Oct 21, 2022
Gisele Fetterman Takes Her History as Undocumented Migrant on Stump
(Bloomberg) -- She left a gang-plagued neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro at age 7, arriving in the US with her family and living in a one-room New York apartment, scavenging furniture while her mother cleaned houses. Today, she’s an activist and campaign surrogate for her husband, who’s running for the Senate as a Pennsylvania Democrat.
The candidate, John Fetterman, his state’s hulking lieutenant governor, says her story is what inspires his immigration policy.
Gisele Barreto Fetterman overstayed her visa and spent nearly 15 years undocumented, at times dumpster diving and foregoing medical care. Each day before school, her mother would tell her, “Be invisible,” a reminder that a misstep could jeopardize their new lives.
Rather than shying away from those struggles, she has transformed the ceremonial role of Second Lady of Pennsylvania, or “SLOP,” as she calls it, into a megaphone for the marginalized. And her experiences are at the center of Fetterman’s efforts to shift views on immigration in one of the most-watched races next month that will help determine which party controls the Senate.
“I have a lot of uncomfortable conversations,” she said in a telephone interview. She has been told, “You don’t look like an undocumented person. Well, what does one look like?”
Republican candidate Mehmet Oz, the son of Turkish immigrants and backed by Donald Trump, casts Fetterman as a radical with open-border policies that will fuel crime. Fetterman, 53, calls the current system “broken.” His wife asks for compassion.
“You have to take a moment and think what lives are like to leave everything behind,” she said. “You shouldn’t have to experience pain to know that someone else is going through it.”
155,000 Twitter Followers
With wavy black hair and social-media savvy -- 155,000 Twitter followers -- Fetterman, 40, has cultivated a national brand. Her feeds are a stream of photos of her family, dogs, the campaign trail and occasional snaps with celebrities such as Kim Kardashian and the late Anthony Bourdain.
Gisele Fetterman hails from Tijuca, a section of north Rio de Janeiro, overlooked by green mountains with a patchwork of slums in and around it. Her mother, Ester Resende, a nutritionist, uprooted Fetterman and her brother from middle-class Brazil to shield them from rampant crime.
The decision came upon learning that an aunt had been robbed seven times in a year. Carjackings had become so common that “eventually, she decided never to drive again,” Gisele Fetterman recalled. Resende instructed the children to pack their bags for “an adventure.”
They flew to New York City. Young Gisele took English classes and watched a lot of closed-captioned episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
More and more South Americans are making the journey north. In August, for the first time in at least two decades, migrants from nations other than Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador were the majority of those stopped along the US southwest border. Flows from Brazil and Venezuela particularly are surging.
Republicans, including Oz, have focused on uncontrolled immigration to flip Congress in their favor. Governors from border states have shipped migrants to Democratic strongholds, including New York, California and Massachusetts.
Gisele Fetterman, who recounts collecting discarded furniture and rummaging for food outside grocery stores during the family’s early years, has taken an outsized role in her husband’s campaign since he suffered a stroke in May. Standing nearly a foot shorter than the 6-foot-8 candidate, she delivered his victory speech, took on the media circuit and participated in rallies as he has convalesced.
She “has become the voice of the campaign in the period he couldn’t voice it himself,” said Christopher Borick, a political scientist at Pennsylvania’s Muhlenberg College.
It wasn’t until 2004, when she was 22, that Gisele Fetterman received her green card. She became a citizen five years later. She studied nutrition, and met her husband after writing him a letter inquiring about his efforts as mayor to revitalize Braddock, a fading steel town outside Pittsburgh. They married in 2008 and have three children.
She is known in Braddock as much for her community work as for being the wife of a tattooed, shaven-headed politician who developed a cult following as a rust-belt progressive. She founded the 412 Food Rescue and Free Store 15104, a reference to the borough’s zip code, and is an outspoken advocate for womans’ and immigrants’ rights.
In 2020, Gisele Fetterman made national headlines after posting a video in which she was verbally accosted with racial slurs while shopping without her state trooper security detail.
In her tweet, she wrote, “I love love love this country but we are so deeply divided.”
John Fetterman’s double-digit lead over Oz, 62, a celebrity physician, has collapsed and the two are polling within the margin of error. Fetterman’s health has become a focus of Republican attacks following an NBC News interview in which he relied on a closed-captioning device as a result of the stroke.
Before the interview aired, the correspondent said Fetterman didn’t seem to fully understand what was being said. Giselle Fetterman blasted the network and demanded an apology for its being “openly ableist.”
The two candidates are set to square off in a televised debate on Oct. 25 before the Nov. 8 election. On Thursday, President Joe Biden joined the Fettermans at a campaign event in the state.
If her husband is victorious, Gisele Fetterman says she plans to keep telling her story.
“Folks will say, ‘I think you’re great and you do such good things, my issue is with the other immigrants,’” she said. “I try to explain, I am those other immigrants, too.”
--With assistance from Gregory Korte.
(Updates in 22d paragraph with visit by President Biden. An earlier version corrected the fact that she arrived legally in the country but overstayed her visa for nearly 15 years.)
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