A former undocumented immigrant who became a citizen and used her platform to help all manner of Pennsylvanians, she is far more than a figurehead or a lieutenant governor’s spouse.
That anyone would be called the n-word during a quick trip to the grocery store for golden kiwis is unsettling — all the more so once you learn what Fetterman overcame simply to give back to others.
The mother of three was at a grocery store in Braddock, a PIttsburgh suburb, Sunday evening when a woman recognized her and began haranguing her, saying she didn’t belong, calling her a thief and referring to her as the n-word that Lt. Gov. John Fetterman married, she told CNN.
Gisele Fetterman’s family fled the violence of Rio de Janeiro in 1990 and grew up poor in New York City. Her mother told her and her brother to, “Be invisible,” and she has regularly shared childhood anecdotes of looking over her shoulder and fearing every knock at the door.
“So even though I’m 38 and I’m second lady and I have a family and career, I was immediately again a scared 9-year-old undocumented little girl at that grocery line,” she said of Sunday’s encounter.
“It was a hard reminder for me that it doesn’t matter what I’ve overcome, what I’ve achieved, that to some I will always be viewed as inferior simply because I was not born in this country,” she said.
Fetterman’s record runs deep. She has spent most of her adult life in the United States helping others, whether they’re impoverished, immigrants, LGBT, minorities, imprisoned or hungry. She’s also spoken out on the importance of wearing masks and participating in the Census.
She told a writer this month she would never seek public office because “politics is mean and I am not.”
Here are some snapshots of what she’s achieved and overcome:
Her marriage was born of caring
In 2007, she read about the Rust Belt town of Braddock and learned that steel from Braddock and other communities was used in the Brooklyn Bridge, one of her favorite landmarks.
Fetterman had had her green card for a few years, and though only in her mid-20s, she was already an activist, focusing on nutrition and food equity. She wrote then-Mayor John Fetterman to find out more about the town, whose declining population numbered around 2,000 at the time, and his efforts to improve his community. After he wrote back, she began visiting Braddock.
They were married in 2009, the same year she earned US citizenship. Since then she’s used her platforms as a naturalized American and second lady to help others.
She opened a free store for low-income families
Gisele Fetterman had local artists paint the container, spruced up an abandoned lot and began doling out household goods, baby items and bicycles to those in need.
The store’s motto is “Because the best things in life are free.” It has spread to several locations and served hundreds of clients.
She helped develop a clever way to fight hunger
412 Food Rescue, which she co-founded, sends volunteers to retailers who have surplus food that risks going bad and delivers it to nonprofits that serve the hungry.
The Fettermans opened the ‘The People’s Pool’
She came to Antwon Rose’s defense
“He looked you in the eyes and gave anyone speaking to him total attention and respect,” she said in her tribute. “He would look at you with his big sweet smile, and you would feel, deep in your heart, that this was someone who would make the world better.”
“Antwon’s death shakes my heart, it rattles my faith that things will ever get better or that injustices will ever end. Slowly, too slowly, things will get brighter, even though they’re now so dark,” she said.
She does little things, too
She also sought to brighten Braddock’s primary thoroughfare with uplifting signs, such as “Eat More Vegetables,” “Believe in Yourself,” “More Hugs Needed,” “Follow Your Dreams,” “Be Kind Always” and “Hug a Tree.”
The Fettermans spent $1,000 of their own money on the signs, the paper reported.
Inclusion is a major thrust of her work
She’s an unapologetic advocate for immigrants
“No child should have to live with that kind of stress,” they wrote. “They deserve to feel secure in the knowledge that they can do normal things like go to school and play sports without living in constant fear that they will lose their family.”
“She was routinely paid less than she was supposed to be, if she got paid at all, and she was even assaulted while at work,” Fetterman wrote. “She never complained — she just did what she had to do for her children.
The Brazilian immigrant also recalled how, at 8 years old, she broke her nose playing kickball and her family couldn’t afford medical care, but stories from her native Rio convinced her just how lucky she was to escape the violence.
“When I look in the mirror and I see my broken nose,” she wrote, “I am reminded of how much worse it could have been, and how grateful I am to have had the opportunity to grow up in the U.S.”
Today, she tears up when she hears the National Anthem and gets “super excited to vote,” and she geeked out upon being called for jury duty, she said.
“I wasn’t chosen for a jury, probably because I was so visibly excited to be there that the lawyers thought I was crazy, but for me, that was the sign that I truly belonged, and that I could come out of the shadows,” she wrote.
CNN’s John Berman contributed to this report.