Maiden Name Project: Djali Brown-Cepeda
What exactly is a maiden name? Yes, it’s the security question your bank asks you when you keep forgetting your password. And yes, more factually, it is what females in various cultures call their birth name before they marry and take their husbands’ surnames.
But this is 2017. I mean, come the fuck on. Why should women give up such a large chunk of their identity for the sake of their husbands? What about the gays and lesbians and everything in between? More importantly, how much history have we erased by stripping women of their last names for centuries upon centuries?
Fact: In the United States, only eight states have regulated an official process for a man to change his name during the whole marriage thing. To us, that says it all.
So Milk.xyz sat down with three of our favorite creatives to talk about their mothers and their mothers’ lineage, celebrating that half of their heritage just in time for Mother’s Day, which, as we all come to realize with age, should be every day. We also reimagined their identity as if they’d taken their mothers’ maiden names as their own last names. Finally, we had Historian Michael Rayhill give us a little background on each person’s mother. First off, we have Djali Brown-Cepeda. Her mother’s name is Raquel Cepeda, and her maternal grandparents’ names are E. Cepeda and R. Mancebo.
Starting off, what is your relationship with your mother like?
My relationship with my mom couldn’t be more amazing, to be honest. She had me around 23, so her and I sort of grew up together. She’s always made it part of her mission as a mother to, 1) Be honest with, me and 2) Not to repeat the mistakes that [she made]. So, she had the mentality of, “Listen little girl, we’re going to try and do this. I’ll make mistakes, but I’ll try to be the best mother to you. Be honest with me and I’ll be honest with you.” So, she’s always been very real with me my entire life, which is lovely. We also go on dates all the time—we actually went on one last week to the opening night of the New York African Film Festival. (Her film played as part of it and she was also on a panel). We also like going to concerts together; last October, I bought us tickets to see Caetano Veloso. She’s pretty much my best friend.
Of course, that has its ups and downs, as I’ll have my: “You’re my mom, not my friend, so I don’t have to tell you that” moments. We’re super close. When I went to high school, I’d literally recount my entire day to her when I got home. It’s interesting though, because as I get older, despite living at home and seeing my family every day, I’m trying to figure out how to be my own person. Not in the sense that she’s controlling, but just in the sense of me filtering what I say. I want to tell her every single thing about my life—she knows practically 99.99 percent of everything—but there are still those “me things” that I want to reserve for friends.
It’s a hard balance. Even though she is a friend, do you still consider her a role model?
Yeah, my mom is definitely my role model, and always has been since I was a little one, for many reasons. Primarily, I really respect that she’s never let me impede on her passions and has never used me as a crutch. She’s a writer, a documentary filmmaker, used to be the Editor-in-Chief of Russell Simmons’ magazine One World…so the fact that she never let me stop her, and included me in everything she did, is highly inspiring. She once told me that when I was a little baby, she’d read her articles to me. Also, [the fact] that she grew up under trying circumstances and made the conscious decision to say, “What happened to me was awful, and I won’t repeat that with Djali,” is empowering. It’s so easy to fall into cycles, and it takes a strong person to break out of them. Then, more generally, that she’s a female Latina/woman of color in film; she’s paving [the way] for me as an aspiring filmmaker. To see her go through all the processes, from pre-production to festival submissions, and continue doing her thing despite film and media as patriarchal, male-dominated spaces, her perseverance is inspirational.
Can you talk a little bit about that? Because you want to do something similar by working in a male-dominated field. I don’t think people realize the impact of being a minority in a situation like that, or why it’s so difficult.
In terms of documentary—from what I’ve seen—it’s definitely hard to be a woman of color director since history is always written by white men (and in some cases, white women). Moreover, that my mother falls outside of the socially constructed black-white binary that the U.S. is so comfortable in, makes it ten times harder. When represented in media, either in front of or behind the camera, Latinx are eternally subjected to stereotypical representation: we’re either submissive nannies that don’t know English, lipstick-wearing video vixens ready to cat fight, or a hyper-sexual other waiting to be eroticized. My mother challenges all of those things.
Yet, despite being the antithesis to the toxicity that’s perpetuated, my mom still makes her art, and does so with passion.
In her first film, Bling: A Planet Rock, she took three rappers—Raekwon, Tego, and Paul Wall—to Sierra Leone, West Africa, to show them how hip-hop’s obsession with diamonds intersected with Sierra Leone’s war. It gained a lot of attention, playing at BAM, the Film Society at Lincoln Center, and Rotterdam.
