We know by now that the myth of post-racial America was more an articulation of a dream than reality, but it still sounds nice. At the center of that mythical milieu was President Barack Obama, the perfect symbol of racial pride for some and anxiety for others. When our nation's leader, both African and American, does not cling to one racial category above all else, what else could that say about the state of racial identity in our country?
Fortunately, for journalist and filmmaker Raquel Cepeda, it means that we are still grappling with how our cultures shape us. Cepeda certainly does that in-depth in her new book, Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina, which is part-memoir, part-DNA expedition.
The young Cepeda is tender, then tomboyish and off-the-cuff about the love of her Dominican parents, their subsequent divorce, and her navigation of racial and class distinctions in the Dominican Republic and San Francisco but mainly New York City. The city is where she fell in love with hip hop and where she came of age in the 70s and 80s as Latinos and blacks became the progenitors of what would become a global culture.
"There's something magical in the stones and the ground that makes me feel like I was born in the right place and the right time when I walk through New York City," Cepeda says.
Demographers and journalists have written extensively about our nation's move toward becoming a majority minority country–for children under 18, like Cepeda's children, that is expected to be true by 2018. When she writes about her complicated multiracial past, then, she has created a map for her own children and the minorities who will be the majority beyond our lifetime. "As Latinos, we are the physical embodiment of globalization, so we have something in common with whites and we have something in common with African Americans," she says.
Despite that commonality, impressions of a post-racial world make it important for her to point out that while she is the first Dominican American to write a memoir, she is not interested in becoming the only voice of her community. "I speak for myself, and my voice is just one voice in a long line of Latinos," Cepeda says. Those voices include Junot Díaz, Julia Alvarez and Esmeralda Santiago.
What distinguishes her from those other voices, mainly, is her connection to hip hop culture. She edited the anthology And It Don’t Stop: The Best American Hip-Hop Journalism of the Last 25 Years while she was editor at Russell Simmons' One World magazine. She is as much a writer as she is a documentarian; her company, Djali Rancher, is so named because the word Djali means storyteller. "I collect and gather stories,” Cepeda says (adding that the “D” in Djali is silent).
To that end, she also made Bling: A Planet Rock, a documentary that uses hip hop's fascination with diamonds to draw attention to war-torn Sierra Leone, where most of those diamonds originate.
But before all of that, she was a tough kid who would get into fights when she wasn't being subjected to tennis or piano lessons by her often abusive father. As she comes of age, the first half of Bird of Paradise blends spirituality, resilience, and her affinity for hip hop culture. She infuses her sentences with Spanglish just like Díaz, but that’s where the similarities stop–except that there are some epithets that highlight her take-no-prisoners personality, too (she is, after all, an amateur boxer.) The first part of her journey is the most traditional and heartfelt.
The second half of Bird of Paradise is harder to follow, in part because it moves through so many locations as her story unfolds through family reunions and DNA samples that have her traveling to Morocco and the Dominican Republic. Prompted by her father's illness, she wants to find out more about her family and her roots. The goal was also to inspire other Latinos to search for theirs, and by the voices included at the end of the book, it becomes clear that her mission was accomplished.
"I want my memoir to add to the narrative of the American experience," Cepeda says. "I want my voice to be an addition to the voices like the Piri Thomases and Frank McCourts. My book is an homage to my Americanness to that part of my hyphenated identity. It's for all Americans who want to learn about each other."
Joshunda Sanders is writer and journalist. She blogs about books at Big Book Lover.
Photograph of Raquel Cepeda by Heather Weston.