Episode 1: Gisele Barreto Fetterman, The Second Lady of Pennsylvania
Transcript: William Menard, Gisele Barreto Fetterman
Welcome to Norris Speaks – Immigration Forward, a limited podcasting series diving into the latest immigration topics and issues. I’m your host, William Menard, a partner in the Immigration Group at Norris McLaughlin. My guest today is Gisele Barreto Fetterman. Mrs. Barreto Fetterman is the founder of Free Store 15104, which offers free items to people in need in the Braddock, Pennsylvania, community and 412 Food Rescue, which distributes food that serves the poor. Mrs. Barreto Fetterman is also second lady of Pennsylvania preferring their acronym SLOP, married to John Fetterman, the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania and current candidate for U.S. Senate. Mrs. Barreto Fetterman, thank you very much for joining me.
Thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.
I want to start by talking to you about your journey to the U.S. You were born in Brazil, came to the U.S. at the age of seven because of violence and crime in Rio de Janeiro, in your hometown. What do you remember about Brazil and what kinds of danger did you face there?
I remember a lot of the good stuff. You know, my family and the weather, the beach, and because I’m away, I can romanticize maybe a different story. But the reality on the ground was different. Rio, being a big city, is also plagued with a lot of violence. And every member of my family has been robbed you know multiple times. It’s not uncommon for you to leave for work and not make it home because of a missed bullet or a carjacking. You know, Brazil is still one of the few countries that when you get to the airport, you have the option of renting a bulletproof car. Cause that’s the reality bullets – fly from dueling favelas. And you know, my mom left for work, you know, you’re in a knot until your family gets home, and that was just kind of what we were used to. My mom said that when she made the decision to leave officially was when she was having dinner with my aunt, who shared she had only been robbed seven times that year. A The volume that was jarring to her. It was almost the acceptance and the surrender, because that was life. We were used to that. And she said that she never wanted my brother or I to look at violence as expected, to kind of just accept it. So, she made the decision to leave at that moment.
What did she tell you when you were leaving?
She said we were going in a big adventure.
I mean, I’ll say.
She was accurate. And what I remember most about that is that, you know, she came home with a suitcase for me and for my brother and said that we had to pack our favorite things. And, you know, as an adult, I don’t have any attachment to physical things. All my things are thrifted. Like I don’t have an attachment to anything material, but at that age, I remember what a struggle it was to have to pack my entire bedroom into a suitcase. I remember thinking I can’t do that. All of these things are so important. These are my clothes. These are my toys. These are my books. But going through that exercise at that age, I think set me in a really good tone for the rest of my life because families sometimes have to walk away from their entire lives, and you don’t get to choose. So ultimately, I remember packing my favorite teddy bear, my favorite doll, my journal, and some pieces of clothing, and that was it. So I talked to my kids a lot about that. You know, if they’re, like, not sharing or being extra bratty, I say, you know, what do you think it’s like for families or children at your age that have to just walk away and leave everything behind? I try to give them that perspective.
I actually want to get back to that a little bit later about kind of the relationship that you have with your children and how this impacted that. But you were told by your mom you’re going on a big adventure, you ended up in New York. When you get here, you know, it’s one of the biggest cities in the world. I grew up in New York. I grew up in the East Village, and it can often make you feel tiny in the middle of so much. It’s an enormous city that goes seemingly endlessly upward, and it’s a constant struggle to find any sort of voice, because there’s so many voices there, but you wrote last March that while you were undocumented, you were forced to remain in the shadows and your mom actually told you to be invisible. So, you know, while many people are struggling to find their voice, your mom was actually telling you the opposite. What kind of effect did that have on you and your brother?
