February 17, 2011
Safety & Security Offices, Dartmouth College
Lauren: So Keysi, could you please tell me your full name.
Keysi: Keiselim Alfredo Montás Díaz.
L: Beautiful. I’m going to call you that from now on.
K: Yes, Keiselim Alfredo Montás Díaz.
L: How long have you gone by Keysi?
K: All my life. There’s a little interesting story about how I found out that my name was Keiselim.
L: (Laughs) Tell me that story.
K: Oh Lord. Well, in very short, when I was born, they did a little contest to see who was going to name me. My uncle was in Mexico at the time, studying agriculture at the UNAM, La Universidad Autónoma de México. And he had a classmate who was from Germany. This classmate suggested the name Keyserling, which is, uh, Keyserling was the count in Astonia, and he was also a philosopher, founder of this school of wisdom. But the name also means the kaiser of Germany and the ling of China, so two emperors. So they figure they’re going to name me Keyserling. From Keyserling, I get Keysi, as a short format. So all my life everyone called me Keysi and I told them my name was Keysi. When I needed to register in the 6th grade, I needed to get a birth certificate. So I get this birth certificate and I looked at it and it said Keyserling. And I was like, “Who’s this?” So I went to my dad and was like “What’s going on over here? Who’s this?” And my dad was like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe this.” He goes, “When I went to declare you – and this was all he could tell me – the lady who took the birth declaration said to me, ‘Why do you people give your children such weird names?’” And my dad said to her, “You know, that’s the name that I want, you just write it down.” And he said he never looked at it again and that’s what she ended up writing.
L: So it’s supposed to be an n but she put an m on the end?
K: It’s supposed to be: Keyserling, with a y. And from there is where I get Keysi. But she wrote it down as Keiselim.
L: That’s so fascinating! So 6th grade you discovered that?
K: Sixth grade, I was 11. My whole identity was shattered.
L: Also for the record, I obviously already know this, but what country are you from?
K: I was born and raised until the age of 16 in the Dominican Republic.
L: And I brought a map, just so you could show me exactly where you’re from.
K: I am from the province of San Cristobal, a little town called Cambita Garabito.
L: What was your community like?
K: In a nutshell I could tell you, that when I came to this country, there was one single public phone in the whole town – that’s all there was.
L: And how many families? Like Samán* size? [Samán is the Haitian migrant community where Keysi and I will be going this spring break on a service trip with the Tucker Foundation].
K: I do not know how many families there were but it was a very very small rural town. Bigger than Samán.
L: Can you tell me about your home life growing up?
K: I grew up in what is referred to as a dysfunctional family, or a broken home. I had very sporadic memories of my childhood. I do know that there was constant turmoil, separations and getting back together. I also know that in the midst of that, I always felt that there was nobody to take care of me. So I know for a fact that in the 5th grade I took charge of my education and my brother’s education. And this is how I found out about the thing about the 6th grade, because I went to do my registration, not my parents. But finally when I was 11 my parents finally divorced and they began living completely separate lives and I thought perhaps that was the best thing to happen. My father suffered from political persecution. He was involved in politics and because of that, he was a tailor, and his business went bankrupt because people were afraid of coming to his tailor shop. He was also incarcerated at some point. But it got to the point that my brother and I were going to a little private school in the town, and it was very cheap. It was like 5 pesos a month for each pupil. And it had been three of four months since we’d paid and I was too ashamed to go to school and be presented with a bill to take home every month, so one day I decided I wasn’t going to stand for that anymore. So I took my baby brother and I – he was in kindergarten entering the first grade and I was in the 5th grade – so we went to the public school, and I went to get us registered and the principal of the school said, “Well, where are your parents?” And I was like, “Well, isn’t what you need is the students, and we are here?” So they just looked at me and laughed and registered us and we went to school. So ever since the 5th grade I kind of took charge of my education. I selected the school that I wanted to go to, and what I wanted to study, and so on and so forth.
L: So is it just you and your brother, or do you have other siblings?
