Gisele Barreto Fetterman may be the Second Lady of Pennsylvania (the first Latina ever to hold this position in the state’s history at that), but there’s more to her than her title.
Though there are moments where she uses the influences and resources that are graspable for her now, she hasn’t forgotten her roots and what truly matters: intersectional activism, immigration, and equality.
The adventure began in the South
Gisele Fetterman’s story started in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Thanks to her mother, who had found success in the vibrant Latin American country, she and her brother could live comfortably.
However, danger was constantly looming.
Her mother decided to remove them from the uncertainties that riddled Rio de Janeiro. She made both her and her brother pack up and took them to New York, without any of them speaking English or knowing anyone in the United States; she just went for it.
“She told my brother and me to pack our favorite things because we were going on an adventure,” Fetterman told BELatina News in a recent interview.
“I was almost eight, and I remember struggling to pack my whole room and life into a suitcase. But ultimately, I packed a journal, my favorite doll, and my favorite stuffed animal.”
They left with fragments of their lives, eager to start a new chapter.
This new chapter placed them in the city of Queens, whose diversity and heavy prominence of immigrants allowed Fetterman and her family to have an easier transition.
“That was a bit of a soft landing spot because, in the middle of this new country, there was still some familiarity and some ties to my roots.”
But this began an almost 15-year journey of them living in the shadows because of their immigration status.
“My mom became a domestic worker, cleaning houses and hotels. And we were undocumented.”
Since then, the former Dreamer has changed her status and has focused on work that matters for marginalized communities and on things that would’ve helped her mother when they were struggling years ago.
Resilience turns into altruism
Gisele Fetterman studied nutrition and became a nutritionist. She’s worked on food justice, food security and access, diaper access, formula access, and anything that would help those often overlooked with services that would allow them to thrive. She also has three nonprofits in Pittsburgh.
Helping people through mutual aid is something she’s proud of. Let’s take her store, Free Store, in her beloved town of Braddock, Pennsylvania.
This is a place that challenges mass consumerism. In a world where people are fixated on material items for short-lived satisfaction, Fetterman and several volunteers have facilitated a space where anyone can come in and get items they may need for their family at no cost.
“At no cost — no questions asked. A lot of organizations have people prove their taxes and fill out all these forms, which are steps that can be very dehumanizing to someone who’s already struggling.”
“So, we believe in people. People come in, families come.”
At the Free Store, people can find formula, diapers, clothing, shows, and all other existing items that would have otherwise ended up in a landfill. But everything is in perfect condition and safe for anyone.
“The whole purpose of this is that we fill gaps. We’re not giving everything for free, but we’re filling really important gaps. We know that parents don’t have to dilute their baby’s formula because we have baby formula available.”
“We know that kids don’t have to go to school hungry in the morning because we can provide food.”
When fashion is a form of activism
Talking about mass consumerism, Gisele Fetterman also believes that slow fashion is the best route instead of the popular alternative.
She’s been known to wear pre-loved clothing, even for high-profile events. Her humility, without a doubt, is enveloped through her every step of the way, every single day.
“I think it’s so much more fun that way. Fast fashion is not only bad for the environment, but it really exploits women. The women in these factories are given terrible wages to make these clothes that are just getting pushed out the door.”
She also considers herself an artist and says that pre-loved clothing allows her to express herself.
I try to normalize that because there is no shame in that. There shouldn’t be. I’ve always worn hand-me-downs, and I sometimes got clothes from the houses my mom used to clean who had kids, and that was such a gift to me.”
Her eye for fashion goes beyond thrifting. She can create outfits that look and feel as upscale as someone wearing thousands of dollars but with even more glamour. Every piece of clothing she wears can be seen as an epithet of the immigrant experience; there’s beauty and strength in anything or anyone that may not have received the right appreciation the first time around.
Change begins with one’s own experiences
Gisele Fetterman’s never-ending activism is fueled by the systemic injustices that, as we all know, fail to protect so many people, and she has endured first-hand previously.
“So, I held these experiences somewhere in my mind so that (well, l hoped) I would one day be in a position to do something about it — to address those things that I witnessed.”
“My mom was sexually assaulted at work, and she couldn’t do anything about it. There were no protections for her. ‘How could I have been a voice at that time?’ So, as I’ve entered new spaces, I think of those things.”
Even after entering the political realm due to her husband, her fight to show up for what’s right remains.
“I’m very conscious that for many folks [in Pennsylvania], I’m the first undocumented [or previously undocumented] person they’ve ever met, and maybe I can challenge their biases and their ideas of what that is.”
“All it’s been is that I’ve been able to continue my work with a slightly bigger platform.”
Pennsylvania’s Second Lady strives to work towards changing the laws while putting compassion and people first. She believes that immigrants are often seen as bargaining chips where politicians tend only to study their numbers and statistics, which is dehumanizing, to say the least.
“And many don’t want to see them [immigrants] as real people because then you have to address how immoral we’ve treated them in this country.”
Fetterman understands that there is great responsibility associated with the platform she now has and hasn’t lost sight of her lifelong intentions.
“I’m very conscious of how and what I do because I know I was watching before I got into this position, and I know there are now people watching. So, I really want to be able to reach out properly.
“Besides, I also want to be able to reach the younger me.”
Her everyday life is composed of fighting further for representation, inclusion, equality, and being a voice for communities that have historically not been afforded one. And she’s been consistent with it.
“Representation is so important, and we need to see ourselves in all the spaces to know that we belong in all of them.”