This article appeared on PA Post.
Every day, as she headed out the door for school, Gisele Barreto Fetterman’s mother would tell her that she loved her. Then she told her to be invisible.
Fetterman, then an undocumented immigrant, heard that every day from the age of 8 until she graduated from high school.
For nearly a decade after her mother fled the violent streets of Rio de Janeiro with her children, Fetterman lived as an undocumented immigrant. She no longer lives in the shadows.
As Pennsylvania’s second lady, the 37-year-old Brazilian native stands on a public platform that affords her the opportunity to advocate on behalf of her favorite causes. Her husband, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the Harvard-educated, tattooed former Braddock mayor, has become one of Pennsylvania’s most recognizable figures.
His wife has similarly emerged – not only in Braddock but statewide – as a prominent figure in her own right. Gisele Fetterman is an ardent advocate for women, the LGBTQ community, the arts and especially anyone living in the margins or, indeed, invisibly.
“It’s a great honor to have a voice,” she said recently during an interview with PennLive at her Braddock home, a converted car dealership across from the steel mill.
“For a really long time I never had one. I wasn’t allowed to have one because I was undocumented. To have a voice and to be able to use that is such an immense honor and a change.”
Tears are a powerful commodity in public life these days, but coming from Fetterman, they carry a certain authenticity.
“I tell people and I sincerely mean it that she is who she projects,” said John Fetterman.
“She is the nicest person. There’s no difference between the private and the personal and public Gisele. She is a kind soul that I‘m so lucky to have as a partner.”
Driven by her experiences
Gisele Fetterman is strikingly attractive and even more disarming. She has appeared in countless media outlets, from Rolling Stone, The New York Times, The Today Show to NPR. Not once has she issued a press release.
Her Instagram posts include thousands of photos of her children and regular people from across the state, but also photos of her and Kim Kardashian, Yo-Yo Ma, Bernie Sanders and the late Anthony Bourdain.
Whether walking around Braddock or the halls of the Capitol in Harrisburg, Fetterman draws people to her. Women run up to her; Fetterman hugs everyone. It’s a Brazilian thing, she says.
But she is most recognized for her work spearheading non-profits and ventures that have helped sparked a measure of economic revival in her scrappy steel town.
Along with business partner and best friend, Kristen Michaels, Fetterman several years ago launched the nonprofit For Good PGH and The Hollander Project, a business incubator for female entrepreneurs.
She throws her support behind countless causes, often hosting fundraisers for them at her home. In 2017, amid an anti-Muslim rhetoric sweeping the nation, Fetterman and Michaels garnered international attention when they launched a line of miniature hijabs for Barbie dolls.
This summer, Fetterman opened the swimming pool at the official Pennsylvania lieutenant governor’s residence to nonprofits and summer camps that would otherwise have no access to a pool. It was the first time something like that had been done.
Her experience informs everything she does. Growing up in a home headed by a single mom who struggled to make ends meet, she is guided by the desire to offer programs that might help single and working moms, and low-income families.
Michaels calls her friend a true visionary.
“Any time I get nervous, she’s like, ‘It’s great. We are amazing. We can do anything. We are powerful. We are women. Come on…we can do it,’” Michaels said. “She believes things will work out in a way we all hope they do, but she really does. Gisele has been through a lot. She’s seen a lot but there is also the power in all of us and that is something that she brings out in people.”
Fetterman is equally as popular for her singular fashion statement: Mostly vintage; second hand, thrift. Never extravagant. Her inaugural gown was famously from the sale rack at Macy’s.
On this day, she wears a multi-colored, stripe dress from Buffalo Exchange in Philadelphia, one of her favorite shopping stops.
“I like stuff that feels like it has a story,” she said. “Like someone wore it once and hopefully they had a good experience in it.”
But her fashion sense is an organic expression of her life experience, and that experience continues to guide her social work.
The Free Store, which she launched eight years ago, distributes donations of women’s clothing, baby and children’s clothing, children’s books, shoes, blankets, baskets, making them available to anyone in Braddock who needs it at no cost. Everything on the lot (it’s a fully self-sustained, solar-powered outdoor market along Braddock Avenue) is free; no proof of anything is needed.
“I grew up as a food bank kid and a thrift store kid,” says Fetterman. “That process can be so dehumanizing for people having to show your taxes having to prove that there was a need. I wanted to create something that was the opposite. I wanted to do something that was dignified, welcoming and loving.”
‘Working with pain’
Her mother, Ester Resende, fled the lethally violent streets of Brazil in 1990 with Fetterman and her brother, and headed for New York, where they lived as undocumented immigrants for more than a decade.
Fetterman became a legal resident in 2000, and shortly thereafter, a citizen.
These days, in addition to private donations, Free Store partners with outlets like Carters, Old Navy and The Gap. Increasingly clients come to Free Store by way of referrals from social service agencies. Free Store always has diapers and baby formula, and as was the case on a recent day, it at times receives heaping deliveries of fresh fruits and vegetables, fresh flowers and even prepared meals from Costco.
“There’s a lot of people that come here. It’s really important,” said Angel Rutan, a North Braddock resident and mother of two who relies on what she says is an invaluable resource for people struggling economically. “I need help with kids’ clothes. This helps. My kids grow so much. She has done a really good job.”
Fetterman’s nonprofits fill a void that policy fails to serve, but Fetterman says she has no desire to enter the political realm.
“I think politics is mean and I’m not, so I don’t think there is a place for me there,” she said.
The daughter of a politician who once swore she would never marry a politician, Fetterman recognizes the change agent that is the political realm.