I knew she was protecting us, I get that. At that time, it was just what I did. I knew that our lives would drastically change if someone found out, if it got out, if I misbehaved and got in trouble with the school. So not only is it an undocumented immigrant perspective, it’s an immigrant thing, right? Like you have to work. And to make sure that your parents’ journey here wasn’t wasted. And like in the movie Encanto, if you’ve seen Encanto, it’s all about generational guilt, right? And all these kinds of things that immigrants carry. So, I think it’s not only the undocumented part. I think it’s, it’s just an immigration part, like to my family in Brazil, there’s all these jokes that I’m basically the failure of the family, Right? Cause in Brazil, all my cousins are doctors or attorneys. I’m neither. Right? I’m a nutritionist, but, and I’m second lady, but I’m not a doctor or an attorney. I think immigrant parents have these expectations. Right. So I’ll hear my mom in conversations where she’s like, Gisele’s just fine. Like she’s defending me to my family who basically think I’m like homeless because I’m not a doctor, or an attorney. I think a lot of that is just these expectations that come from an immigrant family. I think most immigrants will probably agree with what I’m saying with this experience.
Yes, I think that’s a common refrain from people who come to the country, that one generation after the next, the children start to expect different things or want different things. It just starts to be different in this country, and getting to that kind of point of like invisibility and maybe the difference between how you and your mom have approached things or been forced to approach things. You know, you described how your mother was paid less than the average worker when she was working. And you wrote that she was even physically assaulted when she was working, but she couldn’t turn to the police because of her immigration status. She was too afraid of that. This is the kind of abuse that goes on throughout the United States, throughout the world. It’s been going on for decades, centuries, right?
It’s just been so normalized right? Like I shared it with a friend whose parents were in a same situation that would say, oh, that’s just what happens, right? And back then, I know that were no protections for her. I know things have improved since, but she was cleaning a house and she was in the bathtub spraying it and was cornered and actually had to spray the cleaner on his face to break free. But telling the story today, it’s horrifying, but the story back then, it was just like, this is just what happens, unfortunately. But, I’m glad that the conversation has changed around it, but it was just like, well, you can’t do anything about it, or they’ll claim that you’re undocumented, or that she would work and not be paid because they knew, because she couldn’t provide documentation and that could be used against her. And just to live in that level of vulnerability at all times, right? – is hard. And I say that even today, if there’s a knock at the door, and I’m not expecting a guest. I have that moment of being the kid and someone knocking at my door and it kind of stops me and I think, oh no, everything is okay. But I think it’s something that I will probably carry forever, or for a long time.
When was the first time your mom told you that story?
I was probably already a teen by then, and I don’t remember how much earlier it had happened, but you know, there was a meme the other day and it was like our grandparents telling us jokes when we realized they’re all like abuse. Right. But just how it, you know, not that times have changed. I think that we’ve realized that we can’t take these things. We can’t accept this behavior, but yeah, I was probably a teenager then, and I don’t remember how much earlier it had happened or how recently it had happened at that time.
And how did you react to that? And what was the difference in the reaction that you had versus how your mom reacted to it?
Oh, well, my mom, she’s a survivor. Like my mom will do what it takes. You know, my mom was never scared during that time when she was undocumented, she wasn’t scared. She just knew this is what she had to do, and things were going to work out somehow. But I was scared, and I’ve learned a lot, you know, that you can always start over at any time. It’s never too late to start over. You can always begin again because she did with two kids as a single mom that, never take yourself so seriously, nothing is that serious, right? Like it’s easy to feel small in New York, but in reality, like, we’re all just trying to get home. We’re all just trying to make it through the day. Our story isn’t more important than anyone else’s, right? We’re all kind of trying to figure our way out of it. But I remember thinking, like, we can’t do anything about it. Like, this is awful. Like, did he get in trouble? Like what can we do? But there was nothing we could do. Even today. So many women are scared to speak out just because they’re women and because of fear, but imagine you’re undocumented. Imagine the layers that get added to speaking out against something.
I did want to follow up on that. You know, obviously your mom tells you this story, but you’ve had your own stories that you’ve talked about. And I think you broke your nose when you were a kid and then you couldn’t get medical attention because of your status. So, what is it important to know about how that impacts your experience?
