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Artist Profile: Isabella Madrigal ‘24 on the Cahuilla Community and Multidisciplinary Creativity

Isabella D. Madrigal ’24 is a Cahuilla playwright, stage and TV actress, and aspiring filmmaker.
Isabella D. Madrigal ’24 is a Cahuilla playwright, stage and TV actress, and aspiring filmmaker. By Lucy H. Vuong
By Ria S. Cuellar-Koh, Crimson Staff Writer

Isabella D. Madrigal ’24, Cahuilla playwright, stage and TV actress, and now aspiring filmmaker, has created collaborative and meaningful art all her life and doesn’t plan to stop any time soon.

Madrigal grew up surrounded by artistry. Her father is a musician and cultural singer in the Cahuilla Band of Indians, which led her to begin participating in cultural dance in her youth. Madrigal said that being an enrolled member of the Cahuilla community remains an integral part of her creative work.

In high school, Madrigal wrote “Menil and Her Heart,” a play based on Cahuilla stories that tackles the issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous People, the horrifically high rates of Indigenous people — especially women — who are victims of homicides and disappearances. The play follows a pair of Cahuilla sisters, portrayed by Madrigal and her real-life sister Sophia. When Menil (portrayed by Sophia) goes missing, Nesune (portrayed by Isabella) must go on an adventure to find her. With a cast entirely comprised of Cahuilla community members, the show was performed 16 times throughout Southern California. Despite attending a performing arts high school, Madrigal felt discouraged by the lack of roles for Indigenous people. Her play not only thematically tackled Native issues, but also put the spotlight on the talents of her community’s actors.

Motivated by a desire to give back to her community, Madrigal entered college thinking she would become a doctor and spent two years as a pre-med student. However, during her sophomore year, she realized that the academic requirements prevented her from pursuing art due to the time commitment.

“I was like, okay, I’m gonna take a break for a semester. I can come back to it, but I’m going to try to get involved with my art things, do more of what I was doing before. And that just really changed my whole Harvard experience,” Madrigal said.

Exploring the world of professional arts gave Madrigal insight into the ways that Native artists give back to the entertainment industry. Through playing roles in TV shows such as “Echo” and “Rutherford Falls,” and working with Native directors who “were centering native communities,” Madrigal experienced the process as a mode of “healing.” Furthermore, the recent increase in dynamic roles for a variety of Indigenous actors has been encouraging. She pointed out “Echo,” which is part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in which she played a younger version of the grandmother of the main character, an Indigenous superhero. The change in the acting landscape between today and Madrigal’s time in high school exemplifies the tangible impact of Indigenous artists.

“Without Native creators writing, not really collaborating, not directing, that would never have been an opportunity for me. So I’m really grateful for all the older people who have put in so much work to get us to this space. And how people are constantly challenging: How can we be better? How can this be a better process?” Madrigal said.

Now, Madrigal is excited to turn “Menil and Her Heart” into a film as a 2022 recipient of an Artist Development Fellowship from the Office for the Arts at Harvard. She wrote a screenplay version of her work for her English senior thesis and plans on a short film version after graduation to serve as a proof of concept for a larger feature.

“I’ve loved doing the play, because it’s live and we can be there. But there’s a limit to the amount of people that we can bring this to,” Madrigal said.

“In a film, it was really exciting for me to think about how exactly I’m gonna represent this visually. And part of the story is it goes into these alternate worlds that are inspired by some cultural stories,” she added.

Even with the change in format, Madrigal said that the heart of the story remains unchanged.

“The screenplay version really focused on this issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous People, specifically women, girls, and Two Spirit people, and the incredible devastation that it has had on a lot of Indigenous communities, my community. But it’s really a global issue. And I think that part of it — why am I writing and who am I writing for — has stayed the same,” Madrigal said.

When prompted to give artistic advice, Madrigal offered a simple and effective maxim.

“As an art maker, you really don’t exist alone or in a vacuum,” she said.

Madrigal’s work strives to bring people together, regardless of the boundaries between audiences and performers or writer and subject. Wherever film, theater, and “Menil and Her Heart” take her, she won’t be alone.

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