Johanny Cepeda-Freyitz is willing a way to Harrisburg in 2022
Johanny Cepeda-Freyitz is one election win away from being the first Democrat to rep PA’s 129th District in Harrisburg.
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When Johanny Cepeda-Freyitz was first approached about running for the Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives via its 129th District, all she could think about was God and her dad, Luis.
Luis had a motto in life, and it’s one he passed down to his daughter that she’s carried to this day.
“Querer es poder.”
“When there’s a will, there’s a way.”
The daughter of go-getters
He was one of 14 kids in his family, born in the Dominican Republic. Luis was middle of the pack age-wise, and true to his motto, was the “go-getter” of his siblings, according to his daughter, who recently sat down with AL DÍA to talk about her journey to politics.
At seven years old, that meant shining shoes to help his parents afford plantains they’d boil to feed their children. Luis also dropped out before reaching middle school because he needed eyeglasses to participate, and his parents couldn’t afford them.
When Luis was 19, he came to New York City and began work in a factory. It was one of the many jobs a young Johanny would see her dad take up to support the family.
Her mom, Ana, also had that same fierce, independent streak. Also born in the Dominican Republic, she grew up in similar circumstances to her eventual husband as the youngest of 16 kids. When her parents couldn’t afford to send her to a school she was adamant about going to, Ana also dropped out. But that wouldn’t be the end of her education career.
She moved to the U.S when she was 18 on a mission not to be like the other women in her family.
“She didn't want to be a housewife or a stay-at-home mom like all her siblings. All of the women, all her sisters, were all stay-at-homes,” said Cepeda-Freyitz. “She was like: 'No, I'm breaking the mold.'”
Ana went back to school, got her GED, learned English, and eventually landed a job with then-Chase Manhattan Bank. She also met Luis along the way, and started a family that settled in Washington Heights, New York City.
That same drive Ana demanded of herself, was also passed on to her daughter, even if it drove Johanny insane more than a few times.
“Education is like the number one deal. That's my job, I have to excel. My mom wouldn't accept a 99, they had to be 100 or better,” said Cepeda-Freyitz.
On the fashion side, Ana would also sew her daughter outfits to wear to school. Pair it with the fresh pair of kicks her dad would bring home from the shoe factory where he worked, and Johanny was also one of the best dressed in her formative years.
“My mom kind of raised me to be very unique,” said Cepeda-Freyitz.
The Age of the Turkey
That was especially true as Johanny entered what her mom called “La edad del pavo,” or her “Age of the Turkey.”
“It doesn't translate well, but it was like adolescent ages, developmental stages of a young woman,” said Cepeda-Freyitz. “She wanted to make sure that she put me in an environment where I was safe.”
For that, Johanny was shipped off to live in the Dominican Republic for four years when she was nine years old. The city was Santiago, in the country’s north, which Cepeda-Freyitz called “like a mini New York City.”
She spent Monday through Friday going to school for half a day, Saturdays were for church, and Sundays were for going to her grandma’s house in the country. It was at the latter, where Cepeda-Freyitz learned a new appreciation for the life she left in New York City, but also a love for the one she found in her parents’ homeland.
“Spending time with my grandmother in the country, you don't realize what you have in the United States until you have lived in the Dominican Republic,” she said. “I had this love and appreciation for the land, the culture, no expectations, no pressure. People learn to adapt to their environment and appreciate the little bit that they have. Everyone always had a smile on their face regardless of whether they had money in their pocket or not.
Fashion dreams, then reality
At 14, Cepeda-Freyitz came back to New York City and back under her mom’s protective bubble as she entered high school. To escape, she said she tried to participate in as many extracurricular activities as possible. She played the fife in band, wrote letters to free people from prison as part of Amnesty International, became a peer mentor as she moved up grades, and was in French Club, to name just a few.
