For college I applied to two schools, Queens College of the City of New York CUNY and Columbia University. I wanted to go to Columbia, because it was a private school, but I did not get accepted. I got accepted to Queens College so I went there. I began as a math major, because in high school I thought I wanted to be a math teacher, but then switched to Spanish literature and secondary education. The transition to college was interesting because I had finished high school with very good grades, even after taking a full course load. In my last term of high school, I needed to take only one class, one credit, but I was taking a full eight or nine periods, with AP courses. I did not stop. So I began college by taking 16 credits to begin with. But it was a different ballgame, different demands, and I was working at the time. Needless to say I did not do very well that first term.
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 done fundraising to have César Chávez come to campus, but he got the stomach flu on the way to New York from Boston. I had an auditorium full of people, the New York Times and everybody, waiting to hear him. Fortunately we had the vice president of the union there, and he took over the speaking engagement. At another point I had Rigoberta Menchú coming. Two nights before she got sick in Mexico and had to be operated on, so she couldn’t make it. In that respect, with the big names, I was not very lucky as a student leader.
I did, however, have a lot of other successful events. We used to organize a cultural night, in which we would have a three-hour show, showcasing different cultural expressions. It culminated in a dance and those were usually very successful. We used to get people to come and read poetry, to do short ten-fifteen minute plays, or to dance or play music. I’ve always loved dancing so sometimes during these things, and in high school too, I ended up dancing on stage with somebody, or being asked to go up on stage with somebody. I enjoyed that a lot. There was also food at these events, which let people demonstrate their culinary skills by cooking and sharing. There were other successful events in which we had writers come speak. Another accomplishment was when the tuition went up, we took over the school and closed it down. Unfortunately the tuition didn’t go back down, though.
I was so busy in college because I was working in addition to taking classes and running the club. At first I was working part-time. The January before I started college, ’88, I had gotten a part-time job at a department store called Alexanders. They asked me what job I wanted and I said, one that has hours and that I come and get money. When I told them I had worked one summer as a security guard at LaGuardia airport, they called the security manager and he interviewed me. He hired me and I began working as a security guard at the door. Eleven months into my work at the door I was promoted to store detective – the person that goes in plain clothes around the store, watching people steal and then arresting them for shoplifting. I had amazing recovery and because of that, nine months later, I got promoted to night supervisor. It was still a part-time job. Then while I was training as night supervisor, an assistant manager had been hired as the director of security at the Queens Center Mall and he approached me with a job offer. “I’ve seen you work,” he said, “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?” That was going to be a full-time job 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, I was very frank with him. I said, “School comes first and if we could arrange that, I’ll be here.” And they hired me. That was 1990. I came in as the night supervisor and I left as the assistant director when I finished college in 1993. Since I was working full time, going to school full time, and teaching part-time because of my degree in Spanish and Secondary Education, that last year of college was crazy. That’s when I began drinking coffee! Never before had I drunk coffee in my life. That’s also the reason I had to get a car! 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 to come or chance missing it.
Graduate school was very interesting in comparison. I went with a full fellowship to the University of Cincinnati. They paid my tuition plus gave me a stipend, so all I really needed to do was take a full load of courses and get good grades. I didn’t even need to teach my first year. I didn’t know what to do with myself! So as soon as the summer came I got myself a job. I worked as the loss prevention store detective in Wal-Mart. I worked there until I pretty much finished grad school.
Living in Cincinnati – Cincinnati is a very racially divided city – was different from New York. In New York I pretty much fit in. As I said, my high school had people from 51 different nations. When I moved to the Midwest, for the first time in my life I was asked point blank whether I was white or black. My standard answer is, “Put it this way, I am not white” – because it is usually a person of color who would usually ask me that. I met a young woman there who I became attached to, and she was white. She went to the University of New Mexico but her mom lived in Cincinnati – that’s what she we doing there when we met. People would see us in the supermarket or downtown somewhere and would go and tell her mom, “I saw your daughter in the supermarket with a black man!” So that was a change.
I did my masters in Spanish Literature. I began my PhD, but I wasn’t very happy and I decided to stop. Up until this day I say it was the wisest academic and economic decision I’ve ever made. Outside of academia my masters is more valuable in terms of marketability than within academia. Since I left school, I’ve published a couple of books and I’m in an anthology. Very few of my friends in my PhD program are in tenure track positions or are published. Some of them are out there working part time or haven’t finished their dissertations, without full insurance or retirement accounts. So I think I’ve done quite well with just my masters.