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In 2009, Raquel Cepeda embarked on an exploration of her genealogy using ancestral DNA testing to uncover the truth about her family and the tapestry of races and ethnicities that came together in an ambiguous mix in her features, resulting in “a beautiful story of reconciliation and redemption” (Huffington Post) with her identity and what it means to be Latina.
Digging through memories long buried, Cepeda journeyed 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.
In this memoir, New York music journalist Cepeda (And It Don t Stop) writes of her troubled upbringing with divorced Dominican parents, then delves energetically into DNA testing for a deeper search into her African roots. In prose street-slangy and outspoken, on the one hand, while prickly and preachy on the other, Cepeda recreates the fateful and doomed relationship of her very young mother, Rocio, from the barrio of Paraiso in Santo Domingo, and the suave bolero singer Eduardo, who whisked Rocio off to live in the slums of Washington Heights, in New York City, in 1972. Born soon after, the author spent a dysfunctional childhood bouncing among various family members: first with her mother, who frequently changed partners, had several more children, and could not care for her daughter; her grandparents back in Paraiso, where Cepeda found a modicum of security among loving relatives; and her father in New York, who was remarried, to the dour, blonde Alice, and insistent that his daughter take up competitive tennis. Spending her teenage years on the Dominican blocks of the city inculcated her to the rich mix of her heritage, as well as the not-so-subtle bigotry within the diverse neighborhood and schools. Scrappy, street-smart, quick to take offense, Cepeda was denigrated for embracing hip-hop music and black vernacular. Yet she learned later, on her intrepid journey through the DNA testing she undertook with help from her father and relatives, and which will surely be useful for her readers, how her roots tie her to West and North Africa.