I was on the fast track toward my father’s dream for me of becoming a certified public accountant, but I wanted something more exciting, something that was taboo to mention in my conservative Catholic family. Ironically, as a Colombian-American raised in the dangerous capital, Bogotá, I had just the upbringing to be a candidate for employment at a certain secret agency.
Having graduated from college and moved back to Westport, Conn., I was itching for change. My accounting job was worse than I’d imagined when I chose my major at 18. Living with my parents was difficult. As a 22-year-old with a finance degree, I was tired of acting like an innocent churchgoing daughter. I didn’t want to leave the bedroom door open when my boyfriend of five years visited.
A secret agent screened me via a phone interview two weeks after I submitted my online application. Sitting on my bedroom floor with printouts, I answered questions about my travel background and language fluency. She told me she’d write up a review of my responses and submit it to a panel of spies. If I was qualified, I could expect a manila envelope to arrive within a month.
My mother wasn’t happy about my application. She had a sixth sense and knew that I hadn’t applied to the secret agency to become an accountant. She was also a patriotic Latina who assumed that I’d be working for the United States against Latin America, so she took it personally.
“You don’t have it in you to move to Washington, D.C.,” she said. “You’ll never leave your boyfriend.” I went to bed that night fueled by her disapproval. I no longer was a boring auditor; I was Jennifer Garner of Alias in the making. As I recalculated bonus compensation for executives, I imagined bringing down rogue terrorist groups in the Andes Mountains. My boyfriend nodded when I spoke of my exhilarating career fantasies. Like my parents, he wasn’t pleased.
When the manila envelope arrived, I learned I had three weeks to compose essays on my personal beliefs. No dummy, I highlighted my desire to make a difference by serving my country. Two months later, I received another phone call, inviting me to round three, an information session and a face-to-face interview with an undercover Middle Eastern agent. I wondered if he looked more like Jack Bauer of 24 or Christian Slater of My Own Worst Enemy . I secretly wished for the latter.
My father, who had kept out of the process until now, warned: “You’re going to make a third of what you make now.”
“And be a lot happier,” I told him. That night, my mother reprimanded me for speaking negatively about my father’s esteemed profession. Her anger motivated me.
The information session at the Hyatt regency in midtown Manhattan was full of agency employees. There was a blond girl about to get deployed to the Middle East who spoke fluent Farsi. She called herself Liz, but we knew that wasn’t her name. Clarissa, a redhead, said she chased Russians for a living and that if we were interested, we could find her in the back of the room. Albert, an African-American, walked us through the six stages of recruiting an agent: spotting, assessing, recruiting, handling, turning, and terminating. He said that there were two kinds of spies: the ones who hid under diplomatic cover and the ones who did not. We’d fit into the latter. To the outside world, we’d be business consultants. Within the secret agency, we’d be operating officers. That meant that if caught, the U.S. government would never acknowledge that we worked for them it. A security guard ended the day on a bright note, noting that we’d get to lie to the IRS about the identity of our employer. She urged us to start by telling family that the interview had not worked out.
I met with my potential boss at the Helmsley building. He looked more like my dad than a TV spy. He tested me on what had been presented and delved deeper into my bicultural background.
Three months later, in Washington, D.C., a Latin American expert asked me if I had any dangerous foreign liaisons. I thought about my grandmother, Pepita, in Bogotá, a rich, modest woman who hated the United States, but said “no.” My uncle, Ivan, who was killed by a terrorist car bomb, popped into my mind. Yet I shook my head “no.” I saw no need to share details about my family’s money or my uncle’s murder, as he would only question me further about my connections to drug lords and guerilla groups. There were none.
We next took Jung Career Indicator personality tests and the SAT exam. Then we met with a psychologist who asked about traumatic childhood moments. I didn’t speak about how my mother had always preferred my male siblings. Instead, I talked about my younger brother’s accidental killing of my golden retriever. I wasn’t allowed to scold him; my mother had his back. During my polygraph, the needle jumped up and down. I did well with the medical examiner, passing the physical. He said I was prepared for the warfare training at the farm.
Our last meeting was with a psychiatrist, to gauge how sane we were and whether we had any history of mental illnesses. Almost everyone within my circle was chemically balanced. We were given $1,500 in cash for our food and hotel expenses and told to wait for the final call. Handling this many bills made me nervous. Leaving the hotel, I looked behind me, paranoid. I needed to make sure that I wasn’t being followed to the airport.
My parents didn’t bother me much when I got home. They were waiting, like I was, for the news. Three months later I was accepted. But the agent on the line said there was one condition to moving forward with the final background check: renouncing my Colombian citizenship.
“Why?” I asked, confused.
“Security reasons,” she said, explaining that post-9/11 it was too risky for the agency to employ a dual citizen. Once I complied, I’d be on my way for training at the farm. I asked if I could call her back the next day with a response. She sounded perplexed. I couldn’t blame her. Who wouldn’t want to take an adventurous job, filled with secrets, lies, and travel?
I thought becoming an invisible agent would provide freedom. I needed to get away from my overprotective parents and boring job. Yet erasing my history suddenly seemed like an overreaction. Running away to more excitement wouldn’t fix my problems with my mother. Betraying the country where I was born wouldn’t make my grandmother proud or bring my uncle back.
That morning, I gave my boss two weeks notice. A month later, I moved to New York, jumped into a career in finance in midtown Manhattan. I never became Jacqueline Bauer. But I did get to wear killer Armani suits to work and walk down the aisle in Jimmy Choos. We chose to get married at the church in Bogotá where my uncle had married, making my grandmother proud. And I got to keep both passports.
Carolina Baker-Norko works in finance in Manhattan most days. On the side, she’s a wife, a writer, and very obsessed with traveling and running.
Photograph courtesy of Carolina Baker-Norko.