K: From the original marriage of our parents it’s only the two of us. And we are five years apart. That was another interesting thing, because I was pretty much like an only child until he was born. So for a long time we didn’t have a close relationship because we have such a big age gap in between. But my father subsequently got remarried and from his second marriage I have a brother and a sister, and my sister is in her early 30s and my brother is in his mid 20s, and my sister is married and has a daughter, a beautiful very very smart niece of mine. And then my mother ultimately remarried and from my mother’s side I have a brother who’s 23 now. And my brother subsequently has a child, but that’s another long story.
L: (L laughs). We don’t have to go into that if you don’t want. (K and L laugh). So when your parents divorced, did one move to a separate town or who did you live with?
K: It was interesting. When my parents divorced my mom went to live with her mother in the same town, a few blocks away. And I always wanted to remain with my dad, and my brother wanted to remain with my mom. So we sort of shopped around in the way that we lived. I slept in my dad’s house, my brother slept in my mom’s, or my grandmother’s house, but I bathed or showered at my grandmother’s house and I ate at my aunt’s house. So it was uh sort of that sort of thing. It was complicated, if you will. Until my father remarried – he remarried a short time later after the divorce because, in his words, he felt he needed somebody to help raise me and my brother – and then after that we went to live with my dad. And then three years after that my mom came to the United States.
L: Why did you want to remain with your dad?
K: Uh, I don’t know, I think I was always attached to my dad. We had always been very good friends, I think. It was interesting, my dad, my dad always said that he will raise his children differently than the way he was. He was raised in a very traditional, old-fashioned family, you know, children in their place. My dad was completely different. “My children need to know my political activities, my friends, what I know, cause I need to rely on them. If I cannot rely on my family, who am I going to rely on?” So we were always very tied. Since I was very young, I was like his little assistant, his secretary. It’s funny, it’s interesting, because of that I think I am rather organized. My father was very disorganized so anytime he needed something I needed to know where it was. He didn’t know where he left it. So I needed to remind him where everything was at. So that kind of shaped me into being a very organized person. I know where I put my things.
L: Did you help him at all in his shop?
K: Yea, and as a result, today I own three sewing machines and I know how to sew. I wouldn’t say that I actually helped him per say, but I was always around, so you know, hand me this or this is how you cut this. So, I was always around. So I sort of learned the trade if you will, not that I ever practiced it.
L: Is your father still alive and in the Dominican Republic?
K: Yep, he’s still alive and in the Dominican Republic, yep.
L: Has he ever come here?
K: Uh yea, he was actually. He, uh, [had] a failed attempt to live in the United States. It didn’t work out for a number of reasons. I could say very simply that in the Dominican Republic he was a full, complete person. When he came to the United States he was a non-person. In his town, he is a respected individual, he is involved with politics, people consult him for his opinions, he has a circle of friends, he sort of has a voice and people respect him and seek him out for counsel and so on and so forth. He came over here and he was a mute immigrant. No language, didn’t know anybody, nobody knew him. He couldn’t take it. So he didn’t last very much. But he was in here in New Hampshire, actually last summer, so he came and spent some time with me.
L: I’m debating right now to go totally off of my script, I’m not even following it at all actually, and ask, how you think, uh, or what you just described about your dad feeling like a non-person here, how you would compare yourself to that?
L: Is that a hard question?
K: Well, it’s not a hard question. I think it’s, it’s interesting and I could speak in generics and I could speak from a personal stand. From a personal stand, it’s the fact that, that, because one is coming to this country, well, I begin going to school and sort of learning the language, then you take a tremendous amount of responsibility to represent your parents and even others. I mean, even when they’re going to write a check, they ask you to spell “one thousand” because they don’t know. Or when you go out shopping, you’re the one who has to interpret everything, so you yourself become this conduit. Or you to go the doctor, [same thing]. So it’s a tremendous responsibility that one gets at a very early age. At the same time, in more general terms, when people immigrate, usually one of three things will happen. Two of them are the extreme, one is the middle. One extreme will be that the person comes over here and they have no intention of going back. So they go through total transformation and they sort of want to melt and become somebody else. The other one is my mother’s case. My mom has been here 25 years; she knows three words of English. Because she’s going back. She’s going back. And they do everything that they can to do the least that they can to melt in the new culture, because ultimately they know that they’re going back. So they live in that. And then there are the ones, like myself, who live in a permeable sort of, on the bridge, both side. It’s like when something happened and you have to send out an email, you have to send out a bilingual email because you have friends that are bilingual, you have friends that are monolingual on one side or the other. So you sort of live in this back and forth, sort of split identity, if you will.
