Raquel Cepeda’s new memoir, Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina, is billed as an exploration of racial identity in the post-racial age. Cepeda, who grew out of a difficult and fractured childhood to become a well-known hip-hop journalist and documentary filmmaker, spends about 60 percent of the book talking about her childhood and upbringing, and the remainder of it traveling the world to discover her roots.
As a Dominican-American, her roots are flung all over the globe, and she spends a great deal of the book struggling with ideas of her racial identity as a New Yorker, an American, a Dominican, and a Latina. As Cepeda explains, this is no easy task, especially when many Latinos (particularly those from the Caribbean) shy away from their links to Africa and indigenous people.
“Most Latinos across the [U.S.] do not look like, say, their favorite euro-friendly telenovela stars, but over half of the approximately 50.5 million living in the United States identified themselves as White and no other race in the 2010 census,” Cepeda writes. She’s wise enough to know that if she wants to understand herself, she needs to embrace all of her heritage.
These are the contemporary, globalized, mestizo discussions that hang over the book. All well and good, but Paradise is best understood—and most successful—when it’s read as a classic bildungsroman, a coming-of-age novel. Cepeda’s writing about her family, her childhood, and the rough side of pre-Giuliani New York City is honest, passionate, and moving. What’s really at stake in Paradise isn’t Cepeda’s racial identity—a cultural matter that remains squishy despite her attempts to pin it down through mitochondrial DNA. Instead, what will stay with the reader is her tale of how a girl becomes a woman, and how a child who grew up in the least promising of circumstances grew up to become an artist.
It’s no easy journey for Cepeda. Her immigrant mother, Rocío, is little more than a boy-crazy teenager when she gives birth to Raquel, her first child, in Harlem. For the rest of the book, Rocío remains a boy-crazy teenager, even after she splits with Raquel’s father, Eduardo, pawns Raquel off with relatives, and accumulates child after child and man after man. Needy, selfish, and narcissistic, Rocío is both an unstable parent and a fascinating character. One of the book’s great tragedies is how little she was able to give Raquel, not only when she was a child, but also as an adult.
Her self-hating father, Eduardo, is better—at least he took Raquel in and tried to provide her with guidance, structure, and the tennis and piano lessons that he thought would ease her way into the middle class and the ways of white society. Unfortunately, he beats her constantly and won’t allow her to explore any of her own interests. As Cepeda constructs her parents’ own history—within both of their families are plenty of hair-raising stories—what evolves is a fascinating portrait of immigrant struggle and the false promise of the American Dream.
Part and parcel of that dream is New York City. Just as Junot Díaz (the Pulitzer Prize-winning Dominican-American writer whose prose is echoed in Cepeda’s writing) uses New York City as a character in his work, so that enormous and demanding city comes alive in Paradise. For Cepeda, it’s a city of graffiti, hip-hop, and danger; a city of teenage lust on the basketball courts and racially-motivated violence in the streets.
As Cepeda grows up in the streets of New York, listening to its music and understanding its rhythms, she starts to nurture a secret New York dream of her own: to become a music writer, preferably for a place like The Village Voice. Thanks to the Voice and a trove of hip-hop cassettes, Cepeda made the decision that she would “never cut English class.” From there, she works her way up—battling not only her lack of guidance but also some of her own bad choices. The big triumph of the book is her success over so many obstacles.
The fact that Paradise is less successful at settling questions of racial identity doesn’t mean that it’s not a good read. If anything, that just underscores how thorny and unsettled these issues remain in the United States. And with still so few bildingsromans starring young women of color, Bird of Paradise may have succeeded at the most important task of all: giving voice to experiences that need to be heard.
Caille Millner is an editorial writer and cultural columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle. She is also the author of a memoir, The Golden Road: Notes on My Gentrification. Follow her on Twitter @caillemillner.