In 2009, Raquel Cepeda embarked on an exploration of her genealogy using ancestral DNA testing to uncover the truth about her family and the tapestry of races and ethnicities that came together in an ambiguous mix in her features, resulting in “a beautiful story of reconciliation and redemption” (Huffington Post) with her identity and what it means to be Latina.
Digging through memories long buried, Cepeda journeyed 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 with 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.
Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle.
—LEWIS CARROLL, ALICE IN WONDERLAND
AS I WRITE THIS, MY THREE-MONTH-OLD SON IS STARING AT ME intensely from his bouncy seat. He’s cooing loudly, like he’s trying to tell me something important, something he’ll forget by the time he utters his first word. Marceau has been here before. Of this, I am sure.
The left half of our brains, programmed to think that seeing is believing, would dismiss this kind of thinking as esoteric new age bullshit. However, there’s the other half that can’t dismiss the idea that there just might be something to it. Many of us have recognized old souls in babies and children. We’ve felt the presence of some force, be it a spiritual guide or God, intervening in our lives at some point. When I look over at my son in his bouncer, I’m reminded of what a rabbi in Brooklyn, a seer in Fez, and a santero in Queens told me with slight variation when I was writing this book. We travel with the same clan over and over again, from one life into the next, until some ultimate purpose is fulfilled and we no longer need to return. When we illuminate the road back to our ancestors, they have a way of reaching out, of manifesting themselves . . . sometimes even physically.
Last year I embarked on an archaeological dig of sorts, using the science of ancestral DNA testing to excavate as many parts of my genetic history as I could in the span of twelve months. The DNA kits I collected were processed by Family Tree DNA, a Houston-based commercial genetic genealogy company. The company’s founder and CEO, Bennett Greenspan, provided further analysis. I tested myself, my father, a paternal great-uncle I hadn’t met until the beginning of my project, and a maternal cousin I found on Facebook. I wanted to learn as much as I could about my ancestors’ origins before we became Latino.
I’ve always been intrigued by the concept of race, especially in my own community and immediate family, where it’s been a source of contention for as long as I can remember. 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?
Some see Latinos as the embodiment of this young country’s cultural melting pot. And though Mexicans have been residing here since before the arrival of the first Europeans, many of our fellow Americans view Latinos as public enemies. What our parents see isn’t necessarily what we first- and second-generation American-born Latinos see when looking at ourselves in the mirror. According to the 2010 census, over half of all Latinos here identified as being solely white, and about a third checked “Some Other Race.” I was one of the three million, or 6 percent, who reported being of multiple races. I guess it all depends on whom you ask and when you ask. Race, I’ve learned, is in the eye of the beholder.
I don’t look all the way white or all the way Black; I look like someone who’s a bit of both and then some—an Other. In Europe, people have mistaken me for Andalusian, Turkish, Brazilian, and North African. In North and West Africa, I’ve been asked if I’m of Arabic or Amazigh descent. In New York, Los Angeles, and Miami, it varies: Israeli or Sephardic, Palestinian, Moroccan, biracial Black and white American, Brazilian, and so on. I’ve been mistaken for being everything except what I am: Dominican. My own racial ambiguity has been a topic of conversation since I was a teenager. Blending in has filled the pages in my book of life with misadventures and the kind of culturally enriching experiences that make me feel, truly, like a world citizen.
In more recent times, I found the idea that we live in a so-called post-racial society downright fascinating. I suspect someone at the White House or Disney created that catchphrase after the election of President Barack Obama, to fool us into thinking we’re now living in a parallel universe where race is suddenly a nonfactor. The term “post-racial” is an epic failure. More than four years after the fact, our first Black president’s skin tone is still getting people punch-drunk with hate. It has fueled the dramatic rise in hate groups and the revival of the so-called Patriot movement. Sure, our sucky-ass economy factors in to the foaming-at-the-mouth vitriol against President Obama, but there’s something else contributing to the mainstream’s arrogant contempt for him. As intangible and trivial as our differences are, we cannot pretend that race doesn’t matter anymore.
