Cuban-American American Idol contestant Isa Peña chats with fellow Harvard student Gabby Rivero for Startup Cuba about balance, rejection, and her Bon Jovi mashup.
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Photo credit: Isa Peña

COVID-19 has definitely caused a lot of chaos, but there has been one positive: some people now have substantially more free time on their hands. On a regular Friday afternoon, I don’t think Key Biscayne native Isabella ‘Isa’ Peña would have been able to squeeze me into her packed schedule and still have time to eat, sleep, or study. 

After auditioning for producers in Miami, she sang for the show’s celebrity judges and received three out of four yeses.

Not only did Isa, 19, just finish up her first year taking two full course loads as a rising sophomore in the Harvard University–Berklee College of Music dual degree program, she also balances extracurriculars and a blossoming professional career as a triple-threat singer-songwriter, actress, and dancer. And did I mention that Isa still managed to compete on season 18 of American Idol?

After auditioning for producers in Miami, she sang for the show’s celebrity judges and received three out of four yeses. The audition process is notoriously nerve-wracking, especially because facing the judges is “kind of like looking at holograms because they look perfect.” Isa says she’s grateful for the experience (and for having met Ryan Seacrest, because who wouldn’t be?). She also appreciates how accommodating the staff was in getting her out of show prep in time for her red-eye flight back to Boston to make her classes the next day!

She fondly remembers her dad taking her to El Exquisito on Calle Ocho every Sunday for a classic Cuban breakfast of café con leche and a tostadito — “I would look forward to it all week,” she says.

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Isa first auditioned for Idol three years ago but didn’t make it onto the show, one of many rejections she’s received over the years. When asked about those hard moments, Isa says it’s all about how you frame the situation. “Rejection’s hard, but I’ve learned to see it as an opportunity. You hear one thousand no’s before you get one yes, even in terms of life.” Nevertheless, with 109,000 followers on Instagram and her own YouTube channel, Isa has certainly come a long way from the kiddie ballet lessons and school plays that first sparked her interest in performing

As a freshman at Harvard this past year, Isa found herself dealing not only with the usual challenges of living away from home, adapting to a new academic structure, and making new friends; she also felt she was lacking that connection to Cuban culture that had always been so ubiquitous.

Isa’s normally hectic life doesn’t seem to faze her — she has an uncanny knack for always looking on the bright side. Let me give you an example: when I asked her about some of the greatest challenges she’s faced, she told me about a middle-school battle with sepsis —sepsis!— that landed her in the ICU for a month and a half. Most people would probably (and understandably) get tight-lipped or teary-eyed about the topic, but not Isa. She laughed and recounted her near-death experience without ever letting her characteristic wide smile ever leave her face, instead expressing her immense gratitude to her family and doctors for helping her make it through.

Family is central to Isa’s life — her parents fully support her professional aspirations and have been by her side every step of the way. In fact, it was Isa’s mother who helped her translate Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” to make the bilingual mashup that became her audition song for Idol. She accompanied Isa to the audition venue at 5 a.m. and waited with her until her noon audition slot, and freaked out with her when she was chosen as a contestant on the show. Isa’s extended family also lives nearby in Miami, and she loves hanging out with her cousins whenever she’s home. 

That Spanish came in handy when Isa traveled to Cuba with her entire family during winter break two years ago. “It was crazy,” Isa says.

All four of Isa’s grandparents are Cuban, and this cultural identity has been a constant and often conspicuous presence in her life. She fondly remembers her dad taking her to El Exquisito on Calle Ocho every Sunday for a classic Cuban breakfast of café con leche and a tostadito — “I would look forward to it all week,” she says — and beams when she talks about how her grandparents used to regale her and her cousins with stories of growing up in Cuba. Music might even be hereditary for Isa, whose grandfather used to sing for a Cuban radio show as a child.

Family is central to Isa’s life. In fact, it was Isa’s mother who helped her translate Bon Jovi’s ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’ to make the bilingual mashup that became her audition song for Idol.

