Rodriguez was already a singer, dancer and performance wunderkind when, as a 20-year-old student at Berklee College of Music, she won the Clive Barnes Award for her electrifying performance as charismatic drag queen Angel in an off-Broadway revival of Rent. The role of Angel was a catalyst for transformation in Rodriguez’s life. It ignited her career and propelled her to fully explore her transition and her gender identity journey. She saw how Angel felt most comfortable as a woman, which in turn, allowed her to tell her own story on that stage as well.
Over the next few years, Rodriguez took small roles on Nurse Jackie and The Carrie Diaries, working with a management team who supported and affirmed her identity as a Black woman. In a 2016 Luke Cage episode, “Sister Boy,” she plays a trans sex worker who suffers at the hands of male client, a watershed moment for trans representation in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Born to a Black American mother and Afro-Puerto Rican father in Newark, Rodriguez traces her accomplishments back to her Black Latinx roots. In our conversation, it’s evident how her family support system, her Afro-Boricua identity and her deep desire to entertain, have all intertwined beautifully in her life. Her family is the life force that elevates and guards her, especially her mother. She was mostly raised by her mom in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Newark, but came to understand her seamless connections to Latinx and Black American culture. Her father is of African-American and Puerto Rican descent, and Michaela Jaé was taught to cherish her multifaceted cultural advantages.
“One thing that I learned as an Afro-Latina, is that I should never, ever, ever be afraid — which I never was — but it was always instilled in me, to never be afraid of your heritage,” Rodriguez says. “Like, if you are culturally expressing yourself, never be afraid to express yourself, whether you’re playing Celia Cruz, Maluma or Jennifer Lopez, never be afraid to do that.”
Rodriguez spent time with her Boricua family members in Philadelphia — experiences that were foundational to how she enjoyed and expressed her ties to Latinx culture. “I see my family. And I feel like in Latino or even in Hispanic culture, that’s just what it is. Familia, it’s the root of everything,” Rodriguez muses. She celebrates and embraces all of her intersections: Black, Latina, Puerto Rican, a Newarker; a performer, a woman, and a trans girl; all fluidly.