I first ran into Jillian Mercado in the spring of 2016. She was in a park in Manhattan, taking in views of the Hudson River. She wore a pair of heart-shaped sunglasses the color of strawberries and a red New York City Wildcats top — a breezy, chic outfit perfect for a sunny Friday afternoon.
I knew about Mercado through her work as a disabled Latina fashion model for major companies like Nordstrom. The 32-year-old, who lives with muscular dystrophy and uses an electric wheelchair, scored her first major campaign with denim brand Diesel in 2014. In March 2016, the native New Yorker was announced as one of three models to be featured in Beyoncé’s merchandise campaign promoting the Formation World Tour. That same year, she collaborated with Target and scored high-profile interviews in Glamour and CNBC, among other major media.
“It’s hard to envision someone like yourself being in such a high position as being an activist or being a model in the industry because you just don’t see it, you know?” Mercado told me in a phone interview last month. “I just found a moment within myself where I was just like, if I don’t see it out there, and I know in my heart and my soul that I belong here, and it’s what I love doing and it’s in the industry of fashion, then I have to do something about it. I have to be that change.”
Back in 2016, I was a student journalist searching for inspiration to work on my final project for graduate school, determined to focus on issues that affected disabled women like myself. Mercado’s rise in the fashion industry and her powerful voice in the online disability community were, in large part, what inspired me to explore disability, body image and relationships in my final project.
Two years later, I randomly passed by Mercado in the subway station at Times Square. I hadn’t expected to meet her again, because what are the odds of running into the same stranger twice in New York City? She smiled and responded to my emphatic “Hi Jillian!” even though she didn’t know who I was at the time.
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If we hadn’t both been in a rush, I would have told her that I’d been following her work since the early days of her modeling career. Back then, the headlines called her a disabled model who was “breaking the mold,” and now the tide was finally beginning to turn. I would have thanked Mercado for being a crucial part of this larger, unstoppable movement to ensure that disability is the new mold and that it’s portrayed as an essential part of mainstream, everyday life — because it is.
Working in the fashion industry was always in the cards for Mercado — in fact, it was the card. She grew up in a Dominican household with two sisters, a father who worked as a shoe salesman on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and a mother who worked as a factory seamstress.
“She would bring her work home, and I would sit next to her, asking all the annoying questions like, ‘Which fabric is this? Why did you pick this color?’” Mercado said of her mother. “She would tell me that out of my two sisters, I was always the one that would rather sit by her and watch her sew than watch cartoons.”
Even now, Mercado said she would much rather shop for clothes in stores than buy them online. That way, she can feel the textures, buttons and other materials in person. Her personal style is “always evolving,” she said, and it’s heavily influenced by her Dominican roots.
“We are a very colorful culture and we’re all about dressing your best self,” Mercado said. “I really always embrace that culture with how I dress today — with the core idea of no matter where you’re going, you’re looking like your best self.”
On any given day, Mercado will try something new with her wardrobe by, say, mixing pinup fashion with beach attire or wearing a bulky piece for a rocker vibe.
“My style is very much how I feel that day and how I want to feel comfortable,” she said. “If I want to feel badass, I throw on a leather jacket. Everyone looks like a badass in a leather jacket.”
Mercado, a graduate of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, got her start in the fashion industry by completing a yearlong internship at Allure magazine. In 2013, she signed up for an open casting call to be part of Diesel’s spring 2014 jeans ad campaign — and got it. From there, she signed with IMG Models, a major modeling agency that also represents stars including Gigi Hadid, Hailey Bieber, Halima Aden and more, in 2015.
“It was such an out-of-body experience, especially being a New Yorker,” said Mercado, who now lives bicoastally in Los Angeles and New York City. “I remember the exact first time I ever went to Times Square. It’s such an early memory in my mind. I remember the feeling and how magical that little area was and how everybody was both larger than life and everyone was so powerful no matter what the advertising was.”
“When I saw myself, it was such a beautiful moment,” she said.
Going from seeing other models who did not necessarily represent her to actually bringing about that representation herself was emotional and “very trippy.” For once, people saw Mercado as one of many definitions of beauty — not in spite of her disability, but in part because of it.
“We’re more than our medical titles that we have. It’s a part of us,” Mercado said. “I am disabled and I’m very proud and happy to say that, but I also know that we’re astronauts, we’re doctors, we’re lawyers.”
That same month, she graced the front cover of Teen Vogue, along with two other disabled models, blogger Mama Cax and U.S. Special Olympics champion Chelsea Werner. In her interview, she talked about growing up with very few disabled role models of color in the fashion and entertainment industries.
“There wasn’t anyone who looked like me in any magazines or mainstream media,” Mercado told Teen Vogue. “It excluded me from something that I was very passionate about.”
