(Editor’s Note: The following op-Ed is part of The Capital-Star’s ongoing ‘LatinxVoices’ series, aimed at elevating and amplifying the voices of Pennsylvania’s Latinx community)
By Gisele Barreto Fetterman
America is an exceptional place. I would know, because I was born somewhere else.
When I was 7 years old, my family fled violent conditions in Brazil. I came here as a child without language, without food, without money, and yes, without documentation. All I knew about America was what I had seen and heard from television. All my mother knew was that if we had any chance at a good future, it was here.
But I came to know an America that was compassionate and welcoming, that was the best hope for a family that had little left to cling to.
Since coming here, I have spent every day overwhelmed with love and gratitude.
I went from ESL classes to high honors. I volunteered, worked hard, purchased a home and found a calling in the non-profit sector working on food justice issues. I moved to a struggling steel town and built a family. I established a Free Store, where anyone who is struggling can come and get what they need, while being treated with dignity and respect. I dedicated my life to equity work and the gratitude to the place that took me in and let me call it home, will never leave me.
My story as an immigrant may be personal, but it is not unique.
It’s shared by the millions of immigrants who came from Germany and Ireland, from the Netherlands and Poland. It’s shared by the immigrants that helped found this country. 7 of the 39 signers of the Constitution were immigrants. So was one-third of the original Supreme Court. A third of the writers of the Federalist Papers, and four out of the first six secretaries of the Treasury were immigrants.
It’s shared by more than 880,000 immigrants in Pennsylvania; immigrants who paid $8.7 billion in taxes in 2017; immigrants who employ more than 190,000 Pennsylvanians in companies they have built; immigrants who currently hold more than $22 billion in spending power — which they use to fuel the growth of our economy.
My fellow immigrants aren’t a roadblock to progress or prosperity; we only amplify it.
But even now, there are some out there who want to define who America belongs to. I want to join them.
America is not the birthright of a certain skin color or class. America belongs to anyone willing to build its future, no matter where they came from or how they got here.
It belongs to the small-business owner working long into the night, whether they are an immigrant or not. It belongs to the students working to better themselves, even if they have to keep a lookout for ICE agents on the way to school.
I remember those days well, when I too, was on that lookout. America has always been a home for the exiles and asylum-seekers, for anyone looking for a better life.
There is a well-known segment of people who feel nostalgic for the story of America’s past, who want to return to the days of our former glories. For all of that past, our story has been written together by people who were born here, and people who were not.
We have a chance to build a future that is kinder, more prosperous and more equitable than when we thought we were at our best.
Let’s build that future together.