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Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina

3.91  ·  Rating Details ·  257 Ratings  ·  52 Reviews
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 ...more
Hardcover, 336 pages
Published March 5th 2013 by Atria Books
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Raquel Cepeda
Apr 26, 2013 Raquel Cepeda rated it it was amazing  ·  (Review from the author)
Shelves: my-book
This is my book and I loved the entire ritual of writing and process reading each draft. More Latina-Americans have to document their stories!
David Dacosta
Aug 11, 2016 David Dacosta rated it liked it
It’s impossible to not to be reminded of Junot Diaz while reading author Raquel Cepeda’s generational tale of family, culture and identity. The obvious comparisons reside in the fact that like Diaz, Cepeda is also a product of Dominican heritage. Her decision to intersperse the narrative with D.R. Spanish and doses of crude vernacular further supports this reasoning. Still, we cannot fairly assign the ownership of all things Dominican Republic to the now famous Pulitzer recipient. Nor can we ...more
Roger DeBlanck
Oct 03, 2016 Roger DeBlanck rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
The courage to unearth one’s personal trauma in a memoir has always been an ability that both impresses and baffles me. In Bird of Paradise, Cepeda utilizes the testimonial approach with great candor and honesty to excavate her painful youth in order to confront it. In her preface to the book she states, “Our identities are as fluid as our personal experiences are diverse.” That statement captures the essence of this emotionally-charged memoir.

Part one of the book mostly recounts the physical a
Melinda Goodman
Apr 29, 2013 Melinda Goodman rated it it was amazing
Raquel Cepeda was a student in one of my poetry workshops in the mid 1990’s at Hunter College. She was already an exceptional writer when she came into the workshop and one of the poems that she wrote during that semester has stuck in my mind ever since. I was finally able to contact her a few weeks ago hoping to get a copy of that poem to share with my current Hunter College students. It turned out that Raquel still has a copy of that poem and she also informed me of a new book that she has ...more
Nov 02, 2013 Janeen rated it it was amazing
One of the best books of 2013.
A truly fantastic memoir that is rich in honesty, self-discovery and curiosity. Part One of the book, Cepeda expounds on her background, detailing how she lived in New York, Santo Domingo and San Francisco in her formative years. Her time as a youth wasn't easy--reading her interactions with her mother and father will give you a soul cry. As you read part one, her spirit seems palpable despite the circumstances. Understanding her life really sets up a beautiful back
Apr 15, 2013 Jose rated it it was amazing
This book found a way to integrate memoir writing with historical narrative in a way few books I've read concerning culture (specially Latino culture) know how to do. While some suffer from bad writing and others lean too much on personal experience, Cepeda's book lends itself to an understanding of Latinos as a whole through her personal journey in a way that demands the reader walk in her shoes. Her journey from a traumatized child to journalist / filmmaker is interwoven with the history of ...more
Jun 29, 2014 Amanda rated it liked it
Being a Dominican-American New Yorker and having had an insatiable hunger to learn more about my family's own ancestral past and Dominican history for as long as I can remember, so much of Bird of Paradise resonated with me. So much so that for much of Part 2, I felt like Cepeda was speaking directly to me. In all my research and personal investigation of both Dominican and my own family's histories, I felt like so many of the observations she made about Dominican culture, identity and perceptio ...more
Jul 08, 2013 Amanda rated it it was amazing
This book continued to provide well beyond what I ever expected it would. The first part is a intriguing memoir of the author's pre-conception and childhood years, written as smoothly and enticingly as fiction. The author consistently incorporates themes of Dominican culture, early hip hop and spirituality throughout. In the second part she shifts gears and delves into finding out the facts about her genetic makeup, telling the story of her research and DNA testing. All of the information, as ...more
Apr 16, 2013 Chris rated it it was amazing
Shelves: bio-memoir
This is a great and eye-opening book! Raquel Cepeda writes with clarity, passion, sensitivity, and humor about her difficult childhood surrounded by very-human characters, and also of the conflicts and paradoxes in the lives of people of color. Her driving curiosity about her racial background and the history of her ancestors leads to the DNA search she describes in the second half of the book, and which is very interesting. I recommend this to anyone who is curious about life in NYC in modern ...more
Mar 21, 2013 Delphia rated it it was amazing
Shelves: first-books
Bird of Paradise was amazing. This really resonated with me as I am mixed race, the book hit very close to home in many ways. Raquel Cepeda weaves a fantastically good story detailing her experiences growing up, trying to fit in at school, and even with her family. Her father's health becomes a jumping off point to have her DNA analyzed and find out who she is and how she will define herself. This is probably my favorite first book I have won yet. The books is smart, witty, heartbreaking, and ...more
Loved Raquel's story~ part memoir, part cultural, spiritual, scientific investigation. The book raises great issues about race, culture, and relationships. Her journey brings to mind my own journey of how I'm who I am: as a Latina, Mexican American, American, Chicana. Who am I? Who are we? Can that be defined? Perhaps it depends on where we are or our environment... Family, friends, enemies, pop culture, music, language- all morph us into what and who we are and represent. Her book is an ...more
Melody Moezzi
Jul 22, 2013 Melody Moezzi rated it it was amazing
Beautifully written. I enjoyed every much so that I wrote a review for Ms. Magazine about it. I posted it once before I believe, and I think including the link prevented my review from posting, so instead of linking to it, I'll just say--google my name and Raquel Cepeda and Ms. Magazine, and you should find it easily! If you're not willing to do that, just know that the book is fantastic.
Oct 18, 2016 Lucero rated it really liked it
After it taking me all summer to finally read this book, I think that it wrapped up nicely from all my roller coaster emotions. I follow Raquel and even her daughter Djali on social media (we have mutual friends and sometimes tend to run in the same circles, although we haven't met), so sometimes I felt like I was reading about the life of people I actually knew. However, it's safe to say that I don't really know these two women, but I got a glimpse into the life of Raquel.

