Francisca Pérez said she was going about her job as a line cook at a high-end California restaurant, where she worked for over a decade, when the owner fired her for speaking Spanish to a fellow worker.
“I felt humiliated," Pérez told NBC News. "I felt I was not worth anything in this country."
Pérez said that last May she and a recently hired waitress, Janet Ruelas-Nava, exchanged a few words in Spanish about whether a dish was ready to go out at Osteria Fasulo in Davis, west of Sacramento.
Pérez said the owner, Leonardo Fasulo, heard them and started yelling at Ruelas, saying they shouldn't speak Spanish at work.
Ruelas, who was born in the United States, wrote a letter in support of Pérez that quoted Fasula as saying, “You didn’t travel thousands of miles away from your country to not speak the language.”
Pérez said she confronted Fasula and told him he was discriminating against Mexicans, even though they are the ones who are "sacando tu trabajo” — getting his work done.
Fasula became furious, Pérez said, and asked her if she wanted him to put burritos on the menu. He said: “This is America. We speak English here,” according to her account.
Pérez said the exchange occurred in front of her son, who had just walked in after being dropped off near the end of her shift.
She said his son cried and later told her, “ I don’t know if he was saying that to you or to me.”
Pérez said two of Fasulo's sons, who work in the restaurant, went outside to comfort her but were scolded by their father.
The Center for Workers’ Rights in Sacramento, which provides legal services to low-wage workers, filed a complaint this week with the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing on Pérez' behalf, saying she was fired solely for speaking Spanish.
“We had taken time to talk to the employer to see if they were interested in resolving before we filed anything,” said Daniela Urban, Pérez’s attorney. "They were not."
“She watched his kids grow up in the restaurant. It was hard for her not to work there anymore and have this happen after so many years of dedicated service,” Urban said.
Fasulo, who was born in Argentina and raised in Italy, opened the restaurant in 2003, according to an interview he gave a year later to The Sacramento Bee.
A person who answered the phone at the office of his attorney, Matthew Smith, declined to speak to NBC News. But in a letter to Urban that was shown to Telemundo, Smith vigorously denied the allegations of harassment, calling them "false and unsupportable by the facts."
Pérez told NBC News that when she was hired by Fasulo, their conversation was entirely in Spanish and he never expressed opposition to using the language at work. When he hired her, “he treated me well — he was a good person,” she said. But after a few years, she said he began to change and would often yell at employees, making some of the servers cry at times.
“My son is happy I’m doing all of this because he hopes it doesn’t happen to anyone else,” Pérez said.
She said she told her son, “I want you to study hard so that you can get ahead so you don’t have to go through what I have experienced.”