Because of this lack of representation and the fact that people with disabilities already face ableism in a world that isn’t built for them, Mercado said it took “a lot of self-love” for her to fully commit to a career in modeling. There were “moments where I had to reflect with myself and repeatedly ask myself that question — if I really wanted to go and embark on this journey,” she told me during our interview. “And the answer was always yes, because I’m capable of doing it.”
Outside of the fashion world, Mercado has spoken out on issues ranging from disabled Latinx representation in the media industry to the lack of travel accessibility.
In late July, she started the trending hashtag #DisabledAirlineHorror after alleging in a Twitter thread that workers at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York broke her wheelchair, which is customized to suit her specific body type and costs thousands of dollars.
“It’s been 72 hours since I live feed my incident at #JFKAIRPORT completely ignored how to handle my chair, even when I specifically advised that my chair does not fold…they folded it anyways causing the chair to completely snap and break,” Mercado tweeted.
“THIS HAS TO STOP! I am completely and utterly over the disrespect and unprofessionalism of airports handling assistive devices. THIS IS OUR WAY OF LIVING!” Mercado continued.
Later in the Twitter thread, she called on disabled travelers to share videos, photos and stories of similar experiences by emailing her or using the hashtag #DisabledAirlineHorror.
“Jillian, we are so sorry that you had to be put through this at our airport,” the Twitter account for Kennedy Airport wrote in response. “We hope that your chair was functional when you arrived at your next destination. You should reach out to the airline directly if you need to make a claim for any damage to the wheelchair. Good luck.”
Nearly two months later, Mercado said she has yet to receive an adequate response or compensation from the airline or the airport.
“I have my chair, but I am waiting to get answers from the company that is hopefully trying to fix the situation,” Mercado said. “I’m still working on it and still fighting for it until there’s some sort of respect. That’s all. I don’t want your free flights.”
Mercado, an avid traveler, has had this same experience happen over and over ever since she began traveling to and from the Dominican Republic at a young age — nearly 15 times over the course of her life. Before Mercado became well-known, getting airlines to pay attention or respond to complaints was impossible.
“Mind you, I had to go to school. I had to continue living my life. And something like your assistive device being broken really truly affects you mentally and, obviously, physically,” she said, noting that chair repairs can take months.
This time, she wanted to use her platform to do something about it. So far, she has received well over 100 emails, including many “heartbreaking” stories from people whose canes, wheelchairs or other assistive devices have been broken by travel workers — and from people who said they are just too scared to travel at all for fear of going through exactly what Mercado did in July.
On average, the nation’s top airlines either damage or lose about 26 wheelchairs per day, according to a February report by the U.S. Department of Transportation — a statistic that she finds “unacceptable.”
“It’s something that people really should acknowledge and not make excuses. Just do your job,” Mercado said of the airline workers who allegedly broke her chair, adding that all disabled people ask is “to be treated like a passenger, not luggage.”
“No one should ever go through the same situation that I am going through now,” she added.
As a public figure with hundreds of thousands of online followers, Mercado views disability activism as part of her duty to support her community.
“It’s very important when you have the opportunity and a platform to speak to the masses to use that platform to advocate for people who may not have the same opportunity or voice, especially on social media,” Mercado said.
And it’s something of a dream come true for Mercado to be an advocate for her community while also doing something she really loves — working in fashion.
For the entertainment industry, creating change means “acknowledging that there are amazing people who have disabilities or people of color or Latinx people who are amazing and creative,” said Mercado, and then hiring them for positions both in front of and behind the scenes.
And for people with disabilities in general, that means having the freedom to work, learn, dream and live in a fully inclusive and accessible world — both in our external surroundings and in terms of our own mindsets. Over the years, for me as one of her countless social media followers looking for disabled role models of our own, Mercado has taught me it’s OK to be romantic and sexy, to speak out against injustice, and to want to feel seen — and to know that’s what we deserve.
In the coming months, Mercado will be unveiling several new projects — though she won’t give many details. “I would just say keep aware on my social media or I may or may not be on your television set,” she said slyly.
In the meantime, she hopes to continue working with companies that believe in continuous — not trendy ― inclusion, and recognize the power, perspective and talent that the disability community has to offer.
“We’re not going anywhere,” Mercado said. Still, she knows that substantial change doesn’t happen overnight.
“It’s something that is gonna take time and I have acknowledged that,” she said. “As long as I’m alive, for that matter, I will be fighting the good fight.”
Nuestras Voces Unidas (Our Voices United) is a HuffPost series created to honor Hispanic Heritage Month and amplify the diverse voices within the community. Find all of our coverage here.