Francisca Perez came to Osteria Fasulo, a high-end Italian restaurant in Davis’ Village Homes subdivision, searching for a job in 2007. She had years of kitchen experience in Mexico but minimal English skills, having crossed the United States’ southern border four years prior.
Perez told The Sacramento Bee in an interview that restaurant owner Leonardo Fasulo told her in Spanish not to worry. She could start cooking that day if she wanted.
Perez worked at Osteria Fasulo for 11 years, making dishes such as braised rabbit stew with polenta for some of Davis’ wealthiest diners until May 31, 2018.
During the dinner rush that night, Fasulo allegedly overheard her take an order from waitress Janet Ruelas-Nava in Spanish.
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For that, Perez alleged, Fasulo screamed at her, pounded a table, mockingly asked if she wanted him to add burritos to the menu and told her she needed to learn English to keep her job — all in front of her 11-year-old son, who had just walked in.
She allegedly snapped back at him, saying he was discriminating against Mexicans despite them supporting his kitchen. Then, she said, Fasulo told her, “You can get your ass out of my restaurant.”
The Center For Workers’ Rights, a Sacramento-based legal services nonprofit for low-wage workers, filed a complaint on Perez’s behalf with the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing on Tuesday. Though the DFEH rejected a California Public Records Act request for a copy of the complaint, citing a policy against releasing active case details, the Center for Workers’ Rights provided The Bee with a copy of what it says was filed with the state agency. The complaint alleges Perez was unduly fired for speaking Spanish and is still owed her final paycheck. The complaint includes a signed statement from the waitress, Ruelas-Nava, backing Perez’s recollection and explaining why she also quit that same day.
When questioned outside his restaurant in December, Fasulo denied commanding Perez to speak English. He said Perez is not owed a final paycheck and said she quit of her own accord, then declined to comment further. His attorney, Matthew B. Smith, also declined to comment after multiple attempts to contact him through calls and emails.
Perez worked sunup to sundown at restaurants in the Mexican state of Campeche, bringing home just 500 pesos (about $50 at the time) every two weeks, she said. She immigrated to Davis in 2003 with a 3-year-old, and had two more sons after she arrived. Her middle child, 11-year-old Kenneth Lucas Perez, was in the restaurant on her last day.
“I just saw him yell, at my mom, a bunch of stuff, and my mom was crying but also getting angry at the same time,” Kenneth said in an interview. “He was saying something about changing the menu to Mexican food, and then he stopped yelling and looked at me.”
Fasulo had already been arguing with other employees when Ruelas-Nava, a UC Davis student, started her shift around 4:30 p.m., according to the server’s statement in the complaint. Ruelas-Nava’s former boss, whom she described as “impulsive and aggressive,” berated her after overhearing her conversation with Perez around 6:30, Ruela-Nava said.
Fasulo commanded Ruelas-Nava to speak English in the restaurant, saying she didn’t travel thousands of miles not to speak the language of her new nation, she said. She told him she was a U.S. citizen and had a right to speak Spanish, and he reportedly moved onto Perez. When Ruelas-Nava’s shift ended around 9:30 p.m., she walked into Fasulo’s office and quit.
“I told him that this was my last day and I was not going to come back,” Ruelas-Nava said in her statement. “Mr. Fasulo got angry again and we started arguing. After the argument, Mr. Fasulo came out of his office and gave me my final check. He knew that the reason I was quitting because of his behavior and his ‘English only’ statements.”
Immigrants — both legal and undocumented — make up 31 percent of America’s cooks, per the Pew Research Center. The California Fair Employment and Housing Act prohibits workplace discrimination on the basis of native language or accent. Employers can institute language requirements on rare occasions for positions communicating with customers or workplaces with high risk of injury.
Though Perez regularly responded to commands from chef Marcello Fasulo — Leonardo’s son — in English, three of the five kitchen employees spoke Spanish to each other, she said. She described her English comprehension as “OK” and chose to be interviewed for this story through an interpreter.
Leonardo Fasulo was born in Argentina, per California voter records, but said he grew up in the Piedmont region of Northern Italy in a 2004 interview with The Sacramento Bee. He managed an upscale Italian restaurant in San Francisco before opening Osteria Fasulo, where the Plumshire Inn once stood, in 2003.
Fasulo previously owned Il Posto in downtown Sacramento from 2005-06 with his then-wife, Mina. A registered Republican, he decorated Il Posto with portraits of government officials. According to a 2005 article in The Bee, Fasulo made small waves by sending back the drawing of Arnold Schwarzenegger, saying it needed to be bigger to fit with the second-floor Governor’s Dining Room.
The Department of Fair Employment and Housing will interview Perez to corroborate her story before further investigating.
Perez isn’t in a rush to get back to a kitchen, she said. She has a custodial job in Sacramento, closer to her home. She also doesn’t regret speaking out, despite the upheaval she’s experienced as a result.
“Watching (Kenneth) cry was enough for (me) to say, ‘My son doesn’t need to experience this situation,’” Perez said. “I was scared, but I believe we have rights and need to speak up against employers that are trying to humiliate us and treat us bad.”