So, I try to tell those experiences and share those stories in a way that connects with folks, folks who may be staunchly anti-immigrant, folks who may think completely differently. I try to think like, your kid’s best friend at school growing up, like don’t you want your child’s best friend to have everything your child does? Then you want that kid to have dental care and access to a doctor. I mean, I think we have this idea where we look at, these are our children, but those are somebody else’s. Right, whereas like I would love for the perspective that these are all our kids, and we should want to take care of all of them. So, I tell those stories, like you know, it got harder to breathe over time because I broke my nose when I was eight and we didn’t play sports. I did color guard because risk of injury was low, but I really wanted to play soccer. But in gym class, the ball got kicked in my nose and I broke my nose. And a medical bill for that would have been something we would never have been able to afford, but it got harder to breathe. I was just used to breathing through one nostril. I just got used to it. And it was years later when I finally had to do something about it. I had insurance. And by that time, I had a collapsed nasal wall. I had a broken septum from when I was eight and a collapsed nasal wall. But, I mean, these are things that we don’t think about. And I talked to people about it as well, that if undocumented kids were covered under CHIP, like Pennsylvania has CHIP. If we were covered under CHIP, they would actually save. The studies show it’s about $1,400 cheaper per kid, if they’re insured through CHIP. So I worked to try to pass the Dream, I think it was called Dream Care Act, at that time that would have covered all undocumented Pennsylvania kids under CHIP. All it required was a small language change in the bill, never passed. But, you know, these are your kids’ classmates. Like, why wouldn’t you want the best for them too? And I guess for me, that’s so second nature that I want the best for all the kids that are friends with my kids. But sometimes with people, you have to get them on your side, you have to share the perspectives. I think there’s also a big misunderstanding, and fake news that gets shared over and over again, that undocumented people are draining the resources, and we’re on the WIC, and we’re on all of these things. When the truth is, the fact is, that we’re not eligible for any of those things. So, I tell them, actually, my mother contributed to all the social services that we were never able to reap the benefits of. So, we actually paid into something that we never were able to use. And that’s something they don’t believe or know. Because they’re told a very different story. So, I think if we were telling the true story of what it, how it really works, a lot more people would be supportive.
You watched your mom take immense chances to create a better life for you. Right? And for your brother. She worked very hard to do that, and she kind of, with this purposeful anonymity, to support the whole family. And now you’re a mom, you are a very public figure, right? Kind of the opposite of the life that your mom purposefully led. So how is your relationship with your children different from the one that you have with your mom and, and what’s your relationship between your children and your mom?
I’m really lucky my mom lives here now. So, she’s only about a mile away from me, so my kids are very close. I’m still very close with her. We talk multiple times a day. My children are very close with her. I don’t know. I think our relationships are still very similar. You know, we always had a very loving relationship. Very much looked up to her always. my kids understand their childhood is very different than mine was. I make sure they know that their childhood is very different than many children’s childhoods. And I want them to be global citizens. I want them to celebrate languages and celebrate different cultures. And I think when you raise a child and that’s deliberately a goal, they will grow up to be adults who aren’t afraid of differences, who aren’t prejudiced against different people but really care about different people. Like, my mom has an accent. It’s a beautiful, thick accent that I wish I had, but I don’t, but she does. And she’s still insecure about it at times. If someone asks her to repeat something, if she doesn’t understand something at first, I see it in her. And we were out with my son, my oldest who’s 13, when he was younger. And someone said to her, you have such a beautiful accent. And immediately her posture changed. It was like someone had seen her. Right? And in that moment, it was just different. And my son noticed, and he’s made it a point to connect with people. He’ll say, where are you from? Tell me about your country. What’s the food there? And just – I’ll get all emotional – and just showing that level of like interest and connection. Right? And I think how much easier would the world be and relationships for people to be, if we’re looking at what’s different with us, as with excitement, and with awe, and with a desire to learn about them. So I really work hard to instill that in them. And I think that makes life easier for everyone, for the new Americans or the ones who are here. If you’re living in awe, you’re not living in judgment. And I think that’s the key difference. And making things better.