L: So, would you say that your family had to struggle economically back home?
K: It is interesting because, yes, we have to struggle economically. I mean, I moved out of school because we couldn’t pay 5 pesos a month. But it was interesting because although my family didn’t have money per say, we were a respected, old family in our small town. So it was one of those things in which we had a lot of, uh, stature and a lot of power but it had nothing to do with money. It had just to do with being an established, respected family. And a large family at that. Yea, my father comes from a 12 brothers and sisters family. So we were large and many of us.
L: How do you get to be a well established family?
K: It’s part of being there, being generations, it’s part of being a large family, so that in one way or another your family is involved in, in, it’s like, my aunt and her husband were the bakers in the town so they owned the bakery. So in the small town there is bakery and then my father was a tailor, so it’s sort of that intricate, sort of, and then my aunt was married to the mayor of the town, so in a way, and again, you get everything in large families. In that way it’s like people will know who you are and not necessarily because it’s just like, “Oh yea that’s the son of the tailor.” That sort of thing.
L: And how was it when your parents remarried for you, fitting into family?
K: My mom’s marriage did not affect me. I wasn’t living in the house anymore. I was long gone. I was in grad school already [in the U.S.] But with my father, I think it was good. He was fortunate to find a woman that treated us very well. She just passed away in December.
L: I’m sorry.
K: It’s okay. She was really good to us. A real mother. So that was good. So it sort of a brought stability to a very chaotic situation.
L: I had a stepmom too and she passed away a few years ago, too. Thank you [for sharing]. (Pause). So you moved when you were 16 you said and you described how you took initiative in your education in 5th grade, but can you tell me more about what you were like as a young adult?
K: I was an active young man in my community. I was a member of a basketball team. I was, uh we once did a, a, how do you call those things? Talent show, a singing talent show. I was like one of the organizers. And I remember, these are the sort of things in the DR I remember. I remember we were selling tickets for this thing. Well, the greatest thing is that we actually went to the city and we went to all these big companies, like the tobacco and rum companies, to solicit funds for our event. And it was just like an adventure. And I was young, I was like 12 or 13. The other thing is I always hung out with people that were older. I never hung out with people that were my age or younger. I think that also has to do with the fact that I was an only child, if you will, where my closest cousins were 5. They didn’t need me to play, so they wouldn’t come to my house. I needed to go to their house. And if I went to their house, they set the rules. Any games like little car games or solider games, I wouldn’t play that. I would play baseball – because the rules were set and there was somebody calling the shots. So very early on I learned that I needed things that were established. Because of that, I was very active. I joined a political party at age 14. So I was active in that respect. And then in the 7th grade I decided to go and do the admission test for a technical school. That was actually free, but is very demanding. You have to pass an admission test. It was a very rigorous admission test. Once you are in, you cannot fail a subject. If you fail, you could be an A student, but if you fail one subject and you get your makeup and you fail, you’re out. And I decided to take the admission test for the school and I was admitted and I just told my dad that I was going to go. And I needed him to give me money for it, because I had to travel on a daily basis.
L: How far was that?
K: Fifty km, it was a good half an hour or 45 minute ride in a vehicle that stops and anything could happen on the way, here and there (L laughs). So I enrolled in that school. I did the 8th grade in that school, then I began the high school part in which, that’s where you begin the sort of technical education. The school would go in two tracks. You could be in technical and agriculture. So you get a degree, like an associates or something short of an engineer, if you will, in electricity, in electronics, or in diesel mechanics or mechanical engineering. Or you could go in agriculture to be an agronomist. So I did my first year under the technical side. During the first year you sort of take a course in every one of the disciplines so you choose where you’re going to go. But then after that year, then I came to the states. And again, the plan was when we came to the states that we were going to come here for a summer. My cousins took me to the high school that they were going to, and I was like, I wanna stay here, I wanna go to school here, I wanna learn English. So I went and informed my parents that I was staying.
