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Pennsylvania Second Lady Gisele Barreto Fetterman is not a stranger to obnoxious behavior. As wife to the state’s lieutenant governor, Fetterman is used to politics and being in the public eye. But the verbal attack she was subjected to over the weekend sparked a more visceral reaction than what she’d experienced in the past.
“This is the first time it was in public and to my face,” Fetterman told Billy Penn. “I was just really frozen, I probably started crying.”
The incident began in the checkout line at an Aldi in the Pittsburgh suburbs, when a shopper spotted her and began berating her with racial slurs. “Ugh, here’s that n****r that Fetterman married,” she recalled the older woman saying, before going on to accuse her of being a “thief” and saying she “did not belong here.”
Fetterman, a native of Brazil, came to the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant while her family was fleeing violent circumstances in her home country. She has been an American citizen for over a decade.
“I get a lot of hate mail online and in the comment section, a lot of ‘Go back to your country’ and those kinds of things,” Fetterman said. “I’ve gotten used to that over the years, and I know no one should get used to that.”
Representatives from Aldi also expressed dismay over the incident — and said the person who made the attack would be banned from its stores.
“We were saddened to hear about the incident that occurred with Pennsylvania’s Second Lady,” a spokesperson said via email, adding that the company was reaching out to Fetterman to reiterate its stance. “We are appalled by the behavior of the offending customer and she is no longer welcome to shop at Aldi.
Fetterman, who married Lt. Gov. John Fetterman in 2008, usually has a State Trooper detail by her side, but said in this case, she dashed off to the market to quickly buy a handful of kiwis. The woman who berated her inside then followed her to the parking lot, where Fetterman was able to pull out her phone and record a video, which she posted on Twitter.
“As I’m backing up, she comes out of the store without any groceries, just with her purse. She heads to my car yelling these things and I was still shaking and crying… I managed to switch to film at the last second,” Fetterman said.
The 2-second clip of the woman pulling down her mask to call Fetterman the n-word has been viewed almost half a million times.
Governor Tom Wolf condemned the act, posting that the “ethnic intimidation and hate speech spewed at the Second Lady of Pennsylvania is shameful and unacceptable. No one should ever be made to feel unwelcome in our commonwealth because of their race or ethnicity.” Other prominent voices chimed in with support, including CNN anchor and Philadelphian Jake Tapper, U.S. Representative Brendan Boyle and Senator Bob Casey.
Hate crimes in the U.S. that target members of Hispanic and Latino communities have been on the rise, jumping more than 20% in 2018, according to the most recent FBI statistics.
Fetterman cited the polarizing nature of modern politics in helping spur the Aldi’s incident.
“I think our country is more divided than ever right now. I don’t know who [the attacker] supports…or where her hatred came from, but I hope I’m the last one on the receiving end,” she said.
“I think if you’re different or considered an ‘other’ there is always a segment that will view you as inferior,” said Fetterman, adding “As Second Lady, I’m not immune to that. It’s something we need to work on, no one is above or beneath anyone. That messaging is still not being taught everywhere.”
Fetterman is active in organizations that work to combat hunger and food waste. She is the founder of Freestore 15104, where goods are received and redistributed to neighbors in need, co-founder of 412 Food Rescue. Her husband, Lt. Gov. Fetterman, is a progressive Democrat who is reportedly considering a bid for Pat Toomey’s seat in the Senate in 2022.