The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Latina lawmaker spoke about racism on Zoom. Over giggles, people discussed her accent.

Nancy Navarro (D-District 4) is the first Latina and the first immigrant to serve on the Montgomery County Council. A third of the county is foreign-born. (Cheryl Diaz Meyer/for The Washington Post)

The Latina lawmaker was speaking to her colleagues about racial disparities in the coronavirus vaccine rollout when chatter started in the background of the Zoom call. It was the low-level murmur of two people who had forgotten to go on mute, followed by giggling.

Montgomery County Council member Nancy Navarro (D-District 4), who is originally from Venezuela, kept speaking. She lamented in the public meeting that people sometimes mischaracterized the Maryland suburb as less diverse than it is; they perpetuate a “hologram of the county that doesn’t look anything like who we actually are.”

Later, when the council broke for lunch, Navarro’s staff played her back a segment of the public council briefing, and she realized the two hushed voices had been talking about her.

“I love how her accent comes out and [how she] pronounces words like she thinks they’re pronounced. Like, she says ‘represents’ and ‘hologram,’ ” says a woman, mimicking Navarro, a native Spanish speaker who learned English at age 10.

“I heard ‘hologram’ and thought that was kind of interesting,” a male speaker adds, laughing.

“So cute,” the female speaker responds, breaking out into giggles.

The two individuals were a council employee and a trainee from Montgomery Community Media, a nonprofit hired to help the council run its weekly meetings via Zoom.

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Navarro said their exchange startled and angered her, particularly given the diversity of the council staff and the county in general. A third of Montgomery’s 1 million residents are foreign-born and more than 40 percent speak a language other than English at home, according to census data.

“This sort of commentary is completely inappropriate and uncalled for,” she wrote in a letter to other members on the all-Democratic council late Tuesday. “It’s a loud commentary on the toxicity and culture of disrespect directed at leaders and community members of color.”

Born in Caracas, Navarro learned English when her family moved to the United States for two years. She returned to attend college at age 17 and moved to Montgomery County in 1990.

Navarro was elected in 2009 and is both the first Latina and the first immigrant to sit on the council. She has been an advocate for the county’s growing Latino population and spearheaded sweeping racial equity legislation that passed in 2019.

While this is not the first time that aspects of her racial or cultural identify have been targeted, she said in an interview that the incident felt particularly painful because it involved people she worked with. She and her four staff members, two of whom are immigrants and one of whom is Latina, knew the female council employee involved in the conversation.

“That’s been the toughest part for me,” she said Wednesday. “My staff have seen how this kind of racism plays out in the macro level, but when it’s someone you know, it hits closer.”

County Council spokeswoman Sonya Healy said the incident has been referred to the county’s Office of Human Resources, which is conducting an investigation. Because of the probe, the council is not releasing the name of the staffer, Healy said.

Montgomery Community Media chief executive Nannette Hobson said in a letter to Navarro that the behavior of the part-time company employee involved in the conversation was “completely unacceptable.”

“Appropriate measures have been and will be taken,” the letter said.

In a statement to The Washington Post, Hobson declined to specify the measures.

“There are particular pro­cesses that have to be observed with HR, I respect that,” Navarro said about the council employee. “But we have to make sure this type of climate is not tolerated.”

She added that she hopes her fellow lawmakers will take steps to address the “office culture” that allowed the incident to occur.

“We have staff of color and first-generation immigrants. No one should be treated this way,” Navarro said.

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