Sometimes during her
Nov 16, 2016 Robin rated it liked it
Raquel Cepeda documents a personal search for identity after growing up with callous, often abusive, or negligent parents. Using DNA evidence she uncovers an understanding of self that enlarges possibility for herself, Dominicans, and all Latinas.
Jun 27, 2016 Danielle rated it really liked it
When I was younger, I’d imagine what would happen
If my parents had stayed in Puerto Rico
Who would I be if I had never seen Manhattan
If I lived in Puerto Rico with my people
My people!

I feel like all my life I’ve tried to find the answer
Working harder, learning Spanish, learning all I can
I thought I might find the answer out at Stanford
But I’d stare out at the sea
Thinking, where’m I supposed to be?

- Lin-Manuel Miranda, from the song "When You're Home" from In the Heights

As a Latina who's never rea
I recently read a comment by Bonnie LeRoy, a professor in genetic counselling, in a newspaper article on personal genomics: "people don't feel grounded unless they have an idea of who they are through their genes". I don't know anything about the hip-hop culture in which Cepeda has made a name for herself, or what it's like to be a person "of multiple races" (her words) in a white-dominated society. I do know what it's like to not feel grounded, to be part of a family displaced and scattered ...more
A brief interview with Raquel Cepeda:

Terrific book. Cepeda's background in journalism shines; she's adept at storytelling, and uses it to great effect in this book, where she seamlessly shares her personal story and examines race in a more academic way.

Cepeda's personal story is both fascinating and horrific. Her journey toward a racial identity has a backdrop of living in both the Dominican Republic and New York, hip hop, abandonment by her mother, and ab
Aug 23, 2015 blereader rated it really liked it
This book is ripping up my insides. I've read horrible things before--A Long Way Gone, La Ciudad y los Perros, Redefining Realness. For all those books, I had to put them down at different points before picking them up again. For this book, Bird of Paradise, I keep having to put the book down at least once per chapter. The tales of madness and violence come one after another, after another, to the point that it's just stupefying. When I started reading, I was thinking to criticize this book for ...more
Mar 25, 2016 Mel rated it really liked it
4.5 stars
I don't think I can articulate how much I liked this book. It resonated with me for so many reasons. I admire the way Raquel pulled no punches when talking about her parents (or anything really). She didn't sugar coat anything. The way she described NYC, her upbringing, her classmates, the way hip hop spoke to her (we are from the same generation), her journey to finding out who she was. I cringed when she described the abuse she and her mother endured at the hands of her mothers boyfri
Nov 04, 2013 Toni rated it really liked it
I was already familiar with Raquel Cepeda from her work as a hip-hop journalist and was interested to hear more of her personal story. As a Latina from the Dominican Republic, Cepeda explores the concepts of race, culture and belonging in the telling of her and her family's history.