Clearly in all the work that you’re doing and the way you’re raising your kids and the way that you want to reach millions of other kids in this country is to create awareness and inclusiveness. Right? Obviously, kind of as much as you possibly can, kind of. I think in that vein, you’ve advocated for passage of the Dream Act, which you kind of alluded to earlier in the podcast. And that would provide lawful status to people like you who came to the country as children. There are also many people like you who fled violence and sought safety in the United States. And you’ve mentioned, obviously one of the things that has come out of this conversation, is the importance of access to services that you’ve talked about. Like it’s important for people, regardless of status we, have access to medical care and education and fair work standards, but is there any other support that people need? Most of the media coverage is often on the border or, you know, various kinds of hot button issues, but less so on support services that people in this country need when they get here. So, can you talk about, from your own experience, what kind of support you could have had. That would have helped a lot.
We talked about education, but language. I mean, language instruction, being able to communicate makes you a better neighbor, a better provider, a better American. So, my mom took night classes. I was an ESL student. She took night classes, which changed our life, but also a lot of literacy programs. You know, Literacy Pittsburgh is one of our partners here who does amazing work with mostly volunteers to have language lessons. I mean, imagine, like my husband doesn’t speak any Portuguese, and when my family’s in town, you have a room full of Brazilians speaking Portuguese, and he is just standing there lost. I tell him, imagine what it feels like if that’s what you heard everywhere you went, you moved here, you’re trying to start new and everywhere you go, you don’t know what they’re saying. He’s like, that feels so frustrating. I was like, yes. That’s how a lot of people feel until they get to a good footing in a good place. So, like my children are bilingual. They take Portuguese lessons. I did my best. It’s really hard when your husband is American, and you live in America. So, they do weekly classes to make sure their Portuguese is strong, but they get frustrated when they don’t understand the lesson. And I think that has taught them a lot of empathy. If a new student comes in, who doesn’t speak the language, taught them patience, but those programs, like those programs are life changing. It’s the gift of being able to communicate, the gift of being able to have a voice. There’s also some, like, welcoming centers that I think are incredible. I didn’t have a welcoming center when I arrived. It was really other immigrants I met who kind of showed us around and gave us tips. Like Philadelphia has a larger welcoming center. Other big cities do too, where when you arrive it’s like a soft blanket to receive you and to kind of teach you where to go and what to do and what you need. And I think those programs make everybody better. You know, immigrants are economic stimulants. They’re, they’re good for the economy. It’s the moral thing to do to support them. Folks who are escaping violence, like that’s what we’re supposed to do here. We’re supposed to welcome them and support them and ensure their success because that’s the success of us all.
Obviously, I think there’s going to be a reluctance from trust, I think anything that the government is supporting or, you know, once you first get to it, there’s always an initial reluctance to support or get involved with anything that has to do with a foreign government, because I think there’s an immediate concern about being arrested or whatever the case is. So, what can we do to build trust between both from, you know, in some sense from the government side of, we’re trying to kind of build a stronger community, and from the immigrant side to say, I trust that this is going to be good for me. There is you know reciprocity here that we’re going to build something.
I mean these were all like individual nonprofits or schools. And I would have much more trusted an individual non-profit or school over the government then, and likely today. Until we have actual leaders who truly believe in immigration, you know, leader after leader says that, but we have yet to see the laws change; the deportations haven’t decreased. So it would be a nonprofit or a separate entity. I wouldn’t tell a new person go talk to the government. Like I would be just as scared for them as they would be for themselves. But we are not a welcoming country. We’re not, I mean, the laws aren’t designed that way. I hope to get there to a place where there is a path, right? People would often say to me, well, why didn’t your mom do it the right way? Why didn’t your mom get in line? Where was that line? This line, it’s like this magical line. It doesn’t exist. But until our language is empathy, where we’re looking to understand why they’re here, how can we support them, My dogs. Then I would be afraid to go to the government. It wouldn’t be a separate entity, like a nonprofit.