The exploration of and how we choose to identify ourselves is something else that compelled me to set upon this journey. Our identities are as fluid as our personal experiences are diverse. How I arrived at my own is one of 50.5 million possibilities. While Latino-Americans share enough cultural traditions to relate with one another and whatnot, we are also crazy different. One size doesn’t fit all. That’s why Part I of this book is a memoir. I grew up in a household where I was discouraged from celebrating, much less expressing, the Dominican half of my hyphenated identity. I was, quite frankly, sweated hard to mask it. In the first part of the book, I detail how I resisted the pressure to bend and how I constructed my own identity. My parents’ Dominican roots, my father’s apparent low self-esteem and hatred, ’80s hip-hop culture, and growing up in my beloved New York City are all significant.
* * *
The results of our ancestral DNA tests are outlined in Part II.
Both of my parents were born close to the site of the first European settlement in the Americas, Santo Domingo, on the island of Hispaniola. The Indigenous people we now refer to as Taínos—they stumbled upon and were subsequently duped by Columbus and his crew—originally inhabited the island. Our eastern part of the island is also the wellspring of blackness in the New World (and the site of the first slave rebellion on record). Modern-day Dominican Republic is also where English pirates, Europeans, crypto-Jews and Muslims, Arabs, Asians, our Haitian counterparts, and people from all over the world contributed to the cultural and racial tapestry of her people. With this in mind, I had absolutely no idea what I would find in my own DNA.
I’ll share one of the results here. What I didn’t expect to find, other than in spirit, was a direct link to the Indigenous peoples of the island. I’ve been taught over the years that the Spanish, through disease and genocide via slavery, killed off virtually all Taíno people throughout the Caribbean; they basically do not exist and are figments of our self-loathing imagination. When I saw an episode in Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s series Black in Latin America focusing on the Dominican Republic and Haiti, I heard it again.
The documentary opened with Gates mistakenly calling a Cuban guaguancó a Dominican merengue (the mistake was later corrected). While I tried not to see that musical snafu as an omen of things to come, I couldn’t help but brace myself. I was certain that Gates, a man who’s become famous for connecting celebrities with their ancestral past, would shed some light on the complexities of identity and race in the Dominican Republic. I thought he would wax poetic on how racially diverse we are and how, thanks to ancestral DNA studies being done on the island, we are finding that significant numbers of people carry indigenous mitochondrial DNA. Indios have, alas, found ways to survive, like everything else on the island—in fragments.
As Gates strolled down Calle Conde with an employee from the Ministry of Culture named Juan Rodriguez, he asked the man how he’d be identified or racially categorized on the island. Rodriguez, a dark-caramel-complected man, replied, “indio.” Rodriguez went on to state that by the nineteenth century, there were no more Indigenous people left on the island like there were in South America, so Dominicans used the term to negate their blackness. Yeah, I know many dominicanos and other Latinos who deny their blackness, but the conversation could have been pushed further by exploring the reasons why, adding to the complex narrative about race and identity in our community. It would have been less archaic. A conversation with younger Dominicans and transnational Dominican-Americans about how and why these ideals are shifting would have been less archaic. That cipher never went down.
At the time of this writing, the Dominican government has passed a bill called the Dominican Republic Electoral Law Reform, eradicating the term indio on its citizens’ ID cards. The categories mulatto, black, and white will be the only ones people will have to choose from. I find it troubling that if I wish to officially recognize the Indigenous fragment of myself, it won’t be legal. Foisting an identity on people rather than allowing them the freedom and space to create their own is shady.
* * *
Henry Miller, in his book Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, wrote: “One’s destination is never a place but rather a new way of looking at things.” This journey—as the most unforgettable ones often do—led me to places I hadn’t expected to go. The skeleton of this book is my exploration of the concept of race, identity, and ancestral DNA among Latinos, using my own story as one example. Race and identity have been a source of bitterness between my father and me since before I can remember. How I arrived at some sort of understanding and peace with Dad, something that never would have happened had I not invited him to take this trip with me, is the proverbial meat on the bones. I look over at Marceau, thankful that this illuminating ride has stopped here, in a place where logos and mythos exist in tandem, guiding me from one place to another with purpose.
