Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina

Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina

Raquel Cepeda

Language: English

Pages: 336

ISBN: 1451635877

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


In 2009, when Raquel Cepeda almost lost her estranged father to heart disease, she was terrified she’d never know the truth about her ancestry. Every time she looked in the mirror, Cepeda saw a mystery—a tapestry of races and ethnicities that came together in an ambiguous mix. With time running out, she decided to embark on an archaeological dig of sorts by using the science of ancestral DNA testing to excavate everything she could about her genetic history.

In 2009, when Raquel Cepeda almost lost her estranged father to heart disease, she was terrified she’d never know the truth about her ancestry. Every time she looked in the mirror, Cepeda saw a mystery—a tapestry of races and ethnicities that came together in an ambiguous mix. With time running out, she decided to embark on an archaeological dig of sorts by using the science of ancestral DNA testing to excavate everything she could about her genetic history.

Digging through memories long buried, she embarks upon a journey not only into her ancestry but also into her own history. Born in Harlem to Dominican parents, she was sent to live with her maternal grandparents in the Paraíso (Paradise) district in Santo Domingo while still a baby. It proved to be an idyllic reprieve in her otherwise fraught childhood. Paraíso came to mean family, home, belonging. When Cepeda returned to the US, she discovered her family constellation had changed. Her mother had a new, abusive boyfriend, who relocated the family to San Francisco. When that relationship fell apart, Cepeda found herself back in New York City with her father and European stepmother: attending tennis lessons and Catholic schools; fighting vicious battles wih her father, who discouraged her from expressing the Dominican part of her hyphenated identity; and immersed in the ’80s hip-hop culture of uptown Manhattan. It was in these streets, through the prism of hip-hop and the sometimes loving embrace of her community, that Cepeda constructed her own identity.

Years later, when Cepeda had become a successful journalist and documentary filmmaker, the strands of her DNA would take her further, across the globe and into history. Who were her ancestors? How did they—and she—become Latina? Her journey, as the most unforgettable ones often do, would lead her to places she hadn’t expected to go. With a vibrant lyrical prose and fierce honesty, Cepeda parses concepts of race, identity, and ancestral DNA among Latinos by using her own Dominican-American story as one example, and in the process arrives at some sort of peace with her father.

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haven’t spent much time with her or Eduardo. I call him “Papi,” though I don’t remember a single instant between him and Mami that illustrates their connection or where I fit in. The only proof of parentage I possess is a black-and-white photograph of us all together, taken shortly after I was born. When I turn six months old, Mami drops me off in Paraíso on the first of many round-trips to the island that I’ll take before my sixth birthday. There, I’m sent to live with her parents, Don Manuel

published divorce papers like a diploma and awarded them to Esperanza. “Here, you can have him,” she said. Eduardo moved into a small one-bedroom apartment two buildings down from Rocío. He was within walking distance of his favorite place on earth next to a woman—the tennis courts. I went to live with Mama and Papa in Santo Domingo so Mami could get back on her feet. My poodle, Oliver, tired of my erratic trips to and from the island, ignored me in the beginning, and in protest of my last

nothing for a few minutes. He’s wearing the same distant expression Dad did when he revisited his past, though this old man doesn’t look blue. For Arquimedes, evoking the past is clearly a bittersweet journey, a pleasant throw he can drape around himself on those rare cold nights on the island. “Oh yes, let’s begin,” he says, halfway smiling. “What can you tell me about the Cepedas?” I ask. “Well, my grandfather Juan Cepeda was not as black as, say, an African but very dark indio.” Before that,

screams. She braces herself, praying to La Virgen de la Altagracia that the woman doesn’t jump from the roof and traumatize her child for life. “I said, it’s none of our business.” The Hindu man doesn’t yell. Doesn’t move. The woman picks up the boy, now silent, over her head and tosses him off the roof. The boy’s father doesn’t move. Rocío, a sheltered teenager from Santo Domingo, hasn’t witnessed this kind of violence before, not even during the civil war in 1965. She becomes distraught,

begins to doubt he will. My mother has trouble taking care of me. She can barely take care of herself. *  *  * My earliest memories are adrenaline-fueled vignettes set in Inwood and Santo Domingo. I star in each; my father, hardly ever; my mother, more so, and never without those tacónes raising her five-foot frame high off the ground as she sped to and from our apartment on Seaman Avenue. I call Rocío “Mami,” even though I’m not sure she’s mine or that I’m hers. There’s no real bond. I

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