The first part of her book is pure memoir: from her parents' doomed relationship and how it affected her childhood, to her escape into the world of a burgeoning hip-hop movement, Cepeda writes honestly about her ident
Jul 01, 2014 Ramona rated it liked it
Interesting read, although not as relatable as I anticipated as a Dominican born New Yorker. I commend the author for her bravery in sharing her story so openly and I admire her ability to mend her relationship with her father, in spite of their past toxic history. I suppose I was looking to find more of a common ground as a Dominican woman living in New York, but I found her experience dissimilar to my own, growing up in New York City. Perhaps, it’s a generational difference? Nevertheless, ...more
Daniel S
"Maybe we do have a little something in common. We have both dealt with our past by not talking about it and, perhaps consequently, have grown equally detached." [pg. 148]

"I look over at Dad, still adrift in trying to imagine that cute little boy in the picture, suffering. I don't think that child could have imagined he'd grow up to become the same kind of animal he detested." [pg. 171]

"For some, excavating the past isn't in adventure, it's more akin to tearing a Band-Aid off an open wound." [pg
Meg Petersen
Dec 30, 2013 Meg Petersen rated it really liked it
This book complicated and changed my attitudes and feelings about DNA ancestral testing. It was also a readable and interesting memoir. The postscript almost bumped my rating up to a 5 and is worth reading even if you don't read the book. I understand that it will be the basis for a new film, which I am anxious to see. My favorite line was from a teenager in the postscript: "I feel so proud, regardless of what else may come out if I test other people in my family... that the women in my family ...more
Mar 09, 2013 J rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2013-challenge
While some might not find the writing to their liking, as a Dominican immigrant raised in the U.S. her story resonated with me in so many ways. I admire the author for her courage to write about her tough story, and it was great learning about her ancestral history as well as her anecdotes about the complexity of what it means to be Dominican. The story starts strong, but changes direction halfway through. I finished it in one read.
May 20, 2015 Rana rated it liked it
Two stars for the first half of the book which is about the author's childhood and relationships with her family. It was a little confusing and choppy with random paragraphs just stuck together with no connection. But four stars for the second half of the book in which she discusses DNA and tracking ancestors in the Caribbean and what race means for different people. That was actually quite fascinating.
Mar 02, 2013 Barbara rated it liked it
Shelves: first-reads
I received a copy of Birds of Paradise: How I Became a Latina in a Goodreads giveaway.

Birds of Paradise: How I Became a Latina is a memoir about author Raquel Cepeda's turbulent early life and her coming to terms with her family's background. Vividly disturbing descriptions of the abuse endured by Cepeda combine with her quest to discover her family's lineage. An interesting read for those curious about their own family origins.
Heidi Scanlon
Oct 21, 2014 Heidi Scanlon rated it really liked it
A unique memoir, it begins traditionallly although on a depressing note. The author relates a loveless childhood where she is shuttled back and forth between a negligent mother and an abusive father. She survives, however, to become a successful writer and expert on hip hop music. But the scars of her childhood make her question her own roots. Through DNA testing and the interviews of relatives she takes her reader on a fascinating journey of what it means to be Dominican.
Aug 07, 2014 Djali rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
This is amazing!!! I'm already on my second read. I recently read on her blog that due to some political bs between Barnes & Noble and Simon & Schuster, her book won't be carried at B&N at all. I can't believe that so many potential readers are going to be cheated because of that. Every time I pick it up and read it, I embark on the journey along with Cepeda as she tells her story. I can see that in the future, this book will grow to become a classic. Everyone needs to read it!!
David Leonard
Jun 05, 2013 David Leonard rated it it was amazing
This is a powerful book; amazing work. The personal journey and the discussion of ancestry, DNA, and the business of race and science leads to two compelling narratives woven together with brilliance

Check out my review here:
Rachel Lichtman Castaño
Oct 20, 2016 Rachel Lichtman Castaño rated it it was amazing
This book was amazing. As a New Yorker and a Latina who is always striving to learn more about her roots, this book spoke to me on a deep emotional level. With her writing, Cepeda transforms the reader back to her life growing up in the golden age of hip-hop in Washington Heights, and paints an incredible picture of her experience growing up Dominican American ni aquí ni alla
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Born in Harlem to Dominican parents, award-winning journalist, podcaster, and documentary filmmaker Raquel Cepeda is the author of Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina. Equal parts memoir about Cepeda’s coming of age in New York City and Santo Domingo, and detective story chronicling her year-long journey to discover the truth about her ancestry, the book also looks at what it means to be Latina ...more
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“I have never bought into the idea that blood is thicker than water. Love and respect are meant to be earned from our children, our spouses, our families, and our friends.” 58 likes
“Shakespeare had it right all along: Love will kill you in the end.” 31 likes
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