Born in Harlem to Dominican parents, Raquel Cepeda is the author of the forthcoming book Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina, part memoir and part chronicle of Cepeda’s year-long journey to discover the truth about her ancestry while looking at what it means to be Latina today. Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, will release the book on March 5, 2013. She is currently in production on Deconstructing Latina, a documentary focusing on a group of troubled teenage girls in a suicide prevention program who are transformed through an exploration of their roots via the use of ancestral DNA testing.
Cepeda directed and produced the NAMIC (National Association for Multi-ethnicity In Communications) Vision nominated film Bling: A Planet Rock, a feature length documentary about American hip-hop culture’s obsession with diamonds and all of its social trappings, particularly how the infatuation with “blinging” became intertwined in Sierra Leone’s decade long conflict, co-produced the with VH1/MTV Networks and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
For almost two decades, Cepeda’s writings have been anthologized and her byline has been featured in media outlets including People, the Associated Press, The Village Voice, CNN.com, and many other publications. She’s contributed to WNYC, CNN and CNN’s Inside the Middle East as a freelance reporter. Cepeda edited the critically acclaimed anthology And It Don’t Stop: The Best Hip-Hop Journalism of the Last 25 Years, winner of the PEN/Beyond Margins and Latino Book Award.
Cepeda sits on the board of City Lore and the Style Wars Restoration Project. She lives with her husband, a writer and television producer, teenage daughter and infant son in her beloved New York City. Visit her at her website.
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 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.
This compelling narrative will be published in spring 2013 by Atria Books, a division Simon & Schuster.
“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
“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
“Abandoned by her mother, raised in Harlem by her violent father, Cepeda felt estranged from her family, except for fond memories of her grandparents in the Dominican Republic and her own intriguing image in the mirror. The hints of African and Indio she saw in the mirror were reflected in dreams as well, as spiritual guides occasionally made themselves felt at crucial times in her life. When her father suffered a near-fatal heart attack, Cepeda overcame her animus and spent a year searching for her tangled roots. Through DNA testing, she found the complexity of Hispanic heritage, a blend of indigenous South Americans (whose bloodlines were thought to be extinct), Africans, and Spanish. Cepeda details painful memories of her highly dysfunctional family and the crushing adjustments of immigrants to an American culture that imposes race and ethnic categories in ways that defy history and the cultures of other nations. 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 postracial society”
— Vanessa Bush, Booklist
“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 author of Go the Fuck to Sleep and Rage is Back