L: You were driven!
K: And that’s how that went.
L: Where do you think your drive toward education came from?
K: (Pause) I cannot sort of pinpoint specifically to that. But it was always clear that there was some sort of importance in knowledge and in books. So I guess that. And there was lots of pride in the family for those who went to school. So I think that is sorta part of the drive.
L: Did you think [as a child or young adult] that you wanted to be something specific, some specific profession?
K: When I was very young I wanted to be a lawyer. But then when I went to high school I wanted to be math teacher. I actually began college thinking I wanted to be a math teacher. I think my first year I switched careers. But, uh, the little story about why I wanted to be a lawyer and why I decided not to be a lawyer is kind of interesting. So I wanted to be a lawyer and they wouldn’t allow me into the courtroom when there were trials because I was too young (L laughs). So what I would do is I would sneak in the little, how do you call that, in between two houses there is a little, uh, an alley. I will sneak in the alley and look into the courtroom into the window when there were trials going on. So I remember there was this man that was accused of hitting a woman. And she was there crying, she said “Ya, he hit me in the face.” And he was like “Your honor, look at my hands, look at these calluses. Don’t you think if I were to strike that woman she will have some sort of mark? I’m a working man.” And she’s crying and he’s denying it – going back and forth and at some point the prosecutor says, “You know, I don’t know why we’re making a big deal. Striking somebody is a small fine of 3 pesos and 50 cents.” He goes, “You should have said that sooner! I slapped the crap out of her!” And the judge goes, “Fine, 3 pesos and 50 cents.” And I was like, “WHAT? He should put her in jail for seven years for lying! For disrespecting the court!” So I was like, forget it, I don’t want to be a lawyer. There’s no justice here, it’s just like, so. That was the end of my wanting to be a lawyer. I just remember that, I was like “Oh my god. It’s like, he just lied in front of the court and denied it, and all he’s gonna get is, no way! Put him in jail!”
L: Wow, you were quick at a young age.
K: I had to be.
L: Only a 3 peso fine? Let’s not get into that. So you said you went to visit some family in the U.S. over the summer?
K: Well my mom came to the United States as a green card holder because her brother had come in the early ‘60s with the wave of immigration and eventually he stayed here and became a citizen. He petitioned for my mom, and my mom in turn petitioned for my brother and me. But the plan was that, uh, and at that point there was sort of a possibility that my parents were going to reconcile. So my father actually came with us, and the idea was that they were going to get together. Of course that never happened. Then the plan was that we were just going to spend the summer here and then go back to the Dominican Republic. And I was like, “I don’t think so.” I told daddy, “You can go back if you want. I’m staying here with mom.”
L: Who did you live with then?
K: We got an apartment with my mom.
L: This was in New York, right?
K: This was in New York in Corona Queens. Got an apartment with my mom and then that was, uh, we came the summer of ‘85. Dad stayed a few months until, I don’t know, maybe December or so, and then I began going to school that fall. And then I got a job in the following summer, summer of ’86, and that’s when I began working. And pretty much I worked summer of ’86, then I did not work until (Pause). I worked that summer but they didn’t have a part time position for me so I said, I’m here to go to school, so I’ll manage. But then things in the interim, my mom got into a failed second marriage, where my brother came from, and my mom moved. I disapproved of the union so my mom moved to the Bronx in ’87, as she was pregnant with my brother. And I was living with cousins, and my brother and I were living in the little basement room at my cousin’s place. I felt horrible so I said I need to get a job and begin making money to help out. So I went and I got a job, I guess I was a junior in high school. So I guess it was two terms that I didn’t work, fall and then, anyway. My mom had my baby brother and then the whole thing broke apart and she was living in a five-story work-up in the Bronx, in the middle of nowhere, nothing close. Not anybody. So I looked in the neighborhood and I found a three-bedroom apartment, and I was, I don’t know, what was that? [I was] 19 maybe, or 18. So I talked to the owner and I said my mom was living out in the Bronx with a young kid, that I was going to school but that I had a job and it was a decent job and I wanted to rent his apartment. He rented it to me. My mom still lives in that apartment. I think at the time it was something like $800. And my mom is still at that apartment.
