MANHATTAN - Diego Rodriguez, the new head of the FBI's New York City office, was a public school teacher in Queens before he joined the bureau.
He recently quipped that when he resigned his teacher’s job to join the FBI in 1990, he felt like he was leaving a dangerous job for a safer one.
“I thought being a teacher was the most important job I could ever have,” Rodriguez said during an interview in his 28th floor office overlooking Lower Manhattan. “I loved it, like a true calling, because I had the opportunity to influence young people, at early ages, and have a real impact.”
But the FBI afforded him experiences and impact he never imagined inside the Board of Education.
Starting in New York, the bureau put his Spanish-language skills to work inside the Organized Crime and Drug Enforcement Task Force, where he worked as a SWAT team member targeting South American and Mexican drug trafficking and money launderers.
"The mission of the FBI really appealed to me," he recalled.
In 1997, he was transferred to San Juan, Puerto Rico, continuing the fight against drug traffickers but ultimately overseeing an operation that took down corrupt politicians. Four years later, he shifted to Miami to supervise targeting "High-Intensity" drug trafficking.
After 9/11, Rodriguez became the head of the bureau's first Joint Terrorism Task Force in West Palm Beach, Fla., not far from the flight training schools where several hijackers received instruction.
Eventually, he moved to FBI headquarters to help develop intelligence units around the country. Ultimately, he returned to New York in 2010 to run the criminal division handling financial crime, Wall Street insider traders, corrupt politicians, and terrorists -- and now as the office leader.
"I think I am in the right job at the right time," he said, pointing to his experience. "And I never imagined how much I would love this work."
His FBI career almost never happened.
The 50-year-old St. John's University grad — who was just a year old when his family emigrated from Colombia — says he did not give a moment’s thought to being a federal agent after growing up in Jamaica, Queens, in a Spanish-speaking household.
But after he became a teacher, he met a real-life agent who was a friend of a relative. The agent said the bureau was recruiting Spanish-speakers and suggested Rodriguez apply to take the FBI exam.
Under pressure, Rodriguez applied, albeit only half-heartedly. He was newly married, and recently moved to Flushing. He wanted to raise his family in Queens, just as his mother, a seamstress, and his father, a dental technician, had done.
“My mom used to sew all my clothes,” he recalled. “I was always nicely dressed.”
He knew an agent’s life was unsettled, and that they moved from city to city. “And I always thought an agent had to be a lawyer or accountant,” he said.
The call to take the FBI exam finally came, but Rodriguez said he was no longer interested. “I thought that was the end of it,” he recalled.
But that weekend he ran into the incredulous agent, who insisted he reconsider, which he did. The following Monday, he put on his “best suit,” took the subway into Manhattan, where he apologized to the woman who had called him.
She handed him a package of forms to fill out at home. He hand-delivered them back to her rather then rely on the mail. “I tell my children, if you really want something, you have to go out of your way and make sure you get it,” he said.
Rodriguez believes his background will help bridge gaps to the city’s various ethnic and racial communities, particularly Muslims.
“We have to show them we are regular people, and like them, we have family,” the father of four girls said. “My parents worked hard, and always said that living and working in America was the greatest blessing of all.”
In fact, when his mother applied for citizenship, he discovered that her years of threading needles had worn away flesh on tips of her fingers.
“We could not lift clean [finger]prints, which the Immigration and Naturalization Service requires before anyone can become a citizen,” Rodriguez recalled. “Even I tried and could not do it.”
“She was so disappointed when her dream was put off,” Rodriguez added.
The feds eventually decided that her agent son and others could file sworn affidavits vouching for her character — and his mom eventually became an American.
A few weeks ago, Rodriguez found himself representing his office's 2,500 employees at the 150th anniversary of the Department of Justice’s Eastern District in Brooklyn.
The event had special meaning for him.
Standing next to Charles Dunne, the head U.S. Marshal Service there, Rodriguez nudged him with an elbow.
“I was naturalized here,” he proudly declared.