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It was two years ago that Iris Castaneda was escorted out of a Starbucks in Orlando by security guards after arguing with a barista over soy milk.

Though she immediately felt she’d been the target of obvious discrimination — she recalls being the only Hispanic woman in the store when it happened — Castaneda mostly kept her story to herself. She did file a written report about it, and subsequently received an apology from the store manager where the incident occurred. But she was reluctant to share what happened widely because she was afraid no one would believe her.

That all changed this month. Starbucks publicly acknowledged it needed to implement better sensitivity training — a realization sparked by outrage over the April arrests of two black men waiting for a friend inside a Philly store. After reading Billy Penn’s coverage of the event and its reform-focused aftermath, Castaneda decided to come forward.

“It was hidden before, in the shadows,” said the El Salvador native, who’s lived in the U.S. since 1994, about implicit bias at Starbucks cafes. “But it was always there.”

Castaneda has first-hand knowledge of what goes on behind Starbucks’ coffee counters, since she herself is a barista.

For 14 years, the Queens resident has worked the Starbucks counter tucked inside the Marriott Marquis in New York City. It’s a franchised operation, owned by the hotel, but still follows the same rules and regs as regular store, she said.

Which is why Castaneda felt she was on solid ground to question a barista who served her when she stopped into a Green Mermaid outpost while on vacation.

A 45-cent dispute

Unlike at the 18th and Spruce store in Philly, where the cops were ostensibly called because the men were hanging around without buying anything, this particular altercation began after Castaneda had already made a substantial purchase. At the cafe inside the Orlando International Premium mall, she’d paid for a map, a souvenir, a chai latte, a Frappucino and a chocolate milk for her 10-year-old son.

Then she asked for some extra soy milk on the side — and got pushback.

Castenada with her husband and son Credit: Courtesy of Iris Castenada

“You’ll have to pay 45 cents for more than 2 ounces,” the Florida barista told her. “I work at Starbucks,” Castaneda replied, “and that charge is only supposed to apply when the soy milk needs to be steamed. Not cold.”

The barista disagreed. Castaneda responded that it didn’t make sense to charge for cold nondairy milk since there’s plenty of regular cold milk freely available. The Florida barista again disagreed. And then, escalated the situation.

“I never called her a name or said any profanity or got loud,” Castaneda recalled. “Suddenly, next thing I know, she went to the office and I see her grab the phone.”

Five minutes later, several men in uniform arrived carrying guns. “She says to them, ‘Please help me and tell this woman to leave the store, she’s causing trouble for the other customers.’ She was lying the whole time!”

Despite Castaneda’s protests that she hadn’t done anything, the security guards told her she had to leave.

“I was upset,” she said, “I don’t know if she didn’t like my accent, didn’t like my looks, or what.”

A verbal apology and hope for progress

Before she followed orders to vacate the premises, Castaneda demanded her money back for the map and souvenir she’d purchased. After receiving that, she marched to the mall management office and filed a written complaint. A week later, the manager of the Orlando Starbucks called and left a voicemail.

“I want to first start by personally apologizing,” the manager, who identified herself at Pam, can be heard saying. “I wasn’t in the building at the time, but I understand things got escalated.”

Castenada called back, and the two spoke a few times, though the conversations didn’t really change her feeling of being aggrieved. “The only reason I left the store instead of fighting back is because I was afraid they were going to arrest me,” she explained. “I didn’t want to ruin my vacation over something so stupid.”

Stupid is also the word she used to describe what happened to Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson on April 12.

“I think what happened in Pennsylvania, they weren’t doing anything wrong,” Castaneda said. “That’s not Starbucks policy to tell people to leave — the policy is that you can hang out, even though you don’t buy a coffee. I don’t know. Maybe in other states they’re not trained properly…”

After sitting through the mandatory racial bias training the week — a slightly modified version given by Marriott Marquis management based on the same documents used at the other 8,000 U.S. stores — Castaneda is cautiously optimistic.

“To be honest, it was good,” she said about the May 29 session. “It’s always good to talk about what’s going on. They also said we’re going to have more meetings in the future. It seems like they want to make a difference.”

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Danya Henninger

Danya Henninger is director of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the...