K: She’s been there, since I don’t know, ’87. What is that, 20 something years? And my mom and I and my brother lived in the same household. And I sort of became sort of the head of the household. And then until I finished college – I finished high school, finished college – then I moved to grad school. So for me, going to grad school was like going to college. It was the first time I was able to be out on my own, if you will.
L: So let’s back track to, uh, how was your experience starting school in the U.S.? And with language?
K: I was so fortunate to be going to a high school with, at the time, there were 51 different nations represented. They had a very very strong bilingual program. So I was able to continue at my grade, if you will, and take classes in Spanish. And as I took intensive ESL classes, and I moved from like ESL 1 to ESL 3 to 5 then 7, then I got to a special regular class for non-natives. I was a nerd in high school. And I was just, I did my homework! I don’t think there was anything special to that. Usually you do your homework and you participate in class and stuff. So I did quite well in high school. I think I had a very nice transition. I had good teachers and a lot of support. I ended up graduating salutatorian of my graduating class of 658 students. And I had to give speech at the ceremony. And it was ironic because my speech as salutatorian was to welcome the parents to the ceremony, and my parents were not at my ceremony.
L: Where was your mom?
K: They both had to work. Yep. They were both there and they both had to work. So I was there welcoming the parents and my parents weren’t there.
L: How did that feel?
K: I don’t know, now I go back and I look back at it and I say to myself that I wouldn’t do that to my kids. But at the time I think that I understood and I didn’t see…
L: It is what it is?
K: It was what it was. And then for college I applied to two schools. I applied to Queens College of the City of New York CUNY and Columbia University. Those are the two schools I applied to. I wanted to go to Columbia, private school blah blah blah. I did not get accepted. I got accepted to Queens College and I went to Queens College.
L: I don’t know anything about Queens College.
K: Uh, Seinfeld went to Queens College. (L and K laugh). It is part of the CUNY public school system. The state of New York has SUNY and CUNY. And they are the two public school systems in New York. And they have college and community college…[Keysi describes the different colleges in the system and what they’re known for].
L: What did you study?
K: I began as a math major and then I started studying Spanish Lit.
L: In all of this, did you feel like your parents were proud of you?
K: Yea. I think the way that they expressed that was that my mother knew she could rely on me and she did not hesitate to rely on me. So I knew that she, by demonstrating that sort of confidence in me, I knew that she was proud of me. With my father, it has always been a little difficult. My father is a very stoic man, not very good at expressing emotions. It was always difficult with him. The way that he will express his love and care is that he’ll point out what is wrong with something or what is right with it. So I could exemplify that by saying that I was really good at drawing when I was a kid. I could draw really really well. And anytime that I show him a drawing he’ll point out what was missing or, ya. It’s always that feeling that it’s never good enough. But of course I knew that he was proud of me. I’ve always known that. Yea.
L: Was your college as diverse as high school, and how was your experience there?
K: It was an interesting transition because I finished high school with very very good grades. In my last term in high school, I needed to take one class, one credit, and I was taking full eight, nine periods of classes. I did not stop. I was taking AP courses and so on and so forth. So I began college and made that transition and began taking 16 credits to begin with. And I did not do as well that first term. And again it was a different ballgame, different demands, and I was working at the time. I was still with working responsibilities. Eventually I got involved with school student organizations. I got to be the president of the largest student organization on campus. It was called the CLOUD, The Council of Latin American Organizations. I was not very lucky as a student leader. I had invited and did fundraising to have César Chávez come to campus. And César Chávez got sick on the way to New York from Boston and I had an auditorium full of people, the New York Times and everybody, waiting to hear César Chávez and César Chávez did not make it with that stomach virus on the way there. Fortunately we had another vice president of the union that sort of took over the speaking engagement. At another point I had Rigoberta Menchú coming to do a thing. Two nights before coming we had tickets and everything, Rigoberta Menchú got sick in Mexico and she had to be operated on, so she couldn’t make it to the speaking engagement. So I was not very lucky as a student leader.
