Katharina Kempf teaches Spanish and Latin American History at Bard High School Early College Queens. Outside of the classroom she is the dedicated leader of Undocufriendly BHSECQ and the faculty advisor of BHSECQ's Dream Team.
Are you a first generation American?
Yes, my father is from Switzerland and my mother is from Germany, and I was born in the U.S. the first year that they moved here.
How do you think that background of your parents being immigrants affected you growing up?
I grew up speaking German in my household. My father is a German professor at Bard College, actually, and so that was my first language at home, and I didn't start to learn English before I had babysitters who would sing songs like “Baba Black Sheep” with me in English. And then I went to nursery school and I went with other kids with whom I spoke English. We also had really strong ties to my family--most of my relatives still live in Germany or Switzerland, so we were lucky enough to be able to visit them most summers for several months at a time. So I have really strong connections, still, with my family in Switzerland and in Germany, to the language, to the culture, and to the country in that way.
How does it feel switching cultures? Like, say you go to visit your family in Switzerland or Germany and then you come back to the United States, what differences do you notice?
So that's an interesting question because it's a question of being bicultural, right, where you have this deep knowledge of culture in Germany and Switzerland, and also [knowledge of] the U.S. from growing up there, living there, going through the school system there, working there. But I think the advantage of being bicultural is that you can see beyond just the one culture and you know that there are people who think differently, or who live differently, or who have different traditions. And you know it because that's a part of your life and a part of how you were raised and a part of your identity. And so I always think I feel more American than German or Swiss, but I also at times feel un-American by some of the traditions that my family has or some of the things that we do, and so I really appreciate having that background because I think it's what inspired me to be interested in other cultures, to want to learn Spanish, to want to travel, and to want to develop this deep knowledge of people who are not like me.
Have you ever lived in another country?
I have! I have lived in Mexico--I lived in Mexico for two and a half years, and I've actually had the opportunity [...] to go abroad a lot as an undergrad. So I studied French for six years, so I did a program in France one summer for a couple weeks, where I lived there to practice my French, and then I did a study abroad program about politics and human rights around the world. It was called “Rethinking Globalization,” and I traveled to England, Tanzania, India, New Zealand, and Mexico over the course of an academic year. And that was a completely life-changing trip because I had never really thought about Latin America; I spoke French, I hadn't really learned Spanish, but the night I arrived in Mexico, and we drove through the Zocalo to the hotel where we were staying, and I was just in awe of the buildings--which are actually colonial buildings--and just from that first night in, I was just in love with the country, and the cultures, and the food, and the people. And so that inspired me after graduating to want to move to Mexico to live there and to learn Spanish and to just spend more time there.
I have a story I can tell. My husband is from Mexico. I actually met him the first week I moved there; we met in a club. Between the two of us, there's a lot of cultural differences as well. He grew up on a ranch with eight siblings and his parents--they have a one-room building on this ranch. In his family you can see, his parents have very little schooling, his siblings have more schooling, most of them have some high school but I don't know that any of them have finished high school, and then the next generation, so our nephews and nieces, are now going to college. [They are] the first generation to go to college over three years. So very different, [my husband’s] background growing up on a ranch in Mexico and my background growing up on a college campus with my family who are professors and doctors and so on and so forth, and who have been able to travel, whereas his family is really rooted in their community there. And so that's an interesting growing and learning experience that I really enjoy--that we both enjoy, I think we have that in common--that we like to learn about people who are different from us, and we enjoy the opportunity to live somewhere else, somewhere different. Ruben is now in New York with me and we went through the visa process for him, and that was very difficult. In order to get a visa to come to the U.S. as a tourist from Mexico, you have to have a lot of money in your bank account, you have to own property, and you have to show that you have a good job that you will return to. And so Ruben had none of those things, and his family doesn't have any of those, so they can't come visit him in New York, [and] they wouldn't be able to get a visa. And so in order for him to come to New York with me, we had to decide to get married, so I got married young, and the first step is to get a fiancé visa. And you have to send all sorts of paperwork to immigration, very personal things. So we sent them information about how we met, letters from friends, that said we were a real couple that was in love, we sent them photos of our anniversaries, of our time together, of our families visiting Mexico, me visiting his parents, all of these things. And then we had to go to Ciudad Juarez, which is a city that the US state department does not recommend people visit, but that is the embassy they send you to to have an interview with someone there. Ruben had to spend four hours in the embassy having doctors appointments, being interviewed, and luckily he got the fiancé visa so he could come over to the US. So he had three months in the US, and within those three months we had to get married and we had to apply for a green card so he could stay beyond those three months. And it's a very expensive process, it's a very time-consuming process, and it's really not easy for people to come to the US legally. It takes a lot of work, and you have to have a lot of things in your favor. If I were not a US citizen, or a permanent resident, if I had some other status here, I would not be able to bring my partner over, so I'm lucky in that way that we were able to do that, but it is a difficult process.
Do you think that experience with your husband led to you wanting to be immigration activist and encouraging the start of the Dream Team and Undocufriendly--did that inspire you in that sense?
