Selena. Gloria Estefan. Jennifer Lopez.
The past is full of strong, sensual, and talented Latina superstars who continue to shine in our hearts and on our screens, but look to the budding young faces of the present, and there’s a certain vacancy.
That’s what Miami’s Monique hopes to change. Talking to the first-generation Cuban-American, you can start to see it. She’s a tiny little thing, but when she opens her mouth to sing or talk, she digs deep and gesticulates wildly. Even in person, she’s larger than life.
“It adds the five inches that I’m missing,” she jokes. “Imagine me 5’5 with this. Oh my god, people wouldn’t stand me.”
She’s been hustling and honing her rich vocals and sassy on-camera persona since she was a teenage handful, and things are really starting to come together. She starred opposite Austin Mahone in his “MMM Yeah” video, which spawned a thousand little girls to dedicate fan pages to Monique on Facebook and follow her on Instagram. She’s excited about her bilingual remix of the Latin hit “El Pardon” that's getting radio circulation, thanks in part to a feature from Pitbull, and there’s an album in the works, soon to be on the way.
“I feel like it’s a breath of fresh air for Latin-American girls because there’s not really a girl doing it right now and representing for them,” Monique says. Right now, she’s centered on the mission. She knows who she is and she’s proud to be here, but it wasn’t without a long journey. On the surface, she’s brimming with confidence, but every young woman needs to find herself.
“Musically, I always strayed away from that [Latin distinction],” she says. “I always was like, ‘I don’t want to do Latin.’ I wanted to do American. I want to do pop, and everyone was like ‘Mo, it’s not that you’re so Latin, but you’re Latin! You can do this. Embrace it.’”
“My whole fear was being boxed into the Spanish vibe,” she continues. “But I feel like, today, it’s just about your approach. I am a bilingual girl, and that’s how my music is going to be.”
If you take things back to the beginning, Spanish is the first language she learned. Her Cuban culture played a huge part in her upbringing and passion for performance.
“One thing about Cubans, music is like a religion,” she says. “There is not one Cuban household you’ll walk into where there’s not music or they’re not dancing.”
Her mom instilled rhythm in the family with “music hour,” 60 minutes of each day dedicated to nothing but singing, dancing, and listening to all the greats. It was then that Monique began singing along to Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, Mariah Carey, Mark Anthony, Enrique Iglesias, the usual ‘90s favorites. In school, she became known as “the actress.” Entertaining was an early calling she “couldn’t deny.” And yet, there was something missing.
“I always wanted to be a singer,” she says, recapturing the earnestness she must have felt at the time. “Like I’d sing in my room, nobody knew that I’d sing, but I wanted to sing!”
When she was about nine or ten, she found out a friend at school’s mother was none other than Emilio Estevez’s singing coach. The wheels in her little brain started spinning.
“I ran home like, ‘Mom, I got it!’ And of course she’s thinking I’m lying,” she says. “I’m thinking, if you don’t call, I’m going to call."
In the end, lil’ Monique thought her mom was taking too long, so she made her own moves, called the vocal coach, made an appointment, and went out to make her fortune.
“I showed up, and the lady laughed at me,” she says. “She was literally in her pajamas, and she’s like, ‘I thought this was a joke.’”
She trained in Spanish, learning to croon and emote in one of the world’s most romantic languages.
“When I sing in a Spanish song, it’s just so much more passionate,” she says. “In the Latin community, I feel like there’s only love songs. You can never go wrong with a love song.”
That relationship continued until 17, when it led her to her first record deal. During the next five years, she’d record and release three albums, two of them in English. She’d make mall appearances, star in videos, and mix her own covers. She was working harder than she’d ever worked before, and she was still so young. She couldn’t help but feel frustrated.
“They had me in rehearsals, dance classes, running, doing stamina exercises, in the studio 3-times a week,” she says. “I had a regimen, I had a schedule, and at points I was just pulling my hair like ‘why am I doing this to myself? When are we going on tour? When are we releasing something? Why are we working so much and nothing’s happening?’”
Looking back, she refers to this time as her “musical college,” and college always seems useless when you’re in the thick of it.
“I was so young. I was 17,” she says. “Now I understand, it was all part of that growing process. Everything in life requires a process. We always want to jump from 0 to 100 real quick, but what happens in between? You can’t build a house from sand, because it will fall, and looking back and putting all the pieces together, I feel so blessed that I’ve always known this is what I want to do. To see all the building blocks connecting just ensures me that I’m on the right path.”
Those first three releases may not have catapulted Monique to stardom, but they did teach her the basics of the industry, what to do and what not to do. It taught her who she is, and who she is not.
She no longer wants to put herself into anybody’s pop star mold. She’s bringing all angles of her personal history together, sewing the cultures of her life into one beautiful quilt that’s uniquely and fiercely herself – and she’s just as anxious as ever.
“I wanted to release something. It was just driving me crazy,” she says, “so my manger was like, ‘Go to the studio. Go record something.’”
She can’t yet release anything from her upcoming album, but a remix of a Latin hit, she figured, might be the ticket. She hit up all her DJ friends, found the song of the moment, and gave it a Monique twist. The result is the half-Spanish, half-English “El Pardon (How Can I),” a song originally performed by Nicky Jam that tells the tale of a woman scorned who has no time for the pleas of the man who wronged her.
It’s a catchy tune, and of course, getting Pitbull on board was like a bolt of lightning.
“It was just my stars aligning,” she says. “I couldn’t have planned that. That’s what I mean when I say I’m on the right path, because things like that, when the universe just places it [in front of you], you go run with it.”
Her parents are thrilled, letting themselves get caught up in the joy of hearing their daughter on the radio next to Mr. Worldwide, but Monique is staying focused. She knows this is still only the beginning of a hard road and a heavy work load, but she couldn’t be happier to dive in head first.
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“Success is when people are connecting and engaged,” she says. “The messages that I’m getting from these girls, it gives me butterflies knowing that there’s people out there that actually believe in what I’m saying. I’m influencing them.”
That’s a power she surely desires, but one she won’t take lightly. Just as she’s learned to embrace her strengths, her weakness, and many facets, she hopes to inspire young girls, Latina and otherwise, to be nothing but their beautiful selves.
Her life philosophy is to not sweat the small stuff, and forgive along the way. “Don’t hold grudges, don’t hold baggage; whether it be friends, boyfriends, school, or a problem. Don’t hold anything in," she says. "Be light. Soar like an eagle and anything is attainable.”
“I’m living it,” she continues, “It’s not something that I just want to spread. It’s like, I’m learning it as I’m going. This is what works, and I’m like okay I get it now. I need to share this.”