TEA, S.D. — Monalisa Perez and her fiancé, Tyler Blake, both have pain in their pasts, but they’ve found healing through creativity and a clothing brand they created called Wake.

Growing up, Blake could have caved to peer pressure and joined gang life in southside Chicago. Perez was on the verge of suicide for more than a year after pleading guilty to second-degree manslaughter and a staggered six-month jail sentence because of a YouTube stunt gone wrong with then boyfriend Pedro Ruiz III in 2017 in Ada, Minn.

Thinking that a thick encyclopedia could stop a round from a powerful handgun, a .50-caliber Desert Eagle, Ruiz died on June 26, 2017, after the bullet passed through the book. Perez said she didn’t want to pull the trigger, and video of the event shows Ruiz believed the stunt would not go wrong.

“Tyler and I both have experienced a lot of hardships in our lives,” Perez said. “But anyone that is going through a very difficult time in life, just know that you can overcome it, you can move past it, you can move forward, and you don’t have to stay stuck in the past no matter how hard it might be.”

Blake adds, “I believe that at the end of the day, if we all love ourselves and build a personal deep relationship with ourselves, then I feel that’s the answer to everything. We can’t be deterred from our past. We can’t allow people to control us or manipulate us or convince us to become what they want us to be. At the end of the day, it’s about being who we need to be for ourselves."

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Perez, now 23, choked back tears as she explained the situation that fateful day. She’s not ready to come forward with the complete story yet, but said one day she will, and she won’t do it for online hits.

“You have to understand, too, that I met Pedro when I was 14, and he literally molded me into the person he wanted me to be. I got pregnant at 15 with him, and I was pregnant during the situation, too, at 19. He was very impressive to me. This sounds really weird, but I looked at him like my king, anything he said I’d be like ‘OK, I’ll do it.’ Because if I didn’t do it, he would manipulate me and tell me ‘Oh, you’re not good enough,’ or ‘I can go find someone better than you,’” Perez said.

For nearly two months she resisted taking part in the stunt, but in the end, she pulled the trigger.

“I don’t think I can fully heal from that situation. I have to move forward because I have two kids who look up to me,” Perez said.

Monalisa Perez and fiancé Tyler Blake package clothing for shipment in the headquarters of their business, Wake, a streetwear clothing brand, in Tea, South Dakota, on Jan. 8. Jeremy Fugleberg / Forum News Service
Monalisa Perez and fiancé Tyler Blake package clothing for shipment in the headquarters of their business, Wake, a streetwear clothing brand, in Tea, South Dakota, on Jan. 8. Jeremy Fugleberg / Forum News Service

Since the shooting, she’s been called a “monster,” she’s been threatened, cursed at and scared. But meeting Blake and starting their business, Wake, together has helped empower her.

“This is why I like Wake so much, because Wake is all about troubled people and troubled kids who have gone through something and think they can’t overcome it, but they can overcome it. And this is why I really resonate with Wake and have passion for it because I was that kid. I was that 19-year-old girl who wanted to kill myself for almost a year-and-a-half because I thought I had no purpose after what happened,” Perez said.

Blake is the fashion company’s architect; Perez is “the vibe,” in charge of marketing. The idea began in 2016 when Blake had an epiphany. With a background in dance, including Chicago footwork, ballet and hip-hop, Blake said he knew that he came up against a “great wall” with a future in dance.

“I had a realization or epiphany that dance wasn’t all that I wanted to be,” Blake said. So he drew the company’s logo, an eye. Later, the couple began selling sunglasses on eBay and Poshmark but wanted to do more.

“We were talking one night and knew that this wasn’t what we wanted to do for the rest of our life. I was like, 'Wait, what about Wake?' And literally that night we decided we would get Wake going,” Perez said.

Racks of clothing hang in the Tea, South Dakota, headquarters of Wake, a streetwear business run by Monalisa Perez and her fiancé Tyler Blake, on Jan. 8. Jeremy Fugleberg / Forum News Service
Racks of clothing hang in the Tea, South Dakota, headquarters of Wake, a streetwear business run by Monalisa Perez and her fiancé Tyler Blake, on Jan. 8. Jeremy Fugleberg / Forum News Service

T-shirts and sunglasses evolved into hoodies and pants — streetwear — designed by Blake and manufactured abroad. Colors range from pink, which evokes sincerity, to baby blue, slate and peach.

Working out of a warehouse, they sell online, which has been easier than they thought during the coronavirus pandemic. Brick-and-mortar storefronts are at least a decade down the road, Blake said. For now, they plan on taking their brand to a wider audience, to Fargo, Chicago and New York.

“We have a meaning behind every design. We want to inspire people to love themselves and know who they are within,” Blake said.

While the internet isn’t always her friend, Perez learned to navigate toward the good the digital world can offer. The couple plans to hold discussion panels online to talk about self-love and streetwear fashion.

“A place for people to go and express themselves without being judged, get positive and helpful feedback,” Blake said.

Monalisa Perez and fiancé Tyler Blake show off a package of clothing they've readied for shipment from their streetwear clothing company Wake on Jan. 8 in Tea, South Dakota. Jeremy Fugleberg / Forum News Service
Monalisa Perez and fiancé Tyler Blake show off a package of clothing they've readied for shipment from their streetwear clothing company Wake on Jan. 8 in Tea, South Dakota. Jeremy Fugleberg / Forum News Service

“You asked about my relationship with the internet now, and obviously for about two years after the situation I was afraid of it. I didn’t have Facebook, I didn’t have anything, and I tried dabbling into it, but then I would get so much hate and it would remind me of my past and stuff,” Perez said.

“Now, I can obviously say I love the internet," she added. "I’m growing from it. I’m healing from it. And I just want to inspire people. And when I’m ready to share my truth, I’m going to share my truth, because it’s for me only and my healing process. I will not share my truth on the internet just for reactions."

And Blake has found peace in the Dakotas.

“I’m on my self-love journey every day. Being in a city as big as Chicago, sometimes it is too noisy for me. The slower pace of the Dakotas has disciplined me to express the things I feel. Life was so fast that I didn’t have enough time to focus on myself. Now I have more time to focus on myself. I have more peace,” he said.