Raquel Cepeda, a revered music journalist, recently released her memoir Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina. It is a beautiful tale of familial redemption, forgiveness and reconciliation in the backdrop of the fearless hip-hop generation.
As much as this is a tale about Cepeda’s tumultuous relationships with her abusive father, love-crazed mother and dismissive stepmother, it is also a vigorous exploration into the development of culture. The acclaimed documentarian is of Dominican descent, but locates home in the heart of New York City. She spends the first half of Bird of Paradise searching for a voice that’s authentic and not diseased with her father’s perception of Dominican-identity.
Cepeda finds the hip-hop culture to be a platform for her to camouflage her pain. She pines for the time when she will “write like Robert Christgau and Joan Morgan and Greg Tate, and Lisa Jones, all journalists whose contributions to the Village Voice replaced the played-out textbooks I barely cracked open as a high school senior at the onset of the 1990s.” Her knack for cultural criticism grants her a seat at the esteemed-writers table, but yet, she still has little sense of how her Dominican-American heritage impacts her nuances.
The award-winning writer was born in Harlem, New York to Dominican parents, but was transported back-and-forth from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic and New York leading to immense confusion about the identity-box she was trapped in. Many other Latinas are in similar predicament.
Cepeda writes in the preface to Bird of Paradise, “The United States has the second highest Latino population in the world, second only to Mexico. And still, the media—they lump us all together into one generic clod—doesn’t get us, either. Are Latino-Americans white? Black? Other? Illegal aliens from Mars? Or are we the very face of America?”
Latina identity is complex and nuanced, developed through the lens of Whiteness without regard for how this one-dimensional view impacts people in the micro-level.
“Most Latinos across the [U.S.] do not look like, say, their favorite euro-friendly telenovela stars, but over half of the approximately 50.5 million living in the United States identified themselves as White and no other race in the 2010 census,” Cepeda writes.
Cepeda uses the second-half of Bird Paradise to reconcile her understandings of her culture with the realities of her lineage. She enlists relatives to assist her in tracing her ancestry to pinpoint how her family came to exist in the Dominican Republic. Her scientific-research takes her from her New York City-dwelling to the bowls of Guniea-Bissau and to oft-hidden pieces throughout the Caribbean. She also reconnects with her sick father in the process and begins piecing together her identity.
At the end of Bird of Paradise, Cepeda writes that our “identities are a work in progress and really up to us and nobody else to ultimately define.”
However, the fluidity of race requires us to know our histories in order to formulate an identity that’s authentic to who we are and where we originate from. Tracing ancestries privies us to the complexities of our histories, while also giving us an opportunity to uncover buried secrets.
My mother initiated her quest into our maternal ancestral lineage after she discovered the birth certificate of a great-great grandmother online. Her six-month-long trace through birth and death records was rewarding. She discovered our first immigrant ancestor was a plantation owner from Scotland. He raped and impregnated a slave several times, leading to our branch of the McNeil tree.
Her discovery explained aspects like our angular noses and acres of property in North Carolina, but it also unearthed cousins raised by aunts and children killed by parents. It was all a revelation.
As Cepeda points out, ancestral DNA-tracing is confirming and empowering. “Not everybody wants to know where they come from, to find out that they descended from the indigenous or African communities, if you will. But for people who want to do that work and get to know themselves I think it’s a very healthy way to do it,” she said.
Cepeda enlisted the assistance of a trained genealogist, but for those without the funds to hire Harvard University-professionals, signing up for Ancestry.com is a great way to launch a lineage trace.
Alex Haley, author of Roots, wrote it best.
“In all of us there is a hunger, marrow deep, to know our heritage – to know who we are and where we came from. Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning. No matter what our attainments in life, there is still a vacuum, an emptiness, and the most disquieting loneliness.”