Yeah, absolutely. I think the thing that I love about the BHSEC Queens community is how incredibly diverse it is. And I love that we have students who have strong ties to cultures from all around the world and they bring that to the classroom and I think it's so incredible to be in a classroom of students who can talk about things that are happening in Nigeria and how that compares to things that are happening in Egypt, in Poland, and in Argentina. I think that it's really exciting to be a part of that community. And one of the things that comes with having such a wonderfully diverse community is having different statuses, different immigration statuses. And I think all of my students, all of you guys here at BHSEC Queens, work incredibly hard and are incredibly motivated and dedicated to your studies. But it's such a roadblock if you don't have citizenship, if you don't have a legal immigration status in this country. It's really heartbreaking for me as a teacher to see the kind of work that students do, the people that they are, and to know that because of that lack of status, it's hard to go to college, it's hard to exercise a career, it's hard to feel safe as a family or feel like you can access the support structures in the city--like things happen, going to the police, things like that--that's really hard to do if you don't have status. Thinking about that inequality, and wanting the same opportunities for all my students is what motivates me here to do the Dream Team. And for sure, my husband and I have friends who are undocumented, we have friends who have been in this country for a very long time without status, and I come from a small town, Red Hook where Bard College is, where there's a lot of farms, there's a lot of migrant workers, many of them from the same state as my husband, Ruben, who don't have papers. And so I was involved in some activity around immigration when I was in high school, and just knowing the kind of work that migrant workers did in my own community without status, is something that I remember, too, that has influenced this work.
Did you grow up with other students whose families were immigrants or were immigrants themselves, and did that help, having other people who understood being bicultural?
Yes, because I grew up on Bard College campus, I was good friends with the French professor’s son, who grew up speaking French, and there was another German family, and we were close family friends with them too, and we did some sort of German things with them. And so that was nice. But my town where I grew up is very white, and very conservative. So a much different experience from what you guys are having at BHSEC and one of the reasons I love living in New York City and I love working in this particular school.
So you mentioned some German things and before you mentioned Swiss culture as well--I was wondering what those aspects of culture might be?
One of the things I think, about me, is that I'm very frank. Germans are very frank, Swiss people are very frank, and they will tell you like it is. They won't do this sort of American sugar coating, saying things in a nice way. I think I am more frank than some of my family members but I do think that's a cultural difference where, in the US, people kind of beat around the bush, they don't want you to take it the wrong way, whereas in Germany you just say it like it is and that's that and everyone moves on. So that's maybe a less obvious cultural difference. Some of the things are traditions we have around the holidays, December 6 is St Nikolaustag, which is our St. Nick day, so when we were younger we would put a shoe outside of our door and Santa Claus would leave typically mandarins and chocolates and sometimes a little toy, so that's one tradition we observe. Another tradition we have is my favorite Swiss dish which is Raclette which is melted cheese, and is also a French dish, for Christmas Eve Dinner, so that's something I really enjoy, also. And we always watch the World Cup and we’re very proud of the German national soccer team!
When you go to visit your family, does your family, or can people in Switzerland or Germany tell that you were raised in America or do you ever encounter situations when they ask you about that?
Yes, so one of the things about being a heritage speaker of German is that my German is not as strong as my English. I've tended to use it just in your everyday life situations, the kinds of conversations you have outside of school. And I read and write in German as well, but I've never done that in a classroom or academically. So sometimes when I speak to my relatives, it's hard to find the words to express the ideas that I want to, now as an adult. Sometimes I have to talk around things or I use the wrong word and they notice that. There are also some customs that they think of as American that they will point out to us, things they will do that they think are very American versus things that are German, and some of those can be very stereotypical like eating junk food or other habits that are un-German. I’m trying to think of some, what do they make fun of us for? Oh, they talk about obesity! Like stereotypes that are not so great. But definitely you can see differences in how we were raised and how we've grown up in our culture.
What do you think it means to be American? What do you think it means to be German?
Ah, that's a really good question. So often, Americans like to say there is no American culture. America is a melting pot, this and that, you can't really identify what is American. Yes, you can. Go abroad, people will know you're American. They will identify things about you that makes them think that you are American. So I think that it's really important to be aware that there are definitely things that are very much a part of our culture, our systems of government, our institutions, our expectations on what we do, that are different from other countries. Like the amount of time that we work in a work week, which in Europe is shocking and outrageous. Or our prison system, which we learned about today [BLM Day of Action]--we imprison a heck of a lot more people than anywhere else. We have a very different outlook on prisons than other countries do. Our attitudes--[...] for example, customer service is very different in other countries. Here, the customer is always right; [... in] other countries, they think, you're not happy, whatever, go sit somewhere else. And so there are definitely things that I think are American. How would I define an American? I would say, I think...ooh that's a difficult question. I think Americans believe in dreams, they believe in the ability to achieve dreams, become someone that they aren't born...I think it's the American Dream, right, like you can change your circumstances, you have that ability. Whether or not that's true, I don't know. I think Americans also believe, or are taught to believe in the superiority of our government, of our lifestyle, what's accessible in this country, and we’re also very capitalist. Everything is about money and earning money, and earning more money. I think those are American things that are different in other countries. I think the Germans, on the other hand, are very close-minded when it comes to immigration, more so than Americans, and that if you're not born German, you can't become German, whereas you can become American even if you're not born American. And so I think that they are more closed-off, or they view their culture as more closed-off, you have to be a part of the club, and you can't really become a member. But those are tough outlooks.
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