Book review: Raquel Cepeda’s “Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina”

BirdofParadiseRaquel Cepeda wasn’t sure of her cultural identity. Even her friends and family weren’t sure.

“Papi said I wanted to be Black because I love hip-hop, and a low-class Dominican because I like graffiti and b-boys. The kids … said I wanted to be white because I played tennis … Casimiro said I needed to recognize and embrace my natives indios and africanos in order to strengthen my spiritual guide … Caridad told me I had a vibe of a Black and white gringa. And Blackie said I could be from anywhere. But I like being Dominican, sort of, especially one born in Harlem who likes to wear socks in the winter.”

Her search for her personal and culture identity is the subject of her memoir Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina (Atria). Readers may be inspired to investigate their own heritage after reading her book.

Cepeda divides the book into two parts, beginning with her personal life. Her parents split up early and Cepeda moved between her relatives – in the Dominican Republic and New York City – throughout her life.

Unfortunately, she was frequently abused by her father and neglected by her mother. Cepeda uses a conversational tone, good description and dialogue to keep the story moving, but these sections are intense and hard to read at times. (Some readers may be turned off by the explicit language.)

Cepeda found solace in the hip-hop world, becoming a music journalist. But when she has her own family and her father almost dies, she yearns to learn more about her heritage and persuades her parents to take DNA tests. She finds her father’s family can be traced to Africa and her mother’s family to Europe. Cepeda delves into Dominican Republic history, noting that many of its residents (and Latinos in general) can claim to be several races.

She quotes Ken Rodriguez, a software trainer and avid genealogist.

“ ‘In my opinion the biggest misconception is that Hispanic is a race in the first place. Hispanic people are generally a mix of different racial backgrounds. You can be White, Black, Asian, Amerindian, Jewish, and still be Hispanic,” he says, echoing a sentiment of many Latino-Americans. ‘What unites us is the Hispanic culture, not our race.’”

Cepeda creates a fascinating and compelling look at the complex issue of ethnicity by personalizing the issue. You even may want to get your own DNA tested.

cepeda_raquelMore about Raquel Cepeda:

Cepeda has written for various publications and edited the anthology And It Don’t Stop: The Best Hip-Hop Journalism of the Last 25 Years. She also directed and produced the 2007 documentary film Bling: A Planet Rock.

Source: I received a review copy from the publisher.

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Filed under 2013 Books, Book Reviews, Non-Fiction

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