L: You were cursed!
K: Yes, I think I was. I did have a lot of other successful events, if you will. But in that respect I think I was not very successful with the big names.
L: Do you want to tell me about one of these successful events that sticks out in your memory?
K: Yea, we used to organize a cultural night, in which we will have like a three-hour show, showcasing different cultural expressions. Then it culminated in a dance and those were usually very successful. We used to get people to come and read poetry, people to do short ten fifteen minute plays, people to come and dance, people to come and play music. And then also there was food. Different people demonstrated their culinary skills by cooking and sharing food. Also, had a number of successful, uh, other than speakers, had writers. Also, had another successful accomplishment like when the tuition went up, we took over the school and we closed it down.
L: And the tuition went back down?
K: The tuition, uh, it did not go back down (K and L laugh).
L: Well, it was a good political statement. How do you think those cultural events relate to your love for tango, salsa, poetry, writing, etc.?
K: Well, I’ve always been a writer. I think I must have been either, wow, how old was I? Must have been like five and I tried to write a newspaper. And I’ve always wrote poetry. And I grew up dancing. I have always loved dancing. And tango, I got tango later in life, the past seven or eight years. But I have always always danced, so like in college or in high school when I had those things, sometimes I ended up dancing on stage, with somebody, or being asked to go up on stage with somebody. I always enjoyed that.
L: Was anyone in your family a writer or does that “come from inside” or?
K: No, no one in my family has been identified as a writer.
L: Can you tell me about the jobs that you had during school?
K: The first job was at LaGuardia airport in 1986. It was an amazing school of English for me because I was freshly off the boat. Fortunately for me, the guy that interviewed me for the job was Columbian, so the whole interview went through in Spanish. (L laughs). And at the end, “By the way, you speak English, right?” And I said, “Yes!” And it was interesting because I worked at the baggage claim, so when people get off the plane, they come to get their baggage, and people see you in a uniform and they ask you all kinds of questions, all different kinds of accents! So it was an amazing training school for me. After that when I said that I needed to get a job I went to the department school, I said I needed a job. They said, “What job do you want?” I say, “A job that has hours. I come and get money.” They said, “Well what have you done?” I said I had a job this summer as a security guard at LaGuardia airport, so they called the security manager. He interviewed me and he hired me. So I began working as a security guard at the department store – it’s called Alexanders. Ultimately that store closed. So I began as a security guard at the door. About 11 months into that I was promoted to store detective, and nine months into that I was promoted to night supervisor.
L: What does a store detective do?
K: He’s the person that goes in plain clothes around the store, watching people steal.
L: That exists?
K: That exists! And then you end up arresting people who shoplift.
L: Did you?
