CVS refuses to let student buy cold medicine with Puerto Rican ID: 'Was it his skin color?'

CVS has issued an apology after a Puerto Rican college student was denied access to cold medicine at one of its pharmacies. 

José A. Guzmán-Payano, a junior at Purdue University, was reportedly buying Mucinex at a CVS near his dorm in West Lafayette, Ind., when an employee came over to check his ID in the self-checkout line. 

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Guzmán-Payano pulled out his Puerto Rican driver's license — a valid form of U.S. identification — but the employee rejected him. Instead, the unnamed employee allegedly asked him for his visa, and "started confronting him about his immigration status."

"She said I needed a visa," Guzmán-Payano told the Lafayette Journal & Courier. "I tried to explain that Puerto Rico was part of the United States. I didn’t need a visa or anything. She just said the same thing three times. That’s when I realized what was happening."

Guzmán-Payano's mother, Arlene Payano Burgos, shared the incident in a now-viral Facebook post, which has been shared more than 11,000 times since it was posted late last month. 

"Because he needed the medicine and needed to get back to his dorm to study, José then explained (unnecessarily) to this employee that he is, in fact, a United States citizen," Payano Burgos wrote. "The employee then refused to authorize the transaction and told him that his form of ID was not accepted because it was not a valid US identification."

Payano Burgos went on to question why the employee assumed her son — who, as a Puerto Rican citizen, is also a United States citizen — was questioned in the first place, let alone rejected. 

"What caused this employee to ask him for his visa?" Payano Burgos wrote. "Was it his accent? Was it his skin color? Was it the Puerto Rican flag on the license? Whatever triggered her to discriminate against my son embodies exactly what is wrong in the United States of America today."

The family later filed a formal complaint with CVS but did not hear a response for nearly a week — until after the Lafayette Journal & Courier published a story on the incident. A representative for the company issued a formal apology on Saturday. 

"We are committed to ensuring that every customer receives courteous, outstanding service in our stores, and we apologize to the customer for his recent experience," Amy Thibault, a CVS spokeswoman, said.

"We absolutely recognize Puerto Rican driver’s licenses to be a valid form of U.S. identification," CVS said in a separate statement to the New York Times on Monday.

Guzmán-Payano's experience even gained the attention of some politicians, who shared their outrage over the incident. 

"Puerto Ricans are American citizens who have fought, shed blood and died in every recent conflict," New York Rep. Nydia Velazquez wrote on Twitter. "This sad incident underscores that we have work to do in reminding companies & each other that Puerto Ricans are Americans."


For Payano Burgos, sharing her son's story on Facebook has largely become about educating others on the fact that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens — something that, according to a 2017 poll, nearly half of Americans do not know. 

"It’s been very heartwarming,” Payano Burgos told the New York Times. "What we want is education so that this doesn’t happen to anybody else."

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