Raquel Cepeda is hip-hop. Her work, her experiences, and her voice encapsulate the history and aesthetics of the hip-hop generation. Cepeda, a leading journalist whose work has appeared in People, the Associated Press, The Village Voice, MTV News, CNN.com, has shaped the conversation about hip-hop for decades. Her film, Bling: A Planet Rock, "takes a hard-hitting look at how the flashy world of commercial hip-hop played a significant role in the 10-year civil war in Sierra Leone, West Africa" and her edited collection And It Don't Stop: The Best Hip-Hop Journalism of the Last 25 Years are two significant works within the hip-hop landscape. A career of reflecting on artistry, identity, culture, and a generation looking for voice, Cepeda turns inward with her memoir Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina (Atria Books, 2013). Telling the story of a young women whose life was turned upside down over and over again, Bird of Paradise is her story of redemption, of a her search to understand her identity in a society that told her over and over again that she did not matter.
Bird of Paradise speaks to the growing intersections of ethnography, memoir and science. It points to the changing nature of looking backward not only for exploring personal histories but those of the communities. The work points to a growing willingness among the hip-hop generation to push aside conventions, to expose personal vulnerability and uncertainty alongside of scientific discovery.
At one level it is a story of hip-hop, and how it influenced her life. Hip-hop offered acceptance otherwise unavailable outside of paradise. As with many books on the history of hip-hop and memoirs about members of the hip-hop generation, Cepeda highlights the environmental factors that gave rise to the hip-hop generation. Violence, alienation, invisibility and failing schools all shaped Cepeda's childhood, which was defined by instability resulting from abandonment, abuse, and difficulty finding acceptance and peace. For Cepeda these painful experiences didn't simply define her childhood but contributed to her love of hip-hop, which spoke to her, have her voice, and provided a nurturing home that had been absent through her early years.
Where others sought to define her identity, to see her as a wanna-be, neither white nor black, as stuck-up, where society sought to render her voice, her passion, and her joy invisible, hip-hop provided hope and power. Bird of Paradise speaks to the importance hip-hop has on a generation. It provided her with the tools to navigate the sometimes-competing demands of "the old-school social and cultural standards of our parents, their respective homelands, and this American one, the latter growing increasingly hostile to our presence." Hip-Hop, from Public Enemy to Spoken Word, from graffiti to journalism, provided a path through the trials and tribulations associated with the double consciousness and the contradictions that defined her early life. Her work as a journalist, her contributions as a documentarian and the book itself are the flower that sprouted from the seeds planted by hip-hop. She writes,
I want to come and go as I please and continue to flow in hip-hop's current without being questioned by someone who doesn't get it. I want to write like Robert Christgau and Joan Morgan and Greg Tate, and Lisa Jones, all journalists whose contributions to the Village Voice replaced the played-out textbooks I barely cracked open as a high school senior at the onset of the 1990s. I develop my voice and begin to write for papers and magazines about hip-hop and R & B music and cultural criticism (136).
As a memoir, it is not simply a story of herself, but of Latina women growing up in New York City (and the Dominican Republic) in the 1970s and 1980s. It is a story of migration and stagnation, love and sorrow. It is a story of blackness and whiteness; it is a tale of borderlands and isolation, race and ethnicity, struggle and perseverance. Her story begins and ends in Paradise. While still a baby, she was sent to live with her grandparents, in the Paraíso (Paradise) district of Santo Domingo, which proved to "be an idyllic reprieve in her otherwise fraught childhood." It is no wonder that in the face of family and friends denying her connections and identity, that Cepeda fought to reclaim this personal and familial story.
It is a story of identity, whereupon Cepeda faced daily challenges to her place within America's racially stratified society. Her playing tennis and the piano leaves some kids positioning her as a "white girl," yet clearly America and its institutions imagine Cepeda on different terms.
Cepeda grew up recognizing a kaleidoscope of features representing the world in her own face and on the faces of other Latinos in her Washington Heights/Inwood neighborhood. As an adult she was mistaken for being from everywhere but her parents' island of Hispaniola both in the United States and when she travelled abroad. This, along her once-estranged father's own rejection of who he was, piqued Cepeda's curiosity about where ancestors came from before they became Dominican (press materials)
The book is ultimately a beautiful story of reconciliation and redemption. Not only does Cepeda document her evolving relationship with her father and the persistent difficulties with her mother, but her own quest to understand her own identity and the broader history of her family. In fact, the violence and trauma that she documents in her book fuels her desire to find out "where she came from," to understand her families history and identity. "I've been too busy running away from the violence and abandonment that marked a big chunk of my life to revisit it," writes Cepeda. "As resolved as I was to forget the past, I found myself determined to excavate it." She goes about documenting this family history, exploring migration patterns and her family's story, yet does so not simply through looking in the past through stories and archival information, but through science. "By using the science of ancestral DNA test," Raquel Cepeda "pieces together the puzzle of our history that eluded me all these years: our ancestral origins. All it took was one scape" (148). Here lies a larger piece of the story Cepeda tells that takes her beyond scabs and DNA laboratories, but to the Dominican Republic, to Guinea-Bissau, to indigenous communities throughout the Caribbean. Her life story points to the unique history of Latina/o; it points to racial borderlands, the impact of movement and migration, and the many ways that society renders Latina/o invisible.
The categories of black and white, the designations afforded to Latinos, erase the complex familial and ancestral stories that define the United States. Using her own story, science, and history, Cepeda weaves together a powerful story that shines light on the power of personal discovery. Bird of Paradise is a book where hip-hop meets the human genome project, a remix of the Discovery channel. Whereas science often speaks to the significance of scientific inquiry through the abstract quest for truth, Cepeda shows that personal truth is a source of liberation.
The power of the book rests with its ability to document the personal and the scientific travels; its strength rests with its blending of memoir and "objective" scientific discovery. Its strength rests with its vulnerability and introspection, its ability to provide view to her open heart and mind even as Cepeda opens up her DNA portfolio. The beauty of the work rests with its prose, which is beautiful throughout. The complexity captured in Cepeda's words is noteworthy: "For some excavating the past isn't an adventure, its more akin to tearing a Band-Aid off an open wound. Still, I didn't have the time to wait..." (205). In another sport she writes, "I nod and smile at folks waiting for family members. Dominicans carry within them the history of the island in their phenotypes as much as they do in the blood" (212). Reflecting the richness and depth of her writing she is able to convey the beauty in and trauma of history, its impact on identity, and its meaning within her own story.
In the end, Bird of Paradise is a story of her relationship with her father, which is difficult and complex, beautiful and inspiring. Her travels and DNA exploration are part of the story to reclaim her self and her relationships with both her parents. Yet, her relationship with her mother, while equally complex, is ultimately sad, leaving me wanting her Mom to read this book, to see Cepeda's talents and the beauty of her story so that she too can walk a path toward a redemptive relationship. Her story compels tears and laughter, anger and sadness, joy and hope, wanting to see her find peace. It points to the power of self-discovery and looking backwards to find peace.