Going into college, her parents had dreams of her being a doctor, lawyer, or teacher, but deep down, Cepeda-Freyitz wanted to be a fashion designer and had arts at her core. It was a clash, and one that saw the same rebel streak as her mother come out.
She went to SUNY New Paltz, an hour away from home, and majored in French, which saw her study abroad in Paris for a semester.
“It was the closest thing to maybe being a fashion designer,” said Cepeda-Freyitz.
She had shared the dream many times with her cousins when she lived in the Dominican Republic, and had even planned to go into business later in life. However, when the reality of the job market set in after Cepeda-Freyitz graduated, she took up work with her dad in building management before looking for something more fulfilling.
That finally came when she applied to be an administrative assistant at Grand Street Settlement, which saw her work within a school-based community center helping predominantly Black and Brown students keep up and later, applying for college. The passion she found working there with kids over the next decade, which also saw her get a Masters in bilingual education counseling, was informed in large part by her own experience trying to get to New Paltz.
“I still feel that discomfort in my gut of what I went through that senior year. Where my guidance counselor was like: 'Here you go, there's this big room with a whole bunch of books, colleges from A to Z, figure it out,'” said Cepeda-Freyitz. “I felt really alone.”
It was draining, but rewarding work, and she is still close with many of the students she helped many years ago.
What got her to leave Grand Street and New York City was an opportunity in Reading, Pennsylvania.
Mi Casa Su Casa
Before moving there, Reading was the place her parents settled with her youngest sister as Johanny went off to college. It was also where other family members settled earlier, after selling their properties in New York City, trading a bustling city life for one that was calmer. On Summer visits back from the Dominican Republic when she lived there, Reading was also a common stop alongside her cousins.
In 2007, those same cousins that promised to open a fashion store with Cepeda-Freyitz, had tried and failed at their first foray into entrepreneurship with a restaurant in downtown Reading. They needed a buyer for the space, and Cepeda-Freyitz eventually took them up on their offer to open Mi Casa Su Casa, a breakfast and lunch cafe specializing in Latino American fare.
“I didn't know anything about running a restaurant. I loved food, that's about as much as I knew,” she said. “But I knew management, and knew that if I put my heart into it, like I always say: 'When there's a will, there's a way.'”
Over the next 16 years, Cepeda-Freyitz and Mi Casa Su Casa would survive an economic recession that brought Reading to its knees and put her through some of the toughest times of her life. But in the end, she made it, and in addition to her café becoming beloved by locals for its atmosphere of acceptance, she became a small business leader in the city, and a leader for its ever-growing Latino community.
“I became this social entrepreneur versus this businesswoman,” said Cepeda-Freyitz. “My driving force was to be able to make a difference in anything that I can participate in, when I can speak for those that couldn't speak for themselves.”
Making History in the 129th
It’s what eventually got her into politics, first fighting against the privatization of the city’s water system, and then running for Reading City Council. The whole time, she’s fought an uphill battle to uproot the city’s white power structure. There have been losses in that fight — ones that made her want to quit politics altogether — but she’s also met people along the way that empower her to stay in the game.
People like State Rep. Manny Guzman, and the first Latino mayor of Reading Eddie Moran. She was eventually elected to sit on City Council in 2019, but soon after, it was Guzman and Moran barging into her café to implore her to run for State House in 2022.
“They were on my ass,” said Cepeda-Freyitz. “'Okay, Jo, this is what's on the table. What’re you gonna decide? Do you need time?'”
People like, Minority Leader Rep. Joanna McClinton, who played a major role in the redistricting of Reading’s District 129 to include a lot more Latino votes, but also agreed that Cepeda-Freytiz should “pray on it” before she ran.
In the end, she did and won in the May 2022 primary. Cepeda-Freyitz is now in position to not only be Harrisburg’s only Latina come 2023, but also the first Democrat ever elected to represent District 129.
After the win, there was elation all around her campaign, but her dad was there to keep the eyes on the prize.
“You still got November,” were his words.