That kind of leads me into what you’re doing, which is your nonprofit work. Right? So, you have the work with Free Store 1504, and then 412 food rescue. How do you think that those organizations Impact the immigrant community? Are a lot of the people who come there immigrants? And do you think it’s the kind of organization that you were talking about before that provides some support?
So many of our customers are immigrants, not all and not the higher percentage, but a good base of it are. Well, one, they know it’s a safe place, right? The food doesn’t require your taxes or your ID. You come in and everyone is equal and we’re here to serve you. And I think, you know, all that paperwork, those are barriers for a lot of families. And I think not only barriers, but it’s also dehumanizing in many ways. You know, a lot of food banks, you have to provide your taxes. It’s like, not only are you hungry, you have to prove that you’re hungry, and those steps, you’re taking part of the person way from them. Right? So I really believe in a system where we believe in people and we’re there to serve them. We’re not there to judge. We’re not there to have you prove that you need these things, we’re there just to support them. So, the Free Store does that work, you know, and if they come in and don’t speak the language, they know that I can speak the language. So that has met, I think, a lot of needs in regard to food or clothing or diapers or formula or Christmas toys, or Easter events, right? We seek to support families as a whole. I understand that, like, my non-profits all exist because of failure in policies, right? Like we shouldn’t be throwing out good food. If we had policy that didn’t allow you to throw out good food, 412 food rescue wouldn’t have to exist, but it does because that policy doesn’t exist in Pennsylvania. Or for Good PGH, which is my other nonprofit, which mostly focuses on women, women entrepreneurs. Making sure that women are supported because we believe, you know, women will save the world, and if you support women, you support families. So, I think I can do that work because I have a different perspective. Right? I think I have an immigrant perspective on things, what we’ve had to do to survive, what creative approaches we have to find to make sure I got to school, and, you know, I got any other opportunities that we did have. So I think I see the world through an immigrant’s eyes. And maybe I see it slightly different because of that.
I think there are probably a lot of people, including a lot of immigrants, who see you as someone to look up to in a kind of inspirational way, that you’ve had the life that you’ve had and you are where you are now. And as we talked about, you started off at a very different place, being taught very different things by your mom when you got here. Has it been hard to kind of embrace the role that you have now? I don’t know that that’s exactly what you intended, but that’s what you have, is you have a platform to talk about this. So, is that a hard thing to kind of go from, we need to get through this, to now something different?
After not having one for so long, I take it as a very serious responsibility. I think that any platform, you have to do it right. I have had this secret, you know, for so long, I want to shout out immigration attorneys, because that was the only room that I could be honest in. Like my immigration attorney, I could tell him everything and he knew what I was going through, and it was the one place to kind of like vent and let it all out. So you guys are the confessions, right? Like you get to have people at their most vulnerable and you get to be there and support them. That’s a big responsibility. And I feel that responsibility in my role and having a voice and being able to tell my story, and I want to show what the reality is, right? Like what immigrants really are. And I always say that if I were a president of a country or the governor of a state, I would want the state or that country to be filled with people who wanted to be here, who worked really hard to be here, who faced incredible challenges to be here, not who were just born here, but by those who really did all the work to be there. And I would celebrate them. And I just think this perspective is so out of the norm, but I don’t know why it is. To me. It just seems so common sense. So it’s constantly trying to show that perspective to folks who don’t see it.
And do you think that’s been a source of tension between you and your husband? You know, he was born here and you weren’t. Do you think you view things differently because of that?
