In Conversation with María Isa Pérez-Vega

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State Representative María Isa Pérez-Vega has been up all night. We’re in the freshman Democrat’s new office, looking across the street at the State Capitol, where debate on the Trans Refuge bill, a proposal that would prevent out-of-state laws from interfering in gender-affirming health care, was strung out for hours by Republican filibuster-style tactics before the bill narrowly passed 68–62 just before sunrise.

“Oh man, the shit they were saying,” Pérez-Vega says, smirking. “But it passed!”

As a young, 35-year-old member of the Queer Caucus, she’s stoked. She counts herself as a part of a movement, “the biggest rush of diversity that this place has been pumped with in years.”

Pérez-Vega had time for around 50 winks before waking up to coordinate childcare for her 3-year-old daughter with her parents. The job might be new for her, but the grind isn’t—she’s been juggling multi-hyphenate identities for a long time now, as a Puerto Rican Minnesotan (she coined the term “SotaRico,” also the name of her label) rapper, dancer, youth worker, and activist.

“I had to run,” she says about her decision to campaign for office. “Because your people have been listening to your music, and now they’re calling for you to say, ‘We can’t give up on our kids.’”

She looks out of her state office building window again, across to the capitol where she brought in the sunrise, a capitol that’s technically sitting squarely in her own district. “I know that this place has all the leche in there—that giant teta in the sky.” She laughs again. “It has all the milk!

You released a new album, Capitolio, the same day you took office. Did your new visibility as a politician help your new album or vice versa?

Together. Do you know what I’m saying? Like, I am a single mom going through a divorce, running for office and performing all over the place. I am a Puerto Rican woman who comes from a lineage of surviving 500 years of colonialism.

Your mom was an activist, right? And a political appointee of Governor Perpich?

She was the first Latina appointed to direct the offices of equal opportunity by Governor Perpich, yeah. Before that, she was a teenager who translated for my grandparents, who were living in the Riis projects on the Lower East Side in New York. My parents grew up together in the same projects. She is the JLo of equity, I’d say. She started Esperanza United, a shelter for battered women, which is now a national organization. And she started El Arco Iris Center for the Arts with my aunt. El Arco Iris means “the rainbow.” It was a Latino and Afro-Caribbean cultural performing arts school. It’s now called the Boriken Cultural Center.

Why did your parents move to St. Paul?

My mother and father came to Minnesota in the 1970s out of the Young Lords movement.

The Young Lords?

The Young Lords is a grassroots political organization of Puerto Ricans that were a part of the Rainbow Coalition, with the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement—Puerto Ricans and Latinos out of Chicago and New York, out of these liberation movements fighting for equity.

So why Minnesota?

My dad came here first, after he came back from ’Nam in April of ’73. He was like, “It’s kind of cool. Nice and quiet. There’s lakes around. It isn’t the ghettos or the projects.” My parents ended up bringing everyone from our family from Puerto Rico and LES and the Bronx and Brooklyn here. My dad went to school and became a dental tech and caterer. He’s retired now, but he’s, like, the man. He can cook.

“I am a Puerto Rican woman who comes from a lineage of surviving 500 years of colonialism.”

 María Isa Pérez-Vega

When did you start performing?

I’ve been performing since I was 5 years old. I was in that first group of guinea pigs at El Arco Iris. It was me and my cousins, but we didn’t just learn about Puerto Rican art. We did Mexican folk art. We did Colombian. We incorporated Hmong. Ta-coumba Aiken was teaching us about Black history and artwork. We had Native Americans like the late, great Eva Two Crow, who is known for her Indigenous art and puppetry—she connected us with Heart of the Beast. It was about, What do our classrooms look like, and what were we not being offered in terms of curriculums at our school? It was our liberation in a system of education that was blocking all of us. So, my mom was working on the funding, and the folks that were in the movement work were doing it to bring education to our communities and literacy through the arts.

So you were drumming and singing?

Been drumming Afro–Puerto Rican music since I was 5. I got the calluses to prove it. I was singing. We were learning about why the dance moves in this side of the region were larger or smaller because of the chains and the shackles on their feet. We were learning about our Taíno Indigenous language, tying it to what colonialism has done in Puerto Rico.

Even at a young age, activism and art were intimately intertwined for you.

Yeah. You can’t talk about the arts without the activism.

Who opened your eyes to hip-hop?

Rosie Perez dancing to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” I remember watching Do the Right Thing at my godmother’s cabin—my godmother is Sharon Sayles Belton, the first Black woman to serve as mayor of Minneapolis. Her cabin is outside of Spooner, Wisconsin.

Did you enjoy the cabin life?

We knew this was something different because we were the only ones that had it. You had white people looking at us like, “Who are these Black and brown kids in Spooner running around?” We were like, “We are with our family.” We knew.

Spooner blows, by the way—that’s an inside Wisconsin joke.

Hell yeah it blows. But we loved getting out the West Side and the south side. This is a time when there wasn’t no space where we were comfortable, so our mothers created those spaces. And it wasn’t just for their kids—it was for the whole barrio, for the whole state. Hip-hop was a part of it because we were ’90s babies, man. We are watching In Living Color. You see Jennifer Lopez as a Fly Girl. You are seeing Rosie Perez. You are seeing LL Cool J lick his lips and be cute and rock the whole world. You are seeing Queen Latifah. And I’m like, I can do this.

How long did it take for you to put out your first CD?

I started writing my first raps over TLC’s music—I didn’t even have access to instrumentals or anything like that—at 11 years old. I put my first single out at 16 years old. It was called “What’s It Gonna Take,” and it was recorded by Felipe Cuauhtli of Los Nativos on the West Side while Ant from Atmosphere was editing some work for Slug. I just remember waiting to get in the booth, and I was the only girl around all these men. My mom trusted in Felipe because he was my brother’s friend, and he was a teacher after school in the movement of hip-hop. You got to think: Late ’90s, a 16-year-old girl in the studio—that wasn’t always the trustworthy thing to be at, in any room.

