With Roberto Mendoza, fired by Coca Cola FEMSA

I Was Fired Because I’m Gay


“Six years and seven months after I joined the company, I realized that my career there had always had an invisible ceiling.” That’s how Roberto defines the moment when he came to understand that he was being professionally discriminated for his sexual preference, shortly before he was fired. His case became widely known in Mexico, and it may set a significant precedent in court.


-When did your relationship with FEMSA begin?

-In March 1998, after two years of offers from them to work there. My initial position was Packaging Engineering Manager, that is, it dealt with everything that concerns labeling, bottling and packing. As a result of my work in that position, the company saved some 3.5 million dollars a year. In 2000, they asked me to take the position of General Manager in the Supplies Department, that is, “purchases,” an offer that I very willingly accepted. I focused on modernizing that department and on bringing greater responsibilities to it, which led to a process of increasing centralization of the company’s purchases in my department. After two and a half years of working in that position, the company decided to create the post of Supplies Director.


-What are the differences between a director and a manager?

-Not only is there a difference in salary, there are also certain monetary benefits that come with it, which give the employee a greater savings capacity, and there is also a difference in hierarchy within the company, as directors participate in several internal decision-making levels. Naturally, I aspired to that position and had even been told that not only was I among the candidates, it had already been in fact decided that I would be appointed, and the only thing missing was the approval of the person in charge of the Human Resources area. But, all of a sudden I was notified that I had to solve certain problems the company had in the Logistics area. The person that was appointed in the position I wanted was someone from Sales, who had no experience in purchases. That bothered me, of course, because I thought that it was because the company didn’t want me to continue with the project I had started. So, in mid 2002, I began working in Logistics. When FEMSA acquired PANAMCO, I was asked to join the team that would assess and take control of that company, a task which I performed from January through May 2003, when I returned to Logistics. In July of that year, I was asked to be in charge of Purchases in the recently created Latincentro Division, which runs the Coca-Cola FEMSA plants in Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Nicaragua and Guatemala. They told me, and I quote: “It’s the same position Carlos Cerdano -the person who was named Purchases Director in Mexico- has, but in Costa Rica.”

Questions Without Answers


Another thing I’ve wondered about a lot over these past months is the double standards these companies have. Coca-Cola FEMSA says it doesn’t discriminate, and to prove it, it hires disabled persons, but regardless of their intellectual capacity or education, they assign them to the call center, as if that were the only task someone who’s suffered polio or had a member amputated, or what have you, is capable of doing.


I also wonder what ethical criteria the Bill Gates Foundation bases its ownership of 6% of Coca-Cola FEMSA’s stock on, being that Microsoft has a rating of 100 -the maximum- in the Corporate Equality Index, which measures the ethical behavior of corporations. Does that mean that the Bill Gates Foundation has different yardsticks for different companies? I ask myself these questions, but I still have no answers.


- Did you accept that position?

-Yes, and I moved there with my partner, with whom I had been in a relationship for four years at that time, but when I got there I found out that the position I would occupy was not Supplies Director but Supplies Manager. The persons with the same task and responsibility as me in Mexico and MERCOSUR were, however, Directors. Here things started to get a little more complicated, because they began to question what I did, and my decisions were not backed properly. In late 2003, without explaining much, I introduced my partner to my closest co-workers. We had decided not to keep to ourselves and to begin interacting with the people who worked in the company. He was very well accepted by everyone, and we even formed a group of friends who we visited and who visited us.


-What does your partner do for a living?

-He’s a chef. He has a Master’s Degree in Food and Beverage. In Costa Rica he did several consultancy jobs for various companies.


-What happened next?

-In May 2004 they started to announce a corporate restructure in Latincentro, and they told me that since my position was fairly consolidated, I would have to return to Mexico, as my specialty was bringing Coca-Cola FEMSA’s know-how to the new PANAMCO territories. Meanwhile, there were several incidents which there’s no sense getting into now, and then in August 2004 I learnt that the President of Coca-Cola FEMSA, Carlos Salazar, had said that the position of Technological Development Director, a position that includes Packaging Engineering, Refrigeration and Transportation, was vacant and that it should be given to me. But, as it turned out, I was informed by Oscar Fajardo that the position I would be appointed to was Packaging Engineering Manager. I told him that there was a mistake, because that was the position I was originally hired for when I joined the company six years and seven months before. He told me to not even bother protesting because he had orders to prevent me from advancing in the company because I was gay.


-What did you do then?

-I thought it was Fajardo’s way of not having to deal with the problem, so I traveled to Mexico and met with the person who was the Organizational Development Manager then, and told her what my situation was: that they wanted me to replace the person I had left the position to over four years ago, and that they wanted to reduce my salary. She told me she had discussed my case with the Human Resources Director, Eulalio Cerda, during a meeting with four other people. She said she defended my candidacy until Cerda started pounding on the table and declared: “As long as I’m Director of Human Resources, Coca-Cola FEMSA will not have any fags as directors.” After that, she felt that if she continued to insist she would be compromising her own position in the company.


