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Xiara Mercado was making a routine coffee stop when she was accused of disrespecting the very country she serves to protect because she spoke Spanish while in uniform.
In a Facebook post that has been shared more than 50,000 times, Mercado, an Air Force airman, describes how she was accosted by a woman at outside a Starbucks in Hawaii, where Mercado is stationed, on July 17 who took offense to her speaking Spanish during a private phone call.
“You speaking another language that does not represent America and that uniform you are wearing, that's distasteful,” Mercado described the unidentified woman as saying.
Mercado said she was speaking on the phone in the Starbucks, but as she was leaving the woman confronted her outside about speaking Spanish.
She wrote that she responded to the woman by saying, "I'm sorry ma'am the only distasteful thing here is that you are clueless to your discrimination, please educate your self. Have a nice day "
"I don't know how you are allowed to wear that uniform," the woman said, according to Mercado's post.
Mercado wrote that she responded, "I wear it proudly."
This was not the first time Mercado, 27, from Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, has experienced discrimination.
There was the time she was told to “speak American” by a patron in a restaurant, and there was another time when a police officer questioned the authenticity of her driver’s license because it was from Puerto Rico (the island is a U.S. territory and people born there are U.S. citizens).
But this was the first time Mercado encountered prejudice while wearing her Air Force uniform — a career she has aspired to since she was a little girl.
"This is my dream and [to] tell me that I’m distasteful while wearing my dream, that really triggered me,” Mercado said in an interview with NBC News.
Recently, Latinos in the United States have faced a heightened level of threats and discrimination. Nearly 40 percent of Latinos surveyed in the U.S. reported being called offensive names, told to go back to their home country, criticized for speaking Spanish in public, or treated unfairly because of their background, according to a 2018 report by the Pew Research Center.
Earlier this month, a man confessed that he was targeting Mexicans during a mass shooting at a Walmart that left 22 people dead in the predominantly Latino city of El Paso, Texas.
A desire to push back against identity-based discrimination is what motivated Mercado to post about her experience on social media.
“We’re living in these times, right now, where for some reason we should hate specific things or those things that are supposed to make each one of us unique,” she said.
There have been a number of incidents this year alone where Latinos in the U.S. have received negative treatment for speaking Spanish. In July, a video surfaced showing two elderly white women telling a Burger King manager to “go back to Mexico” after witnessing him speaking Spanish. In March, a Texas politician apologized for writing “English this is not Mexico” in a Facebook post criticizing a county judge who spoke in Spanish during a news conference.
Contrary to popular belief, the United States has no official language. In fact, more than 20 percent of U.S. households reportedly speak a language other than English at home, according to 2017 data released by the Census Bureau. That same data shows that more than 40 percent of the population speaks a language other than English in major cities like Los Angeles, New York, Houston and Miami.
Speaking a language other than English while at work is a right that is protected by U.S. law, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, specifically. It would be a violation of federal anti-discrimination law for an employee to be required to only speak English except for in a situation where it was necessary for someone to do their job, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
For Mercado, she says it’s her right to speak Spanish. Air Force personnel can be required to speak English "only when such use is necessary for the performance of official duties" and cannot be required to speak English for unrelated personal communications, according to Air Force policy.
"If we’re allowed to serve, then we’re allowed all these rights and respect in the same way as any other person,” Mercado said. “I shouldn’t have to hide to speak Spanish whether I'm in uniform or not.”