K: Yea, I arrested a lot of people. I had an amazing recovery. I was good at it. That’s the reason I got promoted to night supervisor. And while I was in training as night supervisor, an assistant manager was hired as a director of security at a shopping center and he approached me and said, “I’ve seen you work. I know you very little, but I think you are perhaps the most responsible person here. You are very bright. Would you like to come be my assistant?” But that will be a full-time job and I was working part-time and I was going to school. I said, “I will be delighted but you have to know that school comes first. If you could accommodate my schedule, then I’m there.” I went and I interviewed with the regional company owner of the mall, of the shopping center. I was very frank with him. I said, “School comes first and if we could arrange that, I’ll be here, I’ll be good.” And they hired me. So I stayed there, I came in as the night supervisor, and I left as the assistant director until I finished college and I began grad school. In grad school it was very very interesting, because my last year of college I was working full time, I was teaching part time, because I was doing my teaching because my major was Spanish and Secondary Ed. And I was running the club. So it was, or, was I? No, I think I wasn’t running the club. But I was working full time, teaching part time, and going to school full time. So I had sort of three jobs. That’s, by the way, when I began drinking coffee. I never had before drank coffee in my life. And that’s the reason I had to get a car! Cause I could not afford for the bus to come. When I finished class, I had to go home, eat and shower, and go to work. I could not afford to wait for the bus and miss it. So, anyway, I got to grad school and all I really needed to do – I went with a full fellowship – I didn’t even have to teach my first year. All I had to do was take a full load of courses and get good grades. I didn’t know what to do with myself! (L laughs). They paid me stipend and paid my tuition. So as soon as the summer came in I got myself a job, and I worked as the loss prevention store detective in Wal-Mart. And I worked in Wal-Mart until I pretty much finished grad school. Interesting thing happened in grad school. I did my masters, I began my PhD, then I decided to stop. I was not too happy. Up until this day I say it was the wisest academic and economic decision I ever made, because my masters outside of academia is more valuable in terms of marketability than within academia. And since I left school, I’ve published a couple of books. I’m in an anthology. Very few of my friends in my PhD program are in tenure track positions or are published, so I was like, I did great! They are out there working part time, some of them haven’t finished their dissertations, they don’t have full insurance or retirement accounts. So I think I’ve done quite well in that respect. But my last time in grad school was the summer of ’95 and I took a group of students to Mexico and I spent the whole summer in Mexico. Then when I came back from that I had already set up that I was going to move to Albuquerque, New Mexico. And I moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico and I became a police office there. And I was a police officer for the University of New Mexico for about three years. Then I moved back to New York in ’98 and I got a job as an officer / investigator for a non-profit organization [called The Vera Institute of Justice]. They used to work with immigrants. It was an interesting project, where we will interview people in detention centers and if they made our qualifications, we asked the immigration services to release them to our custody or care, supervision actually, and the only thing that they have to promise us is that they will show up in court for their immigration hearings and ultimately abide by whatever the hearing decision was. My job was to visit them where they were staying, and also locate them because a lot of them, once we took them out, they went into hiding. It worked. We actually demonstrated that it could work because with the change of laws of ’97 there were a number of people that were put in detention and deportation proceedings. And they had strong ties in the community and it was in their best interest to remain in this country legally. Some of them were not, they were seeking asylum. Some of them were picked up in work enforcement actions – raids. So we had a mixed bag of participants and in order, because it was a demonstration project, you have to sort of take, uh, just not concentrate on one single population but do it across the board, so the population of people in the circumstances of being in detention awaiting immigration proceedings. And we had a great success rate, but part of my job, some of it was, they called and we have somebody who came from Nigeria last night, got picked up at JFK and they are in detention right now. They are seeking asylum, they have a name of a relative, a partial address, and a phone number that is disconnected. So I would take that information and I would find that person, wherever they were in the country. And if they were in the tri-state area of New York, which was for the most part the case, then I will visit them and we will go in and explain what the program was and that they have serve as a guarantor and say they will sort of house this person, feed them, and help them go to court. That was part of that. The other part was visit the people in supervision once a month and then when they disappeared I had to find them again. And then once that happened, I have to turn them over to the immigration service, because that’s the only way that they will release somebody else in the detention.
L: How did the New Mexico part happen? How did you decide you were going to move there?
K: Because in grad school in Cincinnati I met a young lady and we got involved and attached and moved in together and she was actually going to the University of New Mexico and she had been living in Albuquerque so we tried being apart a little bit and it didn’t taste very well. (L laughs). So I decided to pack up and follow her. Once she finished school there she got accepted into social work school in Columbia New York, so we decided to pack up and move to New York cause for me it was a homecoming, with my brother and my mom, some cousins.
L: How was the police training, I mean, did you have to go to a police academy?
K: Yes, I had to go to police academy, I had to carry a gun, I had to arrest people.
L: Did you enjoy that job?