Raquel Cepeda is an award-winning journalist, cultural activist, and documentary filmmaker. A former magazine editor, her byline has appeared in The Village Voice, CNN.com, the Associated Press, and many others. Cepeda directed and produced Bling: A Planet Rock, the critically acclaimed documentary about American hip-hop culture’s obsession with diamonds. She lives with her husband, a writer and TV producer, daughter, and son in her beloved New York City.
“I applaud Raquel Cepeda’s courage and brilliance. This is an important book, shedding light on questions that many of us ask ourselves, but seldom speak about out loud.”
– Marcus Samuelsson, chef and author of New York Times best-seller Yes, Chef
“A thrilling and impassioned quest into the heart of the race question and the Latino—a label as we've come to understand it. With meticulous research and refreshing honesty, Cepeda breaks the code not only of her own origins, but those of an entire people. Bird of Paradise is a necessary and important book for our time.”
– Patricia Engel, author of Vida
"In Bird of Paradise, Raquel Cepeda takes on, with cultural flair and brutal honesty, what it means to be the living embodiment of a global society. A Dominican-American woman seeking the truth about her roots, Cepeda uses tools including DNA testing and her reporterly skill for teasing out family secrets. What she finds is a revelation not just for her or for Latino Americans, but for anyone who cares about the way the past connects us to the future."
– Farai Chideya, author of Kiss the Sky and Don’t Believe the Hype
“Snappy, jazzy memoir of a Dominican upbringing by a New York journalist and documentary filmmaker…asserts that constructing one’s identity requires expressing and celebrating its makeup.”
– Kirkus Reviews
"Raquel Cepeda has long been one of the hip-hop community's most passionate and visionary writers and filmmakers; now, with this stunning blend of memoir and reportage, mythos and logos, we will have to share her with the world. An elegant, electric mash-up, Bird of Paradise offers resonant snapshots of a bygone New York City, family portraits saturated with beauty, honesty, and pain, captivating travelogues, and a fascinating, wide-angled look at ethnicity and identity. Cepeda's story is wrought with care and insight – and ought to increase the sale of DNA testing kits by about twelve thousand percent."
– Adam Mansbach, #1 New York Times bestselling author of GO THE F**K TO SLEEP and RAGE IS BACK
“A beautiful story of reconciliation and redemption.”
– The Huffington Post
"I hope that Raquel Cepeda's experience searching for her roots will encourage more Latinos to look at themselves with the same honesty and fierceness."
– Esmeralda Santiago
"...a fascinating mix of different avenues of spiritual influences."
– International Society of Genetic Genealogy
"At a time when Latinas of any age struggle with owning our voice and our identity and dealing with the mixed messages they get from this country—'We love you, we hate you! Stay! Go!'—Raquel Cepeda opens her heart and shows us all a new and real path towards the futuro, the future. I believe this book is transformational and will not only change lives, but save them too."
– Maria Hinojosa, NPR and PBS anchor, and executive producer of Latino USA
“Drawing on the science of DNA testing and her own sense and experience of mysticism, Cepeda, an award-winning journalist and documentary filmmaker, offers a ‘synthesis between logos and mythos’ in a thoroughly engaging look at race from a Latina’s perspective on what is touted as a post racial society.”
– Booklist, starred review
“I’m so appreciative of the book. It’s the science of the DNA. It’s the personal narrative of the finding of the finding of the self. It’s a little bit of hip-hop thrown in there. It’s all those different things. It is really a lovely book.”
– MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry
“Cepeda’s complex family history is both uniquely Latino—the book is peppered with Spanish idiom—and paradoxically universal in this nation of immigrants. It will appeal to those who watch Who Do You Think You Are? and wonder about themselves.”