Latinx Heritage Month: Raquel Cepeda

On October 4, Dickinson welcomed writer Raquel Cepeda to campus for two public events and several class visits. On Wednesday at 7p.m. in ATS, Cepeda gave a talk sponsored by the Clarke Forum for Contemporary Issues; on Thursday at 6:30 p.m., her film, Some Girls, was screened in Althouse. Both events were followed by a Q&A. Cepeda’s talk focused on the current state of affairs in the country, which she framed as dire but only resolvable through communication, something she stressed as essential to make change today.

Cepeda identifies as a Latinx, hyphenated American and is the daughter of Dominican immigrants. She was born in Harlem and still lives in New York today. She is a writer, filmmaker, and activist. Her work includes the book Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina as well as the film shown on Thursday.

The talk began with Cepeda saying that, although she usually speaks more extemporaneously, she felt she should write down remarks for her talk, as discussing the current American climate requires specific attention and care. She spoke about the president, racism in America, and the failure of the country to correctly teach history that incorporates all identities. On that point, she said, “not seeing ourselves reflected… engenders a disengaged youth.” She counts herself as part of those thus affected and says that it resulted in the ambivalence she has towards academia, as well as anger toward an institution that depicted past events in a disingenuous manner geared to white students.

“We owe it to our ancestors,” Cepeda said, to fix this problem “in a nation young enough not to atrophy.” She urged the audience to “recast the narrative, remix it by taking a few minutes to contribute to indigenous causes or send a positive thought into the world.” She challenged students to challenge professors and educational precedents to disrupt a system that leaves out large portions of the American youth. To those who have benefitted from inequality, Cepeda said, “recognize your privilege, don’t feel guilty.” She does not believe in guilt as a useful tool, as she argued it can be all-consuming and that the recent events in Charlottesville are its effects in extreme.

Some Girls is Cepeda’s education philosophy in practice. In it, she takes four teens from a suicide prevention program in the Bronx to the Dominican Republic, where she educates them about a history that includes their ancestors and which hopefully will help them learn about themselves. Cepeda also provide DNA ancestry testing for the girls. She said that her own experience of learning her DNA ancestry made her feel more responsible for learning the story of her ancestors. The film shows the varying reactions people can have to the news of their origins, something Cepeda thought was important to depict as part of an experience that, after all, is not universal.

After both events, Cepeda answered students’ questions, which she says are the most prominent source from which she draws inspiration. At the film screening, she relayed some of the challenges of making a film with teenagers, especially those at risk and with families “on the margins of the margins of society.” The key factor in these relationships was listening, trust-building, and respect. Her talk and film left her audience with a great deal to reflect and act on here at Dickinson and in each individual’s journey to self-discovery and community.

The film is available for student viewing at the Waidner-Spahr Library, and other resources for information about social justice and topics related to Cepeda’s work can be found at Landis House.

 Written by Margot McCrillis ’18, Landis House Social Justice Peer Educator and PEAC Peer Educator