Chamber golf event photo

News of a controversial photo featuring four golfers dressed as U.S. Border Patrol agents at a recent Meadville-Western Crawford County Chamber of Commerce golf outing has reached the state’s most prominent “formerly undocumented immigrant.”

Gisele Barreto Fetterman, wife of Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, used that phrase to highlight both her experience of living in the country illegally and her current status as Pennsylvania’s “second lady” in a tweet originally posted after her husband’s election and now pinned to the top of her Twitter feed.

On Friday, Fetterman turned to Facebook to join an online brouhaha that has drawn hundreds of comments from Crawford County residents in recent days. At the center of the debate is a photograph of Meadville Medical Center employees wearing Border Patrol hats and T-shirts and smiling as they hold their clubs beside a golf cart at the chamber-sponsored Women’s Golf Scramble on June 26.

The photo was among several posted to the Chamber of Commerce Facebook page after the event. All photos from the event have since been removed, though the photo of the Border Patrol foursome and the man who may have served as their caddy persists in the form of screenshots taken by residents outraged at what they saw as inappropriate behavior.

In posting such a screenshot, Fetterman emphasized the importance of immigrants to the American economy and the challenges still faced by minorities, even when it comes to health care before turning to the image of the women in the matching outfits they wore for the contest that was part of the “Fiesta”-themed chamber event.

“And here is the costume contest held by Meadville-Western Crawford County Chamber of Commerce and won by Meadville Medical Center. This is incredibly insensitive and painful and it’s important to talk about why all these factors + the morality of it matter (all while migrant families are being held under inhumane conditions),” she wrote, adding a link to a Time magazine story about the experiences of migrant children in U.S. custody. “I’d love to visit and have a conversation - I hope they accept my invitation.”

Fetterman came to the U.S. from Brazil with her mother and brother as a child to avoid violence and crime in Rio de Janeiro, according to several past interviews. After 15 years in the country, Fetterman became a permanent resident in 2004 and a citizen in 2009, according to a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette profile.

That Fetterman and others would take offense to the image apparently caught Chamber of Commerce officials off guard.

“The Meadville Chamber of Commerce has become aware that some people were offended by the costumes one of our teams wore at a recent women’s golf outing,” Executive Director Christa Lundy said in a statement to the Tribune on Wednesday. Lundy apologized to the person who first posted online about the photo, she added. “We did not intend to cause any harm or to be insensitive and are sorry the costumes caused unintended offense.”

The image received more attention over the Fourth of July holiday, with many reactions falling into two camps: those expressing outrage at costumes they saw as insensitive and insulting and those expressing outrage over what they saw as overly sensitive reactions to a lighthearted attempt at fun.

Officials at Meadville Medical Center did not see the costumes in a fun light when they learned of them Wednesday. The hospital’s 1,750 employees participate in dozens of charity events each year. Never before have such activities caused any controversy, according to Don Rhoten, vice president of consumer engagement.

“The message conveyed through this image in no way reflects the values or position of the Medical Center and we sincerely apologize to anyone it offended,” Rhoten said in a statement to the Tribune on Friday. “Guidelines are being created to ensure employees participating in future events align with MMC’s values and mission to serve our community.”

Meadville resident Cassandra Gonzalez would like to see more than just new employee guidelines come out of the controversy provoked by the photo of the Border Patrol foursome.

“Wow Meadville Medical Center,” Gonzalez wrote in the first post to draw attention to the chamber photo. “Border Patrol costumes at a ‘fiesta’-themed event? Crawford county Pennsyltucky keeping it classy. You'd think such a prominent employer in Meadville would be less provocative and political.”

In an interview, Gonzalez drew particular attention to the event’s “Fiesta” theme, a theme she felt opened the door to the sort of cultural appropriation and reductive stereotypes evident in the photo.

“A ‘fiesta’ is a celebration,” Gonzalez said. “I don’t know about anybody else, but Mexicans being detained at the border is not my idea of a party.”

Gonzalez expressed optimism that something positive could come of the controversy.

“I wish people would understand why they think it’s offensive,” she said regarding the photo. “I wish people could see beyond themselves for a second.”

As for the chamber, Gonzalez hopes to see more diversity in an organization whose board of directors appears to include no people of color among the 19 officers and members. Had any been present during the organization of the golf event, Gonzalez said, they likely could have drawn attention to the potentially problematic theme.

“They need to be more involved in the chamber,” Gonzalez said of minority business owners. “I’m hoping (the controversy) will be motivation.”

Already the controversy generated by Gonzalez’s post and the others that followed it has drawn the attention of the chamber, though what may follow from that attention remains unclear. In a statement Friday, Lundy said the chamber’s executive team has met to discuss the Border Patrol costumes and “the fact that some people may have been offended by” them.

“We sincerely apologize,” Lundy said in the statement.

Lundy did not respond to Tribune inquiries regarding what actions, if any, were being considered by the executive team. When she subsequently posted the statement to Facebook, it was immediately met with more than 200 comments, many of them criticizing what responders viewed as a lack of sincerity.

Gonzalez was again among those posting.

“The statement the Chamber put out basically said, ‘We’re sorry you feel that way,’” she said. “It’s not an apology.”

Mike Crowley can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at mcrowley@meadvilletribune.com.

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