Instagram: @isabella.madrigall