Her second documentary, SOME GIRLS (2017), deals with Latina teens, mental health, and ancestral DNA. Compared to their black and white counterparts, Latina teens have the highest rates of depression, suicide, and suicide ideation in the country, with the epicenter being the Bronx. Mental health is highly stigmatized in the Latinx community. What I love about the film is that she presents a real, counter-narrative to what’s out there already regarding Latinxs: instead of showing young girls shaking their asses, she presents a realer, rawer version of Latinx identity. It’s the sexy and romantic version of urban spaces or “the urban creature” that we’re used or that we see on reality TV.
Again, you want to do something sort of similar, and you have her as a role model. Even though women are underrepresented, who do you think was your mom’s role model to make her brave this male-dominated industry?
My mom is a really tough person that doesn’t take shit from anyone. I think a catalyst for that was her own maternal grandmother. “Mama” (which is what we call her) is a super smart, radical, political woman—she even knows politicians’ names that I don’t even know of. During the Trujillo years in the Dominican Republic, Mama actively worked as part of the resistance against tyranny, helping Haitians get back to Haiti before being subjected to the governmental forces. She was an activist before activism became “cool and trendy”: she had to be. My great-grandmother, my mother’s grandmother, was and continues to be an inspiration for my mother. I believe resistance and down-for-the-cause-ness is hereditary. She barely knew her maternal mother. She was very, very young when she had her and trying to find her footing in a new world, from the Dominican Republic to New York. Plus, she let men be her downfall: again, a cycle my mother made sure to break.
What was it like for them, in the context of males, when they were raising their children? Were there guys around or was it a really, super matriarchal family where only the women were raising the kids?
My mother grew up between the D.R., San Francisco, and New York. In the D.R., my mom spent a lot of time living with her maternal grandparents, my great-grandparents. One of the strongest male figures in my mother’s life was her gay uncle. Clearly, being a gay man in ‘70s Caribbean was a feat in itself. (I’d like to use this space to briefly say that it’s very easy to call Latinx culture intrinsically homophobic. Yet, that’s surface and doesn’t take into account historical contexts.) My mom’s uncle was actually the one to buy my mother her first computer, and now she’s a writer. He also went to San Francisco to help her mother and a little Raquel out of an abusive situation. In terms of maternity, my mom didn’t really have a maternal upbringing. Rather, she’s had a few maternal figures.
Do you have anything to say about women’s history being erased overtime as I think it happens if they change their last name during marriage?
There’s this ridiculous notion that only men can be revolutionary. During the 1930s through 1970s and beyond, Latin American and Caribbean social change was highly catalyzed by dope ass women. Moreover, a lot of the anti-tyrannical movements were run in conjunction with men. In the Dominican Republic, for instance, many women came before my great-grandmother and more famous figures like the Mirabal Sisters. The Mirabal Sisters, known as Las Mariposas (their nom-de-guerre), were outspoken revolutionaries who Trujillo had killed. In Puerto Rico, there were women like Blanca Canales Torresola; in Cuba there was Celia Sánchez and Vilma Espín. It’s real messed up and patriarchal that only the men are spoken about.
Do you think that there’s a solution? In your head, what’s the best thing we can do to make sure that women aren’t being forgetting in people’s lineage?
Well, I think that we live in a time now where ignorance is a choice: it’s a choice to not share an article, to not like someone’s picture. Both the information and platforms are there to be utilized, and though I have a love-hate relationship with social media and think our relationship to it is more toxic than healthy, it’s definitely important. Anyone can dig for their roots; talk to your parents and grandparents if they’re still alive. It’s so vital that we stay in contact with our elders: it’s very “United States” to forget the older people in your family and throw them in a nursing home, whereas in other places—from Africa to Latin America to Italy—you deal with your elders. I understand the necessity of nursing homes and elderly places, but it’s so sad when I visit my grandma’s senior center and some of the folks there haven’t seen or spoken to their children in years. I think we need to pick up the phone and call our grandparents, and make an effort to record our histories from the sources while they’re still here. We must honor our elders and those who came before us because without them we wouldn’t be here, quite literally.
Being wack is genderless.
You seem to have some really traditional opinions and ideas; some that are hard to find in today’s millennial generation.
It’s actually funny because I consider myself a progressive traditionalist, meaning, I’m forward thinking and always down with the capital C “Cause,” but am still rather traditional in my ideas. For instance, when I get married, I will keep my maiden name, but plan on adding my husband’s last name as well. I know it’s rather old school mentality, but in today’s society, it’s pretty radical to be traditional.
That’s cool though, because it brings up the other side of things. People have so much trouble defining Feminism—for some, it is acting as a “traditional woman” in society’s context if they so choose. Do you think your take on it is similar or different than your mother’s?
