Latina Councilmember Is 'Absolutely Proud' of Her Accent After Zoom Attendees Mock Her Pronunciation

"I want to make sure there will be structural and institutional changes as a result of what happened," Nancy Navarro tells PEOPLE

Nancy Navarro
Nancy Navarro. Photo: Cheryl Diaz Meyer for The Washington Post via Getty

"Startling" and "symbolic." That's how Montgomery County Councilmember Nancy Navarro describes a virtual meeting held earlier this week when — while she was discussing racial disparities in the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine — two of those participating in the call mocked her accent.

As Navarro spoke personally about the "bizarre disconnect" she's experienced in her years of public service and how the COVID-19 pandemic has specifically impacted the Latino and Black communities, two participants in the Tuesday Zoom call could be heard laughing and joking about her accent.

Those mocking the accent, apparently believing they were on mute, joked about how Navarro pronounced the words "hologram" and "represent," CBS News reported.

"I love how her accent comes out and [how she] pronounces words like she thinks they're pronounced. Like, she says 'represents' and 'hologram,' " one participant, a woman, could be heard saying while also mimicking Navarro, according to NBC Washington, which reported that a male caller responded, laughing: "I heard 'hologram' and thought that was kind of interesting."

The woman replied, "So cute."

Navarro, a Venezuelan immigrant who first moved to the U.S. at the age of 10 (moving back to her home country two years later and coming back to America at the age of 17), tells PEOPLE that Montgomery County has a diverse population, one in which over 41 percent of the population speaks a language other than English.

"This was a briefing on the rollout of vaccines through the lens of equity," she recalls. "And we were having a really robust conversation about equity and tracking vaccination data among Latino and Black communities."

Navarro says she didn't hear the participants' remarks when they first occurred and she learned about the participants' commentary from her own staffers when the council broke for lunch.

"That's when the calls started coming in," Navarro says. "My staff said they had received calls and texts — people saying, 'While you were discussing the equity of the vaccines, there were two voices making observations about the way you pronounced words.' People were upset this had occurred."

Navarro continues: "At first I was very startled. We've all had situations during this time of Zoom where things are off, I thought. But then I heard the audio and read the transcript and realized that this was just not okay. Particularly because of the subject matter but, regardless: This is just not okay."

As Navarro explains, the two voices that mocked her accent belonged to someone who works in technology for the county council and an employee of Montgomery County Media, the company that manages the public channel on which the county meetings are broadcast.

The CEO of Montgomery County Media has since sent Navarro an apology letter calling the incident "completely unacceptable," though the councilmember says she has not received any direct messages from the two people who mocked her.

In a statement, the Montgomery County Council called the incident "troubling and unacceptable," and said it stands in solidarity with Navarro."

County Council President Tom Hucker and Vice President Gabe Albornoz met with Council central staff leadership immediately following the incident and have directed the County's Office of Human Resources to conduct a full independent investigation of this incident," the statement read. "They are grateful to Councilmember Navarro for her willingness to come forward to shine a light on this disturbing incident."

The council's statement continued: "While the facts involved with this matter are being investigated, we will recommit ourselves to educating our workforce and fostering a culture that is absolutely respectful, free of bigotry and reflective of Montgomery County's values."

While she says she has been informed that there is an investigation into the council staffer, Navarro isn't dwelling on the negativity surrounding the incident. Instead, she hopes the remarks can serve as a reminder that those who speak or look differently aren't always treated equally.

"It struck me how symbolic this moment was. Here we are, such a diverse county facing a pandemic that has really come to show us how inequities can be a matter of life and death, and nonetheless, we still have within our own legislative branch office culture, this kind of flippant attitude about people who perhaps have accents or look different," Navarro says.

The councilmember continues: "I've been so humbled and blown away by how it has struck a chord with so many people of all backgrounds. Because they can somehow relate. And they aspire for us to do better."

Navarro says she hopes the Zoom call sparks a greater conversation and change within Montgomery County.

"I want to make sure there will be structural and institutional changes as a result of what happened. What happens next will be the message that we send to this very diverse county," she says. "One gentleman shared with me, 'Well if this happened to councilmember Nancy Navarro, then what could I expect as a construction worker when I walk into a county office for assistance?' That, to me, is totally unacceptable. It's a message that I don't want us to perpetuate in this amazing county."

In light of the controversy, Navarro says she is "absolutely" proud of her accent, as it's indicative of her history and the journey she's taken to this point.

"It's so interesting because my husband is Haitian-American and has his own accent, and our daughters were born and raised here, so we all sound a little different," Navarro shares. "For us, celebrating our accents, incorporating our music, food, art, traditions — it creates this wonderful blend. And that's kind of the quintessential American story."

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