My book review of
Bird of Paradise: How I Became a Latina
“I start senior year at the same and possibly large High School in the Bronx that Angel went to. I feel like I’m entering a prison every morning. Thousands of other kids in the yard or cluster-fucked in the cliques by ethnicity or sport.
“It’s easy to tell which Dominicans are campesinos – the newest arrivals. The guys yell instead of speaking to each other and sporting Jheri curls. Many of them speak in dialects I barely understand and say words I can’t begin to try and spell. They sports shoes and sneakers with no socks, even in winter. And the girls usually wear their hair fried so severely straight they smell as if they’re on fire, even more so than Socorro did, when you pass them in the hallway or yard. With several notable exceptions, Asian kids stick together, as do white and black American kids.
“Then there are the Latinos born in New York City who don’t give a fuck about the plátanos as much as they don’t care about us. To many of the tens of thousands flooding the city we’re Gringos, fake-ass Dominicans, though they are just a few years away from becoming as American as they perceive us being. In the time in between the rift between ‘us’ and ‘them’ has become more volatile than standing on a fault line during an earthquake. Many of us born in New York City who feel like we have nothing in common with the campesinos and assume they’ve come straight out of the farm in shantytowns of rural D.R, began choosing sides.”
So flows a passage from page 107 of Raquel Cepeda’s Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina (A Memoir). It’s one of those books that I picked up a few years ago, on a trip to Powell’s in Portland, and has been sitting on my shelf. It caught my eye because of the title, and I am always looking for books on how other Latina women make sense of their race, culture, and ethnic identities. I finally read it.
Though published in 2013 this is not a book that is going out of style anytime soon. Cepeda expertly cuts her personal, painful stories of her upbringing with reflections from her adult self, and is open and honest about the history she is learning about that she was never taught. This is also a rare book that blends the science of ancestral DNA research with the spiritual realm of ancestors reaching through time. Cepeda is open about her search for deeper understanding of her roots, her origins, her matriarchal lineage. She is obsessed with the question Where are we from? It’s a gift to follow her journey to answer that question step by step, through her at times lyrical writing, and at times painful imagery of childhood abuses.
As a fellow Latina, but not of Dominican heritage like Cepeda, I found that so much of the navigation of labels applied to my own journey as well. I immediately found myself comfortable in Cepeda’s malleable sense of time, place, and becoming. She plays with concepts of self as though they are both ever-changing, and linked to essential aspects of ourselves lost in our past. She makes a long, beautiful argument of why one would consider paying for the service of sharing one’s DNA to uncover that history that many of us Latinos have been denied.
I also related a lot to her curiosity and desire to explore her roots wherever it would lead her, and how she was met with resistance and denial from the parental figures in her life who perhaps were most threatened by being denied their claimed whiteness. Her father is portrayed as one such figure, a dark-skinned Latino man of Haitian and Dominican families who successfully “others” all Latinos, and who if written about in 2020 might be sporting a red MAGA hat. There is a part when Cepeda is in college and baring her soul to her mother figure, sharing a poem she wrote about not feeling quite white, black, or brown enough in some spaces, and her mother figure basically dismisses her. She instead pulls the ol’ “When are you coming to visit me?” A conversation stopper also meant to throw guilt, wielded by mother-figures on child-figures through the ages.
She also does not pull any punches about the trauma and abuse she faced as a little girl, with a mother who didn’t protect her or even seem to care about her. And she doesn’t sugar coat her adult relationship with her mother, even after her own daughter is born. Rather, she is very frank about how they do not have a mother-daughter relationship like the one I am accustomed to, and nor do they need to.
I’m not that familiar with Raquel Cepeda’s work, though she references her job as a hip-hop journalist and hints at film making in some passages of the book. Of course, now I’ve looked her up and am looking forward to her next book.
To summarize, the science of DNA lineage tracing is a key component to her adult journey of discovery, but doesn’t overwhelm the story. Cepeda’s memoir is about the intricate human lines of identity – who we are as we traverse this earth, who we are in one place, who we are in another. And what we do to each other, in particular the hurt we cause both individually as as a species. The only moments I cringed was when she was on a trip to Africa, where re-telling the feelings of familiarity to being there felt borderline cultural appropriation, like when your white friend gets to Macchu Picchu and is like “I feel such a connection to here.” The kicker is that Cepeda IS actually from there, from Africa, long ago, from a matriarch who made the journey from West Africa to Hispaniola. The discomfort is truly just my own.