I learned about genetic-history DNA testing in 2006 from—who else?—Oprah. I was watching the PBS show African American Lives, and there was Oprah, awaiting her test results after having sent in a cheek swab. When she was told that her ancestry could be traced back to Liberia, a country in Sub-Saharan Africa that was colonized by freed slaves from the United States in the 1800s, she cried. So did I.
My own family history is somewhat murky, passed down piecemeal from my mother, aunts, and uncles. I am half Mexican on my mother’s side, and my grandmother’s mother died in childbirth. My grandmother’s father was killed in the Mexican Revolution (los federales, the legend goes, came to his ranch and shot him while my grandmother and her sister hid in a trapdoor in the ground). Much of the history of that side of my family died with him. I am also half white, but my grandfather was a bastard and a drunk, and no one knew whence he came or what became of him after my grandmother, sold into marriage by her sister during the Depression at the age of 14 to a man more than three times her age, saved enough money cleaning toilets to steal away with my dad, aunts and uncle. I grew up ethnically Mexican, but I look white, but I get tan in the summers, but my last name is English, but my other last name is Mexican, but the etymology of Shepherd is German, but the first Escobedo, Rodrigo de Escobedo, traveled from Spain to the Americas on the Santa freaking Maria, according to research done by my Uncle Manny. Who the hell am I? I had to take this test.
I wasn’t the only person who had this reaction to Oprah’s African American Lives episode, because after it aired, there was a boom in sales for the at-home DNA-testing kit offered by National Geographic’s Genographic Project. Last year I was finally able to scrape together $350 (the cost of the kit plus the analysis fee) and I went for it. The testing facility, Family Tree DNA, sent me a sterile Q-tip in a cellophane sheath. I lightly rubbed the Q-tip against the inside of my cheek and then plugged it into a sterile solution in a tube. I sent it back to the lab and waited. It was slightly weird thinking that the ghosts of my genetic history were alive on the inside of my mouth, but it was exciting, too. I was hoping to learn how much indio (indigenous Mexican) I have in me—my abuela (grandmother), who passed 15 years ago, was a Mayan healer, and I suppose I wanted this test to bring me closer to her. I wanted to quantify my connection to the country where she was born and where she birthed my mom, the homeland where the strong and beautiful women I so admire in my family originated. I was unmoored, and wanted an anchor.
I began thinking more deeply about all this after reading an amazing book that deals in-depth with DNA, identity, and how it can all tie into your perception of yourself. Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina, by the writer and filmmaker Raquel Cepeda, is split into two parts: The first half is essentially a memoir, where Cepeda talks about her upbringing as a Dominican-American in Harlem during the golden age of hip-hop and her relationship with her family, including her abusive father; and the second is about her profound and sometimes funny journey to uncover her roots through DNA testing, which takes her from the streets of New York to the Sahara Desert. This book really helped me to better understand my feelings about my own race, ethnicity, identity, and origins.
Cepeda is currently working on a documentary called Deconstructing Latina, where she chronicles Latina-American teens at a suicide prevention program in the Bronx. Cepeda helps them get their DNA tested to uncover their direct maternal ancestors, and then create self-portraits based on their lineage. You can visit her on Facebook to find out more about this project.
I have long been a fan of Cepeda’s work as a respected hip-hop journalist, a filmmaker, and a social justice advocate. So I emailed her and asked if we could discuss the book for Rookie. She was so awesome!
JULIANNE: You took years to write this book. When did you decide what shape it would take?
RAQUEL CEPEDA: When I started writing drafts of it, I didn’t even know about this ancestral DNA thing—it was still in its very early stages. I was hearing rumblings about the Sally Hemings project [researchers at the University of Leicester in 1998] were doing. Later, as ancestral DNA testing became more popular, I thought, I could do this, too—I could marry social justice with pop culture and DNA testing, and kind of use that as an unlikely tool for self-exploration. When I decided to take the path of exploring the self, everything fell in line.
I really like how you combine all the complicated stuff about being a teenager with race and parental stuff. All of it feels so immediate, like it happened to you today. Did you keep a diary when you were a teen? How did you incorporate so much detail?
Well, I have the memory of an elephant, and I basically live in the neighborhood that I write about—walking around here, listening to old music, and interviewing people from back in the day really helped me get in the nooks. I used to keep a journal when I was younger, but one summer, when visiting my birth mother in Massachusetts, I told her I kept a journal and that it was something very special to me. That was my way of opening the door and kind of building a trusting relationship with her, but she called my father in New York and told him where it was. I was 16 or 17 at the time; ever since then, I stopped keeping journals.
Was there a moment when you were a teen where you really wished you knew your ancestry? Or an overall feeling of wanting to know who you were?
I never felt like I was from one place. I remember when I was small in the Dominican Republic, in a neighborhood called Paraíso (Spanish for “paradise”), I remember going into my grandfather’s study, sitting on top of his desk, looking at his globe, and spinning it around. Every time it would stop, wherever in the world my eyes would stop, I always felt like I had family there. Growing up, I felt like I never fit in here or there, like I was in a liminal place. I had always passed for so many different races, but I was often wondering, Where did my people come from before I became Latina? When I started traveling and seeing my features reflected in the faces of so many different people around the world, I suddenly felt like part of a global community.
Being Latina has always been so complicated in the United States, especially if you have immigrant parents.
In the very beginning I thought, Maybe I should make this less of a memoir, and more of a chronicle. But then I thought I would be cheating the reader if I wasn’t honest about who I was. You don’t see too many books by Latino American authors to begin with, which is why I wanted to lay down the groundwork in part one. I wrote about having immigrant parents, family dysfunction, being a teenager—a bunch of different themes that I felt a lot of people could identify with. These universal themes are safe spaces where we can see ourselves in each other’s stories. I think that’s important if we’re going to even begin to try to understand each other.
Your daughter, Djali, is 16. Did your journey help her understand who she is, too?
I’ve always taught her, since she was very young, to question what she learns in school and to question everything around her. She’s always had a much stronger sense of self, and is encouraged to explore herself more, than I did. Life is a lot different for her than it was for me. When she read the book, she was very sad, because she’s so close to my father, and in the book I am honest about my relationship with him as having been very rocky. She never saw in him what I did. But it showed her there is a real true reconciliation, and she feels like the catalyst—that she was born for that reason, to give my father and I a chance to make amends.
A lot of your book is about untangling race, and uncoiling what “race” means. So many people want to identify as “post-racial,” the false concept that since Obama is president, race no longer matters, and racial injustice has been eradicated—even though it seems to me like race is as relevant as it’s ever been. Was that one of your goals?
That was one of the goals—to debunk this BS that we live in a post-racial society. You can go on any website or your Twitter or Facebook feed and see how much race still does matter today. I also wanted to illustrate how modern-day Latino Americans are the prototypical Americans. We were the first Americans! I’m born in New York City of Dominican parentage; the Dominican Republic was the place that had the first boatload of slaves from West Africa, brought to Bastille in Spain, Christianized, and then taken to the Dominican Republic. And then you had the indigenous Americans. I am made to feel by the status quo that I am not an American, or not American enough, when I am, in fact, the very face of America.
Three weeks after I sent in my test, I got the results: 60% European (including Spanish, Scottish, and Tuscan), 30% Native American (including Mayan and Colombian); and, unexpectedly, 10% North African, specifically Mozabite. Sadly, I didn’t have an Oprah moment—I didn’t immediately feel super connected to my past. These were just statistics, numbers that only raised more questions: Who in my lineage was from the African Middle East, from Colombia? How and why did they get to Mexico? I wasn’t disappointed with the results, but getting this tiny taste of my past made me want to know more. I thought about how we’re all just replications of our ancestors, how every strand of their DNA lives on within us like a genetic reincarnation.
There’s an excellent part in Bird of Paradise that details Cepeda’s travels to the Sahara Desert, because she wants to see the sun rise over the same sands her distant ancestors did. It’s when she sees it that she feels the presence of all the people who had to live so that she could live today. She writes:
More than anything, this place feels familiar. I bury my hands in the hot sand and think about the embodiment of memory or, more specifically, our natural ability to carry the past in our bodies and minds. Individually, every grain of sand brushing against my hands represents a story, an experience, and a block for me to build upon for the next generation. I quietly thank this ancestor of mine for surviving the trip so that I could one day return. ♦