I was born in Colombia, South America, but moved to Queens, New York, when I was 9 months old. I grew up in a two-bedroom apartment in Jamaica. My mom was a seamstress, a factory worker. My father was a dental technician.
I shared a bedroom with my two brothers. It had three single beds, a little area in the middle, and an armoire where each of us had a drawer. No air conditioner, one bathroom. But I never, ever thought of wanting anything else. I grew up and had the best childhood with what my parents could afford.
My wife, who is from Queens as well, and I talk about how lucky we are to have grown up here, the most diverse county in the world, and to have raised our four daughters in New York. We tell them not everybody feels or thinks the same way. I want them to treat people, not only in school but also in their professional lives, with respect.
Because of my upbringing in Queens, when I started my career at the FBI, I had no biases, almost to the point of being naive; it was just never a factor. But joining the FBI wasn’t my original plan. When I got married, I became a middle school Spanish teacher in South Jamaica, where about 95 percent of the students were from broken homes. So I was really a paternal figure for these children. I ended up talking to them about life and about rules, and how there is this great world awaiting them. I really loved teaching, and I saw myself doing that for years.
Then a family friend told me that the FBI was looking for Spanish speakers. He said the agency was trying to mirror the communities it serves and looking for all types of different folks. I applied, but when I was called in to take the test, I declined. I was very happy teaching, and I had begun studying for my master’s degree. When I saw that family friend again and told him, he just stopped and stared at me as though I had done something wrong. I felt a pit in my stomach and a lump in my throat, and I knew I had made a mistake. I immediately called the recruiter and apologized profusely, and I was able to reschedule the test. I will never forget that. I always tell people about how I got a second chance.
After graduating from Quantico, I was assigned to the FBI’s New York field office. I became a SWAT member, first investigating drug-trafficking organizations from Latin America. Seven years later, I was drafted to go to Puerto Rico because of a shortage of Spanish-speaking agents. While I was there, I was approached to get into management. From there, I went to Washington, D.C., to work on a classified project, and later to Miami, where I supervised a drug task force.
And then 9/11 hit. That changed the way the FBI operated. I was asked to start the first-ever FBI counterterrorism task force in West Palm Beach, Florida, where the hijackers originally met. A few years later, then-FBI Director Robert Mueller appointed me the head of the Dallas office. After three years in Dallas, FBI Director James Comey appointed me assistant director in charge of the FBI’s New York Field Office, the largest field office in the FBI. During that time, I learned a lot from Comey’s leadership style. He spent a lot of time trying to develop you as a leader. He said, “Look, I’m an attorney, a pretty smart guy. I can use big words, but I don’t. When you talk to your folks, don’t use big words. Talk to them like you’re talking to your mom. You know why? Because when you’re talking to your mom, you communicate really well and you don’t use big words.”
At age 50, you can retire from the FBI if you have 20 years of service. I was there 26 years and wasn’t looking to leave, but I got a call about starting a security program at Univision. I thought about how shows on that channel helped my family assimilate into the United States. I saw it as an opportunity to give back to the community.
Then, late last year, NewYork-Presbyterian reached out with another tremendous opportunity — this time to protect people who are taking care of sick people, our patients, and to protect those patients and their visitors. I saw it as an opportunity to continue in public service. The healthcare mission is so noble and moral.
I’m now vice president of security at NewYork-Presbyterian. I’m proud to be part of this great institution. I know that Dr. Corwin and Dr. Forese want NewYork-Presbyterian to be the top hospital system in the country. And I want to make this the best security department in the healthcare industry.