My mom and I talk about this a lot. One of the largest issues is that Feminism proper has always been highly exclusive. Personally, I consider myself more of a mujerista and aligned with the politics of mujerisma, which is a concept that deals with focusing on the advancement of Latinx women, women of color, and Third World women worldwide. (Women meaning anyone who identifies as a woman: not just an individual with a vag.) It’s a struggle to liberate ourselves not as individuals, but as members of the greater whole. So, despite it’s root in latin-centricity, it’s open to the greater Diaspora.
I don’t think women of color as a group being exclusive to their white counterparts should be an issue, as the latter have excluded us from their activism for the majority of history. I think it’s detrimental and too precious for us to all pretend we don’t notice our differences and hold hands while singing “Kumbaya” because we’re in liberal spaces, like schools or other institutions. Yet, that doesn’t mean that I don’t have white friends: I love my white friends, and my white femme friends have been some of the genuinely more supportive people in my life. But in terms of my literal activism, it’s geared toward women of color the world over.
I’m the biggest fan of Cardi B and Amber Rose. You know why? Because media and history have told us that you can only be a card-holding feminist if you have the education to be one: if you’ve taken courses at your university of choice about Feminism, if you can quote the “Vagina Monologues”, if you’ve been exposed to the term in an academic setting, nestled in your comfy liberal arts school classroom…Rather than first encountering it in a classroom, women of color are inherently Feminist. As products of colonialism who deal with the vestiges of colonialism every waking moment of our existence, just our being makes us “Feminist.” The fact that we exist is because women in our ancestral lines survived in the face of oppression and colonialism. Prior to Love and Hip Hop, Cardi’s pride and comedic relief through her Instagram videos, where she called out guys and acted as the “stripper lawyer,” make her feminist. Amber Rose’s attempt to dismantle slut-shaming and normalize female sexuality? Amazing. The truest feminists and catalysts for change don’t have “activist” in their Instagram bios like all the “feminists” now.
I think that the average person can relate to someone like Cardi B, because they’re not like these elitist kids. It’s a different echelon; it’s a totally different type of Feminism.
I prefer Cardi B—Emma Watson can go. I’ll be the one to say it, as I’ve always been the queen of unpopular opinion, but I don’t really care about Beyoncé. However, the fact that Emma Watson criticized Beyoncé by saying about Lemonade that “she is putting herself in a category of a feminist, but then [with] the camera, it felt very male, such a male voyeuristic experience,” then all of a sudden poses without a bra and replies [saying] Feminism is about “freedom and choice”? Girl, bye. Emma Watson is the literal embodiment of white, exclusive feminism. Which sucks, because I always thought of myself as a Hermoine.
There’s this weird space in feminism, where one woman will say something about another woman, and that woman will be like “You’re tearing women down.” As if that makes you anti-Feminist. Sometimes you can just call women assholes because they’re assholes; it doesn’t have to do with their gender.
I really don’t respect the hypocrisy of the modern-day feminist. “I’m going to march and post about equality, yet steal someone’s man.” Not here for sometime-y activism. “I’m going to pretend to care about trans rights, yet call someone the wrong gender identity.” Please, tell me more. “I’m here for all women, but strippers and sex workers are nasty.” Okay. Calling that out is not be being anti-woman or anti-Feminist; it’s me not supporting wack women. Being wack is genderless. In regards to the first example, does it make Sam less of a feminist if she doesn’t like Jessica for stealing her partner? No. Nowadays, you can’t say anything without it being bad. It’s really coddling. Then, tangentially, now activism is measured by your amount of social media followers. What?! Feminism, and all facets of activism, are so tricky now in the digital age.
Is there anything we didn’t cover that you want to include about your mother, your mother’s side of the family or how you celebrate?
Aside from my mother, my great-grandma is really such an inspiration. She contributed to the revolution in a time where it wasn’t “cool” to do so; in a time [when] a publication wasn’t going to write about you. There was no in-between in her activism: she wasn’t fighting against a dictator so people could share it on Instagram, she actually helped in changing a nation. I respect her so much and am very lucky to know her. Whenever she compliments me, I literally melt. As for Mother’s Day (I don’t practice this, but I also don’t have the money to be practicing this), you really should be treating your mom to cute things all the time. Sometimes I treat her to dance classes or we do other things together.
I think it’s an issue that we only celebrate people and things on certain days. You should always be telling your parents, if you have that sort of relationship with them, “I love you.” You should always be appreciative and show your appreciation. But #thegagis: there is such thing as doing something nice for your mom (or any loved one) without posting it on the Gram. Don’t do nice things for those you love in hopes that strangers will validate your actions with comments and likes. Do things because you want to. My grandparents for instance don’t like photos taken of them. It’s a nice practice, hanging with them, because it forces me to be there with them and not exploit them for cyber egotistical purposes. Do things that challenge you as a person.