“Although Isabela Moner was my given name, Isabela Merced tells my story and my future,” Dora and the Lost City of Gold star Isabela Moner tells Refinery29 over email. Or at least she used to be Isbaela Moner. Now that the 18-year-old actress/singer is embarking on a brand new phase of her career, she is shaking things up. That means a brand new name: Isabela Merced, an homage to her late Peruvian grandmother Yolanda Merced Salazar Pittman. It also means her very first single as Isabela Merced: “Papi,” dropping Friday, October 25, which Refinery29 can exclusively announce (peep the art below!).
“It’s a bop!,” Merced jokes — and the Instant Family star is correct. The bilingual track would be a fit in any club or on a girl's night out pre-game playlist. It’s particularly good for a no-effs-given evening on the town, as Merced reveals, “Something that is exciting about ‘Papi’ is that the guy whom this song refers to will hear it. He — and other womanizing men — will hopefully get the message and treat ladies with the respect they deserve.”
Now that Merced, a vocal and proud Latina, is kicking off this exciting new chapter — in the midst of Latinx Heritage Month, no less — we knew we had to talk to her. Since the Peruvian-American performer is busier than ever, we decided to email. Keep reading to find out everything you want to know about “Papi,” the touching family story behind Merced’s brand new identity, and what comes next.
Merced even gets real about how her mother Katerine Moner’s battle with cancer has influenced her latest evolution. So maybe bring the tissues.
Refinery29: What excites you most about “Papi?”
Isabela Merced: “I’m excited for the world to hear my first single to be released from the body of work I have been putting together for everyone for a few years now. 'Papi' is empowering to girls. 'Papi' has sass and confidence.”
Are you planning to use more Spanish in your music?
“The rooms for my sessions are always a completely bilingual team. I feel as though lots of artists have dipped their toes in the bilingual English-Spanish waters and are making songs that are bilingual, but I am going to fully immerse myself in that.
"I don’t feel I need to do just Spanish or just English songs, most of the time bilingual is what feels right. So far, all of my songs were written in the room the way they are; they weren’t translated afterward. Some things feel better expressed in English, and some are more beautifully said in Spanish. Not going to lie though, I kind of prefer to write in Spanish.”
Why is it so important for you to have a bilingual team?
“I want my music to represent who I am. I am bilingual, and I often do speak Spanglish. I grew up with a white dad and Latinx mom, who was an immigrant. That is who I am. It’s okay to be a mix. Latinx culture has infiltrated everywhere. An American-Latin blend is apparent in so many aspects of our world. Often, the two languages that characterize us are split in songs to either be one or the other. Us mixed kids have a place in this society, and Spanglish songs do as well.
“A big shout out to my label, Republic Records, because they have been supportive of embracing my heritage and artistic choices. They've been really down to letting me do completely Spanish records as well. I can't wait to show people this side of me, this completely stripped down side of me. It’s probably the most authentic thing I'm doing as an artist.”
You were born Isabela Moner. Why is it important to you to use Merced instead?
“This is when I begin writing my own story as Isabela Merced. This has been a very difficult year for my brothers, mom, and me. This is how I say goodbye to that and welcome a new chapter with those who are close to me. Isabela Merced represents everything that has and will continue to define me. It represents the values that were passed on from my grandmother.
“She was a force of nature, unafraid of anything, always ready to take on every challenge and person that said she couldn’t. At the same time, she loved her familia; nothing came before that. Her ideal day would be a day at the beach with the family, music, dancing, and eating alitas (chicken wings) or ceviche. This is me! I hope this continues on my grandmother’s legacy because she left us too soon.”
How did your grandmother’s legacy inspire your new name?
“I grew up hearing stories about my grandmother who passed away when my mom was only 15, so I never actually met her, but felt as if I did. My mother and I had emotional moments talking about her mom because she died when my mom was so young. My grandmother was the one who got my mother to the United States, and the reason that my mom had the opportunities that so many people do not have. My grandmother sacrificed a lot for her daughters to live out the American dream she had for them.
“It wasn’t long before I realized that without my grandmother, I wouldn't be here, and if I were to change my last name — which I had been thinking for some time — it would have to do something with her. I believe some force, throughout all these years, has been giving my mom the strength and determination to guide me; a force that has been protecting us through so many journeys, trips, and experiences. I feel as though if that guardian angel would be anyone, it would be my grandma.”
What message are you hoping to share with fans through this move? Whether that be old fans or new?
“I hope that my fans learn to always respect the people who came before them — the people who got them to where they are. Because it's not a one-person thing. It is not I made it here by myself, I don't need anybody else.”
How did your family react to the decision? Are they excited? Surprised?
“Not many people know! I’m sure everyone will be surprised, but supportive. This is a very personal decision for me and a very empowering one. I’m sure that my relatives, especially the ones in Peru, who knew my grandma, will be moved and happy for my Grandma rejoicing wherever she is.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.