I mean, he’s an incredible advocate for immigrants. Always has been so proud of my story, always been public with it. I think he’s on the right side of history. Right? But I think there’s a lot of folks that were working really hard to get to that side. When that young Syrian boy drowned and that photo was everywhere, he was fighting for them. He had a debate, and other folks were saying, no, we only want PHD’s coming to this country. And I remember him losing it, saying if that little boy isn’t who you want here, then you’re doing it wrong, you know, like, so I think he’s always had a really good perspective, has been a great ally. But having to convince someone else is hard and it’s draining, it can be, but I have to be willing to try it, you know, as much as I can. And I think I can often reach parents, parents who, even if I start the conversations, are completely against it. And I’ll say something like, well, what would you do if your child was in danger? Like, what would you do? I would do anything. I would move. I would do anything. I was like, well, where would you move? Well, anywhere that they’re safe, but not another country, like just a state. And they’re like, oh, I see what you did there. So, it’s challenging these perspectives of what they think versus, like, a reality. And I think with parents, I often can get them to a place where they understand, and with everyone else, I keep trying.
It’s often people’s view of their need to support their kids that challenges other worldviews. You have a set political view, and then you have the reality of what you need to do in a particular moment. Not easy to reconcile.
Anytime I speak, if I’m giving a keynote or if I’m somewhere else, and I, I welcome everyone to the space, I say, and if you weren’t born here and you came here, thank you for choosing Pennsylvania! Like, we’re better because you’re here. Like that’s always my opening. It catches people off guard, but like, they make us better. Anyone who comes from somewhere else who challenges, who teaches us something new, that makes us all better. And I just am ready to live in the world where we all feel like that.
Absolutely. One thing I wanted to end on. I think the two components of immigration in a way, one is when I think many immigrants come here, is they want to embrace what America can be. You know, you were talking about learning the language and going to school. And Part of doing that in some way is bringing the culture that you came from to here. And every time somebody does that, America adapts and adjust and becomes something different and changes because of that. And it’s something new and maybe a less serious topic than what we’ve been talking about. My wife is from Japan. She became a citizen, you know, a few years ago. And she often has this affection for Japan. So, I guess, how do you now feel about Brazil? You know, I think you mentioned that you kind of romanticize it a little bit because you haven’t been there for so long. That’s only natural, but how do you remember it and feel about it?
I mean, I root hard for Brazil. You know, the Cup I watch, I have the Brazilian channel. I watch all the novellas I’m a novelita, and I want — my country has everything to be great. Right. We have the natural resources, we have great weather, and we have amazing people. And my dream is that it gets away from corruption and has good leadership and it can be the best of what it can be, because it’s all there. I don’t want my folks to live in fear and I don’t want folks to clutch their purses. I want them to have a great quality of life. It’s challenging following the politics there. I want it to be better than when I left, but it’s not there yet, you know, and I can hope for that. And I can dream for that, and I root hard for it. And I get back enough to visit my family. I haven’t during the pandemic, because we were hit very, very badly by the pandemic, but I want everyone to thrive. You know, I want every country to be great. And live it’s best and be safe and every citizen, no matter where you live, deserves a good quality of life, they deserve safety. They deserve to be nourished. They deserve homes. And I just, I root for everyone. I just want everyone to be okay. And to be their best.
But not in the World Cup. Then you root for Brazil.
The World Cup only Brazil.
Okay, all right. So this has been Norris Speaks – Immigration Forward, a limited podcast series diving into the latest immigration topics and issues. Once again, Gisele Barreto Fetterman is the founder of both Free Store 15104 and 412 Food Rescue, two nonprofits doing great work to serve communities in Western Pennsylvania. And it’s the second lady of Pennsylvania seeking to improve the lives of everyone in that state. Thank you again very much for coming on the show.
Thank you for having me, this was fun.
Be sure to tune in next time for a brand-new episode. And if you would like to learn more about our immigration practice, please email me at email@example.com or visit us at nationalimmigrationlawyers.com.