Isa grew up speaking Spanish and produces original songs in Spanish and English, which she describes as both a personal and professional decision. “I learned both languages growing up, I wouldn’t be able to choose,” she insists. “And for the industry it also makes sense —I want to be able to sing for as many people as I can.” However, Spanish does hold a special place in her heart. “It’s weird,” Isa laughs, “I don’t know why…I’ve thought about it a lot and tried to figure it out, but I feel like my Spanish lyrics sound more genuine. I’m less critical of myself when I write in Spanish.”

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That Spanish came in handy when Isa traveled to Cuba with her entire family during winter break two years ago. “It was crazy,” Isa says. She and her family got a personal tour of the island, with her grandparents showing everyone where they had grown up. However, she laughed and assured me that they also made plenty of time for more typical tourist activities like riding through Havana in almendrones. Nevertheless, one of Isa’s favorite moments of the trip was unplanned. When her paternal grandmother was showing the family her childhood home in her old barrio, an older woman across the street called out to them from her porch. “She just stood up and yelled, ‘Carmen, is that you?’” Isa recalls, her eyes wide as she remembers the surprise they all felt. “She and my grandmother had known each other as little girls, and after all these years she was still there and recognized my grandmother! It was amazing, I couldn’t stop crying,” she admits.

She’s using her growing platform to give back to her community, participating in BroadwayWorld’s “Broadway’s Next On Stage” competition for the chance to win and donate $1000 to Area Stage’s Inclusion Theatre Project, a musical theater program for individuals with disabilities.

As a freshman at Harvard this past year, Isa found herself dealing not only with the usual challenges of living away from home, adapting to a new academic structure, and making new friends; she also felt she was lacking that connection to Cuban culture that had always been so ubiquitous. Says Isa, “I didn’t think I would miss Miami and Cuban culture as much as I did, and then two weeks went by and I was like no, I need a pastelito or something.” So, she joined the Cuban American Undergraduate Student Association (CAUSA), where she’s found a second family. Many of CAUSA’s members are from Miami themselves, and at their bi-weekly brunches there’s always cafecito, homemade guava pastelitos, and lots of talk of Pitbull, coladas, and missing the beach during the cold Boston winters.

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Isa Peña at Harvard. Photo Credit: Isa Peña

At Berklee, Isa took mostly performance-based classes that included rock and jazz ensembles, which allowed her to explore areas of music she usually doesn’t sing. “I’ve always done pop, maybe some R&B,” Isa says, “and I appreciated rock but was never a rock singer, so it was cool to branch out.” Meanwhile, at Harvard, Isa is working on becoming trilingual with classes in Mandarin and has also found ways to explore her interest in politics. She credits Road to the White House, a course on presidential campaigns, with strengthening her interest in becoming a campaign manager. Isa also participates in the arts scene on campus — she was in a fall production of West Side Story and she’s a member of an a cappella group (makes sense) and Harvard’s student-run radio station.

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Isa singing at Fenway Park. Photo credit: Isa Peña

And she’s using her growing platform to give back to her community, participating in BroadwayWorld’s “Broadway’s Next On Stage” competition for the chance to win and donate $1000 to a charity of her choice. For Isa, there’s never been any question of which charity that would be: Area Stage’s Inclusion Theatre Project, a musical theater program for individuals with disabilities that she was heavily involved with in high school. “It’s the thing I missed most when I went to Harvard,” she says, excitedly telling me all about the production of Shrek the Musical she directed with the group.

So, what’s next for Isa Peña? COVID-19 may have hijacked her summer plans, but in typical Isa fashion, she’s managed to turn the situation into something positive. “I want to spend this time writing music, get a few songs out over the summer. I have some basic recording equipment—” she pauses to laugh “—GarageBand, and I know some people at Berklee who could help.”

One thing’s for sure: whenever those songs come out, they’re going to be candela.  

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