For now, she is guided by a higher calling: responding to those in need.
“My work has always been about working with pain,” Fetterman said. “Taking a pain that was mine or something I witnessed, and how can I take that pain and turn into something beautiful. My work is always responding to something painful.”
She cries just about every day.
“I feel things really deeply,” she said blotting the tears from the corner of her eyes. “But I‘m totally OK with it. It took me a long time to accept that it’s OK to be super vulnerable at times and now I like it. Now I can cry as much as I want. I can be emotional and mushy and it’s ok. I’m really lucky that I can do that.”
It does not always come easy.
The face of immigration
Fetterman gets more hate mail than her husband. The majority of the hate mail (90 percent she estimates) has to do with her immigrant status; the other 10 percent has to do with her (generous) eyebrows.
“People really have an issue with my eyebrows, which is really funny because I love them,” she said. “It just sums up that Americans really love naturalized citizens but not natural eyebrows.”
Fetterman laughs, something she does as easily as she cries. But it has taken some work.
For years, when she was out and about with her three children – Karl,10, Grace, 8 and August, 5 – she was mistaken for a nanny. People routinely asked her if she was taking on more children in her roster.
“They see me… I’m Latina with three Caucasian leaning children…” she begins to explain.
In fact, she has become a defacto face of immigration. No sooner did her husband clinch his election bid for the second highest state office than she tweeted: “Pennsylvania your second lady was once an undocumented immigrant.”
There is no shortage in the number of people who approach her to tell her they have no problem with her brand of immigrant.
“I have people who say, ‘ You do so many great things … it’s not your kind of immigrant that we have an issue with. It’s the other ones.’ I say, ‘I am the other ones. I was undocumented for 15 years. I am exactly who you are describing who you hate.’”
She is forever cognizant of her position.
As a young girl she would have given anything to have seen a second lady who was an immigrant.
“To have representation … to have our people in these spaces, I think that alone is a really big message,” she said.
No matter how tense the conversations, she allows the other person to walk away with dignity; and she never compromises on her compassion.
That, she says, is the chief missing component in the current conversation on immigration.
“That these are people. That these aren’t numbers,” Fetterman said. “That these aren’t statistics. That these are families, these are children …. I think compassion is what is missing. Immigration has been an issue for a long time. We haven’t had someone who got it right yet, but if you are leading with compassion and that’s what’s helping you to make your decisions, then you are going to get close to making the right decisions.”
That outlook informs her husband on his views on immigration.
“I tell people, you want to know what the face of an undocumented Dreamer looks like? It’s my wife,” John Fetterman said. “And look at the contribution she makes. Look at the number of people that have clothing and the millions and millions of pounds of food rescued and redirected to the hungry.”
There will always be detractors, he said.
“A small segment of society for whatever reason can’t look past her origins or the color of her skin,” John Fetterman said. “Those people – you are not going to win over.”
‘Let love lead’
The view from the Fetterman home is a spectacular panorama of the steel mill, which has been in operation since the mid 1860s. At night, the lights – and the flames – from the mill light up their home. Fetterman is forever cognizant that generations of immigrants worked and fueled the mill.
“They had no rights,” she said. “They would come with all these dreams … and die there.”
The sprawling open space is furnished with salvaged and refurbished amenities, including the kitchen cabinets, which originally were part of the chemistry lab at Slippery Rock University.
Everything has a story, she said.
Gisele Fetterman, who was then living in Newark, visited Braddock, intent on sharing ideas with the mayor. The rest, as they say, is history. They were married (in an elopement to Vermont) the following year.
Their home is unconventional but captivating. Artwork from local artists, and international ones, hang in the minimally decorated space, which provides the couple’s three young children with wide open spaces for play and friends. Her mother a few years ago moved to the area to be near her and her grandchildren.
A third-generation vegetarian, Fetterman is raising the children as such as well. She keeps a second refrigerator stocked with meat for her husband.
“I don’t preach vegetarianism. I was just raised that way. I don’t push it,” Fetterman said.
Despite her slender physique, she often eclipses her husband’s imposing presence. John Fetterman has grown used to having his head cut off in photos of him and his wife.
Seldom does he make an appearance that he is not asked: Where is Gisele?
With a calendar ever filled with appearances at fundraisers an advocacy groups events, Fetterman may know what’s on tap for the coming week, but she never looks too far into the future.
That’s because life has a way of changing overnight for her. Overnight she left Brazil and came to the U.S. Overnight she became Second Lady.
“I always am prepared that things aren’t going to stay the same, may not stay the same for very long,” she said. “That has helped me not have attachments to material things. I‘ve raised the kids that way too.”
She wants her kids to be happy and kind, and to thrive; and she wants her husband to be in whatever official capacity is fulfilling to him.
Her friend Michaels says Fetterman is not looking for something that is “huge and unscalable,” but something that will inspire other people to take action.
“The Free Store is a beautiful, amazing concept but the truth is, it’s not an easy thing to do – but it’s not that hard,” Michaels said. “You can do it..people can do it. She continues to find things like that – that demonstrate that you can really affect someone. You don’t have to have a ton of money or a ton of time. You can do small things that matter.”
For herself, Fetterman hopes to be doing something that she loves and something that gives her freedom.
“For me that’s really important,” she said. “That I can navigate days that I can do things but that I don’t feel trapped. I don’t know what that looks like. As long as everyone is kinder and healthier, and thriving. I think that’s ok. I think if you let love lead..I trust wherever that takes me and wherever that takes our family.”
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