I’ve never met Raquel Cepeda in person, but we come from the same family. That is, the family of adult children of immigrants with our feet in two or more lands, inextricably torn between the lands of our ancestors and those of our descendants. Cepeda’s latest project, Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina, is a memoir that combines storytelling, science and commentary. Like Cepeda, the book is an unorthodox amalgam, but it works. In fact, in many respects, that’s why it works.
Bird of Paradise is a memoir in two parts—the first, an account of her largely dysfunctional Dominican family, her distinctive New York neighborhood and her erratically nomadic upbringing; the second, a journey into the past but decidedly in the present. Prompted by curiosity, longing and necessity, Cepeda crosses into yet another foreign land, that of ancestral DNA testing. In the process, she discovers that her past, her race and her identity have more sides than a dodecahedron.
Unlike many first-generation American memoirs, Bird of Paradise isn’t a neat translation meant to appeal to the Oprah’s Book Club demographic. Far from it. By paying due reverence to the untranslatable, Bird of Paradise succeeds where so many multicultural memoirs fail. The non-Spanish speaking reader might be tempted to pull out a Spanish-to-English dictionary, but in doing so, she would be doing herself and the book a great disservice. First off, many terms reveal their meanings through context alone, and those that don’t, shouldn’t. The latter serve a vital purpose: reminding any non-Spanish speaker that much of Cepeda’s world is intraducible to “outsiders.”
This deliberate choice will no doubt be lost on some. It’s a risk—one that might annoy some readers, but one that struck me (and I expect most thoughtful readers) as both authentic and admirable. As with most risks, however, it invites criticism from more conventional voices. Case in point: Publishers Weekly, which refers to Cepeda’s language in the book as at once “street-slangy and outspoken” and “prickly and preachy.” The review describes Cepeda herself as “scrappy, street-smart, [and] quick to take offense.” I highly suspect that if she were a man, Cepeda’s “prickliness” may very well have been seen as wit and her alleged evangelism as insight. Furthermore, “quick to take offense” may just as well have morphed into “sharp and incisive.”
Cepeda is often identified in the media as some variation of a feminist hip-hop journalist and filmmaker, and Bird of Paradise is certainly a testament to that. Indeed, she is on the forefront of a no-woman’s land, breaking new ground in the undeniably male-dominated and often misogynistic world of hip hop. But she is more than hip-hop, more than an award-winning journalist, more than a socially conscious filmmaker.
Cepeda is a sister, a khahar. As an Iranian-American Muslimah who prefers ’80s British synthpop to New York City hip hop, I didn’t expect to relate to Bird of Paradise. But I did.
Cepeda gets it:
As is the case with many first- and second-generation children of immigrants, we are stuck in between 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. People across the nation are freaking the fuck out.
Like I said, she gets it. She’s a khahar.