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Gisele Barreto Fetterman, the activist who could become Pennsylvania's next second lady, challenges the anti-immigrant rhetoric that has invaded the U.S. political spectrum. Samantha Laub / AL DÍA News
Gisele Barreto Fetterman, the activist who could become Pennsylvania's next second lady, challenges the anti-immigrant rhetoric that has invaded the U.S. political spectrum. Samantha Laub / AL DÍA News

The Undocumented Story of Gisele Barreto Fetterman

As a child, Gisele Barreto Fetterman was an undocumented immigrant in the U.S. She went on to devote her life to the service of others and now she could become…

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It’s a common narrative, albeit a false one.

It’s prominent today in the national political spectrum: right-wing ideologues increasingly portray American immigrants, especially those who are undocumented, as the people responsible for U.S. society’s problems. From violence to narcotics to unemployment, immigrant communities should be held accountable for all of these things, according to contemporary conservative rhetoric.

Less often does American media spotlight the contributions of immigrants like Gisele Barreto Fetterman, who grew up in the U.S. undocumented after fleeing Brazil with her family as a child. Her life’s work, which is based on kindness and giving, stands as a challenge to the vile stereotypes spewed by right-wing commentators.

Now, there is a chance she will be able to further this challenge as the next second lady of Pennsylvania.

Gisele’s husband, John Fetterman, with whom she has three young children, announced earlier this month that he is running to become lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania in 2018. As the mayor of Braddock, an economically depleted community just east of Pittsburgh, John’s efforts to revitalize the once-thriving steel town over the past 12 years have garnered national attention.

The Harvard-educated, tattooed mayor ran for U.S. Senate in 2016, and although he lost in the Democratic primary, John’s campaign earned him nearly 20 percent of the vote as a relatively unknown candidate in a four-way race.

John Fetterman is vying for Pennsylvania’s second-in-command position, which is currently held by Mike Stack, to turn the office into something it has not traditionally been in the past — a pulpit for progressive ideas. He aims to establish a larger platform for the policies he has championed in Braddock, including addressing income inequality, expanding health care, legalizing marijuana and advocating for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

While her husband has worked to make Braddock a safer, more prosperous place to live, Gisele has established herself as a strong community leader and respected activist in Western Pennsylvania. In 2012, she founded the Free Store, an entirely volunteer-driven organization that receives surplus and donated goods then redistributes them at no cost to neighbors in need. Since opening the first Free Store in Braddock, the concept has expanded to nine other locations in Pennsylvania.

To increase food access beyond the Free Store’s reach in her own community, Gisele co-founded 412 Food Rescue to redistribute would-be discarded food throughout Allegheny County. To date, she said the organization has saved more than 2.5 million pounds of food from going to waste.

This year, Gisele’s efforts earned her the distinction of “Best Activist” from Pittsburgh City Paper.

Like her husband, she is hoping to use her potential role as second lady to broaden her own platform, expanding the philanthropic initiatives that she has spearheaded. For Gisele, being a formerly undocumented immigrant in such a public position would also be accompanied with a certain meaning.

“It’s sending a message to every immigrant in this country that we belong here too and we’re a part of this, and we love our country just as much as anyone else does,” Gisele said during an interview with AL DÍA. “It would be amazing to be able to represent that.”

Growing up

Gisele Barreto Fetterman said her immigrant experience was an adventure (or at least her mother strived to make it feel that way).

She recalled the moment when her life forever changed. When Gisele was eight years old, her mother one day came home with two suitcases — one for her and one for her brother.

“Pack your favorite things because we’re going on a trip,” her mother told her.

She remembers packing a doll and a journal.

Gisele couldn’t have known then that her mother had decided to uproot their lives in the crime-ridden environment of Rio de Janeiro and start again in the U.S.

“I’m so grateful for her bravery, that she saw something here and that she knew this would be better for her children,” she said. “I try to put myself in that situation today and I don’t know if I’d be that brave.”

What motivated her mother to leave Rio was a conversation she had with Gisele’s aunt. This aunt had nonchalantly told Gisele’s mother that she had been robbed seven times that year. For her mother, it wasn’t the fact that her relative was so frequently a victim of crime that bothered her the most; the real cause for alarm was in Gisele’s aunt’s perspective.

“It was in how casually she spoke about it,” Gisele said. “Like it was normal.”

Refusing to allow her children to grow accustomed to this type of insecurity, Gisele’s mother brought her two children to the Queens section of New York City. They arrived during a snowstorm wearing shoes made of thin canvas. They had no place to live, knew no one and spoke no English.

Her mother rushed to find them an apartment, and the next day, she found work.  

In Brazil, Gisele said her mother had an established career as a nutritionist and a teacher, managing the nutrition of patients in all of the hospitals in Rio. When she came to the U.S., her mother accepted jobs cleaning houses and hotels.