Right then I understood the reason why I hadn’t been named Supplies Director in Mexico and why I had been passed up in the Latincentro Division as well, and why I was being denied the position that Carlos Salazar had suggested for me. It was due to Mr. Eulalio Cerda’s homophobic behavior. That was in August 2004. I still had to negotiate my relocation to Mexico, and I finally accepted the position in Packaging Engineering, and part of the salary cuts, with the idea that it’s easier to “look for work while you’re still working.” But the harassment became increasingly worse, they continued to take away the benefits I was entitled to, and it got to the point where they were questioning all my decisions. It’s obvious that although I hadn’t been given the position of director, I had performed director duties, such as executing contracts worth several million dollars on behalf of the company. It was not reasonable that they would supervise my work so closely. Finally, on October 12, Alejandro Duncan, Technology Director, and Carlos Parodi, Projects Director, called me to a meeting where they warned me that if I didn’t drop all the complaints I had against the company since my relocation from Costa Rica to Mexico –which were actually minor-, there would be no place for me in the company. In our discussion they went as far as questioning my professional capacity, but without any logical arguments or factual grounds to back such allegations. What they wanted was for me to resign, but I didn’t, and they had to fire me.


After wasting some money with the first lawyer I hired, who did nothing, I finally found another one who gave me great confidence. In May 2005, I filed a formal complaint of discrimination on the grounds of sexual preference with the National Council to Prevent Discrimination (CONAPRED). This body was created by a specific law, whose scope of action is neither Criminal nor Civil, but rather ethical. Coca-Cola FEMSA tried to evade its responsibility by saying that I hadn’t been its employee, but it’s obvious that I was employed by several of its subsidiaries even if I had never been directly on Coca-Cola FEMSA’s payroll. But these are mere tactical arguments, as all my presentation cards and the letters I signed said Coca-Cola FEMSA, as did my company ID.

That same month, I also filed a civil lawsuit claiming moral damages for discrimination based on sexual preference. My claim is grounded on the fact that the advancement of my career was unnaturally thwarted at the most productive time of my life.


-How old are you?

-I’m 39 now, but when this happened I had just turned 38. Which means that starting at age 32 I had an “invisible ceiling” that I was unaware of and that prevented me from growing professionally, thus harming me then, now and in the future. I left Pepsico to work in Coca-Cola FEMSA, and my intention, my wish, was to build a career in the latter, and eventually retire from that company, but I never thought I would be bogged down.


-What other action did you take?

-In the first week of October 2005, shortly before the term to do so expired, I filed a criminal suit for violation of section 206 of the Federal District’s Penal Code, which establishes discrimination based on sexual preference as a criminal offense. This suit was filed against Eulalio Cerda, Alejandro Duncan, Oscar Fajardo, and Carlos Parodi.


-What has been the reaction in general?

-Coca-Cola FEMSA has adopted an ostrich policy, pretending nothing happened, and has tried by all means possible to harass and frighten those who have tried to help me, including CONAPRED, whose members they’ve threatened, telling them they exceeded the powers they have been given by law, as CONAPRED called a press conference where we publicly denounced my case. My landlord was threatened with a defamation lawsuit if he didn’t force me to remove a sign I had hung in the window of my apartment, which read: “Coca-Cola discriminates.” Some of the witnesses that were going to testify in this case on my behalf were also frightened.


My colleagues at the company won’t talk about the matter. Some support me, but the rest won’t even mention me. Many people have called me to offer their support, and others have turned their back on me.


-What are the next instances?

-In the civil case, the trial should be opening up the evidence stage within a week, but that will surely take time.


CROC Declares Its Support


José del Valle, Secretary General of the National Soft Drink Federation and Secretary of International Relations of the Revolutionary Workers and Farmers Confederation (CROC) recently sent a letter to Engineer José Antonio Fernández Carvajal, General Director of FEMSA, in which he "strongly condemns the behavior of Mr. Eulalio Cerda Delgadillo, Corporate Director of Human Resources, for his homophobic attitude against Mr. Roberto Mendoza.  Although -the letter continues-, because of his former executive position in FEMSA, Mendoza is not a member of our Federation, the behavior of the Director of Human Resources violates human rights and therefore affects member workers, and that is why we come to protest against these actions.”

-How do you feel on a personal level, after going through all this?

-Over the last two months, after the problems with the witnesses and Coca-Cola threatening to sue me for slander, I suffered a severe depression which turned into a clinical condition, but fortunately there are medicines which balance these situations, because otherwise I’d be locked up at home, unable to go out. I feel a huge frustration and great powerlessness at being treated in such an utterly unjustifiable way, because a person’s sexual preference has nothing to do whatsoever with their professional competence.


-Have you found another job?

-Nobody in the beverage sector will hire anyone who has been previously employed by FEMSA, so two months ago I began to work again, having accepted a job in what is a new industry for me, with a significant loss of income. That is, I have gone back ten years, just to be able work again. It would seem that going back is the only way to move on, which in a certain way means that, for all practical purposes, Coca-Cola is winning the battle.


-Has this affected your partner?

-Of course it has. He’s told me from the start that he’ll support me one hundred percent, and he backed my decisions to file the complaints and actions, but our way of life has changed a lot. We’ve had some very rough moments, very distressing moments. Right now my finances are very low and I have to think through very carefully every move I make. It really wears me out.


-Why did you decide to go public with your case?

-It was time somebody did so at the management and corporate level in Mexico. I don’t mean to fancy myself a savior or a redeemer. Maybe if somebody had done it before me, I wouldn’t have been discriminated. Others will benefit from this action, and they will probably never know who Roberto Mendoza was, but thanks to this precedent, they won’t have to go through what I did. People in Mexico are increasingly more open about their homosexuality, but that’s not the case in the corporate world, where homosexuals have to hide, to avoid discrimination they don’t assume their sexual preference, until they leave work and can go places where gay people are able to meet freely. Personally, I don’t want to prove anything, I just want to be who I am, without having to hide, and if I want to put a photograph of my partner on my desk, I want to be able to do so without being afraid.


Interview by Carlos Amorín

© Rel-UITA

January 11, 2006




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