One of your early collaborators was the Minneapolis rapper Muja Messiah.

My ex-husband, yeah. We started working together as collaborators in our band, Villa Rosa.

And now you have a daughter together?


When did you start teaching young people yourself?

I’ve been a youth worker since I was 17.

Were you like, “Hey, now that I’ve learned so much, I want to teach”?

I didn’t have a “Now I want to teach” moment. It was like, you grew up in the center that your family started, that your extended family and village started. Your community, whether they are Puerto Rican, Mexican, African American, Nigerian—we are people of oral traditions. We couldn’t Google this information back when I was growing up. So, you are masters of the Island, and the diaspora trained you. Then it was your job to train the 5-year-olds coming in while the 17-year-olds are going out to the Island or to New York City. That’s what happened. I was like, “OK. Now the kindergartners are there. And now the funding is cut again because Pawlenty is in office. How are we going to manage this?” You are basically volunteering to keep your history alive.

So that’s the job.

That was my first job while I was working at Dayton’s downtown.

And now your new job, state representative, is technically a part-time job.

Damn right. It’s a full-time job with a part-time salary.


Three things about María Isa Pérez-Vega

  1. Pérez-Vega pushed out her daughter to Eric B. and Rakim’s “Don’t Sweat the Technique.” Three weeks later, she opened for Rakim at the Amsterdam.
  2. She dropped out of Columbia College Chicago to work on the campaign to free Puerto Rican political prisoner Oscar López Rivera. Rivera was freed in 2017 after spending 36 years in prison.
  3. She’s coordinating a delegation from the Minnesota House of Representatives for an official state visit to Puerto Rico in August. 

You are making around $50,000 as a rep, so you still have to play shows, right?

That’s right. You got to write music, play shows. I got a shorty, yeah. Folks are like, “Are you ditching music?” I’m like, “No. We’re making music up in here, man.” I got the majority leader singing karaoke when we need a break from the floor. You got Ruth Richardson passing the CROWN Act, and we’re bumping Queen Latifah. This is a part of our culture that has never been allowed in these spaces, because we haven’t been in these spaces.

You released a record the day you were sworn in.

Yeah, I released an album January 3 at midnight, and I was sworn into office at noon. I started working on it right at the start of my campaign, and I was still completing it a month after I won my election.

There’s a track called “Hello to the Weekend,” where you rap, “Committee conference to the press room / and in between I be sexting you.” Were you envisioning that’s going to be your life?

I went to orientation and I wrote that song.

So why did you decide to run? 

I was invited by the leaders of Puerto Rico’s independence movement to speak at the UN on behalf of decolonizing the Island, the oldest colony in the world. That’s definitely influential to be like, “Here is this Puerto Rican girl from Minnesota, who comes from movement work, who is best friends with the children of movements of the Panthers to the American Indian Movement, who show up for each other, whose security guard got killed by Derek Chauvin—who used to taunt us as kids coming out of Latino clubs—”

—El Nuevo Rodeo on Lake Street?

Yeah. So all of that was influential into now, I am running for office because we are surviving this, and I got a shorty, who is a Black Boricua girl. I got to protect not just all the kids that I’ve been mentoring, but now I got this kid. We got people dying from not having accessibility to insulin. You got shorties dying from opiates. You’ve got police killing more than the one person that was filmed.

So, when exactly did you decide to run?

It was the summer following the uprising, man. I was a part of the organizing that went in for the Alec Smith Insulin Affordability Act. I mean, right before the world shut down, I opened up for a Bernie Sanders event when he was running for president.

Did you realize your power? Like, “If I stand with this man, I am going to help him.”

I would say that I don’t even know how to use those words because it’s hard to be like, “I have a power.” No, I just listen to my people, and I heard a calling from my community.

You originally wanted to run for state senate but changed your mind.

Well, I changed my mind after the only Puerto Rican in the house, Carlos Mariani, who had been my district rep for over 32 years, decided out of nowhere that he was going to retire without talking to me. I was like, “We can’t lose that seat.”

“It’s hard to be like, ‘I have a power.’ No, I just listen to my people, and I heard a calling from my community.”

– María Isa Pérez-Vega

Did you grow up knowing him?

Yeah, my entire life—his kids—but he did not know that. He wasn’t involved with my campaign at all.

Do you have to bide your time as a freshman? What are your priorities?

I am a type 1 diabetic. So now I got an insulin bill that I just heard has no fiscal notes, so that’s an awesome opportunity to get that through right now. We are going to get it through for undocumented people who weren’t a part of the insulin bill that we helped passed as organizers. My first thing was like, “Hey, they took that out. We are going to go and put that back in so that María Isa isn’t at the Walgreens for her undocumented homies while they need insulin.”

I know the “Driver’s Licenses for All” bill was a priority for you.

Yeah, the homies need licenses, or they are going to get deported.

Homeownership is below the state median in your district. Renting seems to be one of your issues.

Rent stabilization is a movement that I come from. I am on the Housing Committee. We need more equitable rights for our tenants. We need more funding so that we don’t have anyone homeless. This isn’t even just an issue for my district. This is a statewide problem. I am a renter, so I know what it’s like to have landlords that may take advantage of you.

Mariani was there for 30 years. You’re in a DFL safe district. You could be there forever.

I always say, “Forever-ever?” The goal is a shift in equity. Whether that’s going to take two sessions or three sessions or four, I am in it to listen to the people. If the people want me back, then I’m back.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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