Gisele knows this adjustment had to be difficult and humbling for her mother, but through it all, she “only saw the brave side.” She relayed a message her mother always told her and her brother.  

“I would clean toilets in America forever and never look back, knowing that you’re both safe and that you have a chance that you didn’t have otherwise,” Gisele recalled with tears in her eyes.

As her mother juggled multiple jobs to provide for her family, Gisele and her brother enrolled in English as a second language classes at school. The family often struggled to make ends meet, and hovering above all of the challenges they faced was an ever-present uncertainty. Though she had difficulty comprehending it at the time, and despite her mother’s altruistic motives, a feeling of wrongdoing stayed with Gisele throughout her childhood because they were in the country illegally.

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Making a difference

For Gisele, the philanthropic work she has become known for was “entirely inspired” by her immigrant experience.

When she arrived in New York with her family, they had few belongings, including furniture. She remembers exploring her neighborhood one day (which she would learn was “bulk garbage day”) when she happened upon a curb loaded with furniture, waiting to be picked up by a truck, crushed and dumped into a landfill.

“It felt really wasteful and wrong and disposable,” Gisele said.

Her family completely furnished their apartment using the mismatched and abandoned items they found.

“It created this responsibility for me that I needed to find homes for things,” Gisele said. “That we can find solutions to problems with existing resources.”

Gisele’s family eventually left New York to settle in the area of Newark, New Jersey. Following in her mother’s footsteps, Gisele studied nutrition, and her sense of responsibility for repurposing items eventually led her to organize free redistribution events around Newark.

In 2007, she happened upon a magazine article featuring Braddock, highlighting the immense contributions the city made to the development of the U.S. as a hub for steel production. Since the 1920s, Braddock has lost 90 percent of its population and today, more than 35 percent of individuals in the predominantly African-American community live below the poverty line.

“(Braddock) had such a strong place in history, and then it was forgotten and left behind,” Gisele said. “That felt wrong and it just bothered me.”

This feeling eventually compelled her to handwrite a letter to Braddock’s town government in which she detailed the redistribution work she had been doing and asked to plan a visit to discuss the possibility of organizing something similar in the Rust Belt community.

“I didn’t know what that something looked like, but something made me write this letter,” she said.

The man who would ultimately become her husband responded to her inquiry, sparking a partnership both romantic and grounded in community betterment.

40 % of food in the U.S. is wasted

When she was growing up, Gisele remembers moments of food insecurity in her own family. She also remembers her shock when she learned that 40 percent of food in the U.S. is wasted while one in seven people is food insecure.

Knowing “bellies are empty and bodies are cold” in the face of massive retail waste, Gisele sought to find a solution.

When she proposed the Free Store concept to her husband, John said he was initially skeptical of the idea. He questioned the logistics of a volunteer organization giving goods away at no cost. Since then, the mayor said the Free Store has proven to be a groundbreaking endeavor for their community.

“(The Free Store) has easily been perhaps the single most impactful thing we may have ever done in Braddock,” John Fetterman said. “And when I say ‘we,’ I mean my wife because it was entirely driven by her and her vision.”

Using decommissioned cargo-shipping containers, Gisele was able to create a “dignified, loving and welcoming” space to connect people with resources they need. The Free Store started out with clothing, diapers, shoes, toys and baby formula, eventually branching out to include food.

“We essentially were able to eradicate food insecurity in our community,” she said.

In addition to individual donations, the Free Store receives food items that retailers are unable to sell for reasons such as cosmetic issues and packaging errors. For clothing, the organization receives “last season” items that would otherwise be thrown away from partners like Ralph Lauren and Nike.

John Fetterman summed up how the Free Store works with a few simple words.  

“If they have it and you need it, you get it,” he said.

If elected to the lieutenant governorship, John said he hopes to encourage initiatives like the Free Store statewide.

“It’s made such an important difference in our community, and I would love to see this replicated, certainly, across the commonwealth.”

Looking ahead

Gisele has had conversations with people who praise her work with projects like the Free Store and 412 Food Rescue, then those same people, sometimes in the same breath, tell her how awful undocumented immigrants are.

“I remind them that I was one of them,” she said. “I think it’s important to have those conversations. I try to tell as many people who will listen that I was undocumented and my story because I’m not unique in this.”

Both Fettermans understand that Gisele is only one of the vast majority of immigrants, undocumented and not, bringing positive contributions to U.S. society. The couple’s opposition to misconceptions and misinformation regarding immigrant communities will remain highlighted throughout John’s campaign for the lieutenant governorship of Pennsylvania.

In the May 2018 Democratic primary, John Fetterman will face off off against Stack and, currently, four other challengers: State Representative Madeleine Dean, Chester County Commissioner Kathi Cozzone, Lancaster County Commissioner Craig Lehman and activist Aryanna Berringer. The winner of the primary will run alongside incumbent Governor Tom Wolf against their Republican opponents in the November 2018 general election.

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