Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina



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.

Praise For…

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.” — Melissa Harris-Perry

An impressive story of self-understanding and redemption. [Cepeda’s] mix of New York’s hip hop slang and Latino ghetto language with an extremely rich and sophisticated style has produced a rare piece of high-level American contemporary literature.” — Frank Moya Pons,  author of more than 20 books and foremost historian of Dominican and Caribbean history

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.” — David J. Leonard, Huffington Post

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.” — Booklist, ***starred review***

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.” — Library Journal

An elegant, electric mash-up, Bird of Paradise offers resonant snapshots of a bygone New York City, family portraits saturated with beauty, honesty… and a fascinating, wide-angled look at ethnicity and identity.” — Adam Mansbach, #1 New York Times best-selling author of GO THE FUCK TO SLEEP and RAGE IS BACK.

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 Skyand 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 


The Official Free Bird of Paradise Curriculum


The free downloadable companion curriculum for Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina, was written and developed by education specialist Karen Robinson, of the RFK Center for Justice and Human Rights. The intended audience for the curriculum are mid-high school through mid-university/college students, as well as adult learners

Book Club Discussion Questions for Bird of Paradise


Download the free book club discussion question guide for Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina.