Melissa Harris Perry
updated 5/1/2013 6:20:29 PM ET 2013-05-01T22:20:29

Writer Raquel Cepeda joined "Melissa Harris-Perry" to discuss her new book, "Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina."

The proposed immigration deal introduced last month by the Gang of Eight was one of many issues President Obama spoke about at his White House press conference on Tuesday. The president was complimentary of the deal. “I feel confident that the bipartisan work that’s been done on immigration reform will result in a bill that passes the Senate and passes the House and gets on my desk,” he said. “And that’s going to be a historic achievement.”

But one of the central problems with the immigration debate is that the focus is almost entirely on Latinos. Last year, “documented” or “undocumented” Asian immigrants surpassed the number of Latinos coming to the United States. The conventional wisdom also doesn’t account for the full racial and cultural spectrum of people who are here from the Caribbean.

When one group is treated as a monolith and is so closely associated with immigration, what does that do to the rest? And when Latino Americans account for 16.7% of the U.S. population and are the fastest growing ethnic minority in the United States, why are they so consistently seen as “the other”?

On Sunday, Melissa Harris-Perry spoke with Raquel Cepeda, author of the new book, “Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina,” on the topic of Latino identity.

Cepeda said she’d chosen to focus the first half of the book on her own story. ”Sometimes when you add your own personal story it appeals to more people. And I want to show that we are as American as everybody else. We have the same struggles and the same dynamics in our families.”

The second half of the book focuses on Cepeda’s search for her identity through travel and the use of DNA testing. When asked why she used DNA testing to find out about her roots, she told Harris-Perry, ”When you’re dealing with Latino it’s like a genetic crapshoot, you just do not, you can’t guesstimate what’s going to happen.”

“Latinos are prototypical New Americans, the products of European immigration, colonialism, and slavery,” Cepeda writes in her book. “What this journey has driven home for me is that being Latino means being from everywhere, and this is exactly what America is supposed to be about.”

Video: Latina immigrants and construction of identity

  1. Closed captioning of: Latina immigrants and construction of identity

    >>> we've been talking about the politics of recognition. immigrant women face in their quest for citizenship. for latina immigrants and latina americans, construction of identity is crucial in creating a sense of belonging to a larger community. creating identity is complex because being latina is not truly racial or cultural or experiential. it's a combination of all of these. back with me is author of the new book, bird of paradise , how i became latina . who literally did the work to find her identity. thank you for the book. talk to me a little bit, we were talking during the break about dr. maya angelou . how is it that a personal memoir helps us understand a bigger process?

    >> because we deal with universal themes, family dysfunction , sometimes unfortunately abuse, what it's like to be a women, feminism, relationships with men, with our children. i think all of these universal themes allowed me to talk to a greater -- to a bigger, larger audience.

    >> family dynamics in the book are breathtaking. i've known some of your work. but i didn't know your personal story until i read the text. i want to read one piece in particular where you have this interaction with your mother when you're very young. you say to her, mommy, i have to go. i'm sorry, i say. i want to have a better life . she says to you, what do you know what a better life is? and you say to her, i know what it's not, mommy. you've shown me that much. she says to you, go to hell. i hope you die, it was april 1981 and i'm almost eight. she says this to you when you're eight.

    >> yes.

    >> how impactful is that in shaping who you are?

    >> well, i never really got a chance to know her well. i used to see her as a sister figure. i grew up thinking -- maybe hoping that my aunt was my birth mother . my mother's words never had a lot of weight because like all children do, judge her by her actions and not by her words. didn't really have many words in between us . not when i was living with her.

    >> that sense of distance and actually ends up being a protective barrier .

    >> yes, it's never really hurt me. sometimes people read it, like i remember you said you knew my work but not about my life. even when my husband read is was shocked beyond belief. we were best friends before we were married. he said i didn't know you went through this. to me it's a thing. it's more about the search of identity.

    >> it's interesting that you say that. on the one hand, there are shocking moments but it doesn't feel like i'm flogging through this struggle. instead, i'm peeling back the layers of identity. tell me about -- for folks who haven't read it yet, tell me about the decision and the way that you become latina .

    >> well, it was going to not be memoirs. it was going to be about looking at latina identity. sometimes when you add your own personal story, kind of like i said before, appeals to more people. and i want to show that we are just as american as everybody else. we had the same struggles and dynamics in our families. so the first part of the book was like a memoir and actually bird comes from, i know why the caged birds sing. the second part, how i became latina is a chronicle about finding out how exactly literally i became latina . how did i become latina before i was dominican american . what happened for me to become latina . who intermingled. what i found out was remarkable.

    >> when you find out, part of it was the tracing of the family story. the other part is the dna. tell me about that part.

    >> it was incredible. i mean, i saw dr. henry louis gates jr . do his work and i thought it was really interesting. i feel like it would be interesting to do this with the latino community. as greenspan, when you're dealing with latinas, it's a genetic crapshoot. you can't guesstimate what's going to happen. because of dominican republic where my parents come from, all of the americas, it was the first place that had a successful european colony, the first place that had slaves brought in, african slaves and the indigenous american slavery movement and all of these other people, new orleans before it was new orleans.

    >> yes.

    >> you just don't know. you just don't know who mixes in. what i did was took a dna test . i started with myself. then i had my dad take a dna test and from then on, starting meeting family members i didn't know existed and had them help me create the branches on a tree.

    >> i'm so appreciative of the book. it's the science of the dna. it's the personal narrative of the finding of the self. it's a little bit of hip hop thrown in there.

    >> of course.

    >> it's all those different things. it really is a lovely book. thank you for joining us today.

    >> thank you.

    >>> coming up next, a four-year long investigation into adoption. the impact of a conservative christian


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