K: Uh, I couldn’t say that I enjoyed it per say. I saw it as a job and I sorta had been, uh, I could say that I had arrested more people when I was a store detective than when I was a police officer. Because as a store detective in loss prevention you actually get to see people from the minute they come in the store until the time that you identify that they show the signs that they wanna steal something, then they steal something and you arrest them. Whereas as a police officer, you usually get there after everything has happened and you sorta have to investigate, back up, and then come up with charges and then eventually arrest. Very very seldom, usually for disorderly conduct, is when you get to arrest people. But I thought it was a great responsibility. I was a different kind of cop. There were a lot of people that were very very taken by me. I could tell you stories about that.
L: Tell me one?
K: I don’t know, for example, in the middle of campus there was this fig tree. And I would go and patrol there and in my unit, in my uniform, all the kids from the neighborhoods would come and I will climb the tree and I will pick bright figs and I will sit down with the kids and eat figs. And then every time they saw me, they’d say, “There is the guy who picks the figs!” It’s like, it just didn’t fit with the profile of what a police officer is, yea. Oh and I remember, once I stopped this woman it was March 8 and she zoomed down to campus, went through the stop light, the stop sign, and I pulled her over and she says, “So you know, I got my registration in the back here. Don’t you go pulling out your gun thinking I’m getting out my shotgun or something.” And I was like, Ok. She handed it me and I said how’s your driving record. “It’s pretty good.” I explained why I stopped her, blah blah blah, and then I went back and her driving record was pretty good and I said, “Well I’m just going to give you a verbal warning for this, and by the way, happy International Women’s Day.” And her demeanor changed completely, it was like, if she was all buffed up and hyped and I just pulled a plug. So I would do things like that that would just take people completely aback. So that was interesting.
L: Well, Keysi, I have so many more questions, but I want to respect that it’s approaching 6 o’clock, so I’ll just ask you one more question now. Since we were talking about work, how do you feel like people have treated you in the work place? There are so many different jobs you’ve had obviously, but I don’t know, if you could speak to any… in what ways do you think you’ve suffered discrimination or not or ?
K: Well it’s been interesting. I guess when I went to Cincinnati – that’s where I went to grad school – Cincinnati is a very very racially divided city. So for the first time in my life I was asked, more than once, whether I was black or white. Pointblank.
L: What would you say?
K: Well I said, put it this way, I am not white. That was my standard answer. Because it is a person of color who would usually ask me that. But interestingly enough, I told you I met that young lady there and she was white. And her mom lived in Cincinnati – that’s what she we doing there when we met. People will see us in the supermarket or downtown somewhere and will go and tell her mom, “I saw your daughter in the supermarket with a black man!” In Albuquerque it was interesting, being in the Southwest, people saw me and my physique sort of represented some sort of Hispanic, and then I spoke. And then people were taken aback. Because my accent was nothing like they’d ever heard. I don’t have a Southwest Chicano accent. Inevitably the first question that would come out of people’s mouths was “Where are you from?” So that sort of went down. But if I could just pinpoint to – not necessarily discriminatory – but I do have an accent. So because of that I have had to prove myself in writing in the different jobs that I have held. They’ve been, I have worked in places in which any memos that I wrote were very very closely examined. And I will get it back with a comma or a typo, “Correct this!” and then the vice-president of the company would write these memos and they were horrors! One day we put out two memos, cause we had to give the memo to the administrative person that will catalog them and file them and it goes out to everybody, so mine was sent back with a minor thing and the vice-president’s was approved. So I took a red pen and I went bah bah bah bah and I went back and said, “Why do you do this?” He did not realize that he was doing that. He just simply did not realize. It was not ill-intended. It is one thing that sort of when you talk, people take your accent and put it in their mind and think that you think and write with an accent. After that, especially the vice-president, nobody would write a thing that was not approved by me. And I became the reviewer of memos. But I had to prove myself that I actually had, so in the way that that forced me to be mindful and careful and a better writer than I think otherwise I would have been.
L: Has your accent changed over time?
K: I don’t know, now that you mention it. I taped myself when I did that speech in high school. Maybe I should go back and listen to it, and read the same speech now and listen to the two tapes and see. That would be an interesting experiment.