Kocher: I’m actually a Swiss citizen with a green card. I was born in Santiago, Chile. My dad is Swiss and my mom was born in the Dominican Republic to Spanish parents. We are from all over the place.
My family came to the United States for the first time in 1961, when I was only a few months old. My dad was studying for his PhD in plant physiology at Rutgers University in New Jersey. I was 4 when my dad finished his studies and we moved back to Chile. We stayed in Chile while my dad taught at the university. That lasted until I was about 7.
It was 1968 and my father began to feel that Chile was becoming a dangerous place to raise a family. As a little kid, I saw soldiers on the corners and tanks in the streets. I went back to Chile 10 years ago and, for the three weeks I was there, I kept expecting something bad to happen. Those childhood memories were still with me.
Dad got a job teaching plant physiology at the University of Maine. I remember flying over snow-capped Andes as we left Chile, where it was winter, and arriving in Maine, where it was spring and everything was green. We stayed in Maine for three years, and then it was off to San Jose, Costa Rica, where my dad worked as an agricultural consultant for the World Bank.
The World Bank was lending money to Costa Rica for agricultural development, so they wanted an expert like my dad to make sure that the right plants were being chosen for the climate and the soil of Costa Rica.
We moved a lot with my dad’s work. My three brothers and I never knew where we were going. Mom always kept that a secret, but, when she took us to get shots, we knew we were going for a plane ride and that was the coolest. We loved to travel.
From Costa Rica, we moved to Honduras, where my dad was the assistant director at the agricultural school, Agrcola Panamericana. It was in Honduras that my dad lost his job. Things got pretty tight and my parents finally sent my brother, Fritz, and I to live with my mom’s brother in Miami Beach. I was 14 and in the eighth grade, so time away from the folks was a great adventure. We were only there for about six months where we attended the Ida M. Fisher Junior High School, probably the toughest school I had ever been to.
The school was 95 percent black and 5 percent Cuban, and the two groups didn’t get along. We were caught in the middle because we didn’t belong to either group, but we spoke Spanish. My mom said, “Do not speak Spanish or you will be grouped with the Cubans and you’ll get beat up in the hallways.” I remember in science class some kid got mad and broke a bottle in the back of the room and we all sat there, along with the teacher, and did nothing.
Gallacher: And you enjoyed that?
Kocher: It was an adventure and, yes, I was scared half to death but I survived. I didn’t learn anything, but I did acquire some life skills. I followed my mother’s advice and didn’t speak Spanish, but it was the hardest thing. Kids would call me names in Spanish, and I had to pretend that I didn’t understand in order to survive.
Six months later, my dad landed a job with CIMMYT, the International Center for the Improvement of Maize and Wheat, in Mexico City. The Center works with governments around the world to increase the productivity of corn and wheat as a way to increase food security and reduce poverty. There are 13 of these centers around the world.
My dad got the chance to work with Dr. Norman Borlaug, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his work to improve plant productivity and farming techniques in the developing world.
I went to an American international school in Mexico City from the middle of eighth grade through high school. The kids in the school were like me and my brothers, they’d moved around and been to schools in different countries. Here we weren’t freaks, we fit in.
Whatever country we were in my dad made sure it was an English-speaking school because he wanted us to eventually go to American universities. He always thought they were the best.
Gallacher: You said you didn’t feel like a freak in this school. Were there times in your life when you felt like an outsider?
Kocher: Well, my life experience has made me kind of different. Wherever I have lived I haven’t really belonged. I was born in Chile but I don’t feel like I am from there. In Costa Rica, I spoke Spanish but not “tico” Spanish. In Honduras we spoke Spanish but we were much better off than most people there. And then I come here, and I’m a Swiss guy with a green card. So I am a little different, but in a good way, I think.
To me the world is a small community. We’re all the same, just different flavors.
Gallacher: So what do you feel is your country of origin?
Kocher: Switzerland. We all traveled with Chilean passports until I was 12, that was when General Pinochet* overthrew President Allende in Chile. We were living in Costa Rica at the time of the coup but my dad’s parents were still in Chile. They fled the country and came to live with us in Costa Rica.
After the coup we had all kinds of trouble with our Chilean passports. Mom traveled with her Dominican Republic passport because she was born there. But we kids were stopped and detained when we traveled because we were from Chile. Customs people thought we were either refugees or trying to escape Chile. So we stood in the corner while they let our mom go through. It was a traumatic experience.
I think that’s when my parents realized that it didn’t matter where we were in the world, the Swiss mentality of saving money, everything’s on time, everything has its place, was always present. They realized that we didn’t have to live there to be that.
Gallacher: How did you make your way to the United States?
Kocher: Well, when I graduated from high school I told my parents that I wanted to go to school where there was snow. I wanted to study photography, but my parents let me know that they weren’t going to pay for that. My dad directed me to a food technology degree and, since Dr. Borlaug had studied food technology at Iowa State, that’s where I was sent. I got my food technology and my business degree there. The best thing about that experience was meeting my “better half,” LeAnn. We have been together ever since.
Gallacher: So you wanted to be a photographer from the age of 12. How did you get from there to a food technology degree and back to photography?
Kocher: I was in this science class in Costa Rica when I was 12, and the textbooks for the class hadn’t come in yet. I think the science teacher realized he had to come up with something to keep us busy and interested. So he taught us how to make a pinhole camera and process film. The first time I saw the print come up in the developer, I was hooked. To this day that is my magic.
Note: Klaus followed his childhood dream and completed his MFA degree in photography at Ohio State in 1994. He lives in Glenwood Springs with his wife, LeAnn, and their two children. He teaches photography at Colorado Mountain College and practices food technology in his kitchen for his friends and family.
*The Armed Forces, carabineros, and others staged a coup, overthrowing Allende, who died in the course of the coup. Augusto Pinochet established himself as the head of a military junta. The subsequent repression of leftists and other opponents of the military regime resulted in approximately 130,000 arrests and at least 3,000 dead or “disappeared” over the next three years.
Immigrant Stories runs Mondays in the Post Independent. To read other Immigrant Stories go to www.immigrantcolorado.blogspot.com.