Hanging over the whole saga of George Santos, the congressman from New York who made up almost everything, is his mother, Fatima Devolder. One person who helped on a Santos political campaign remembers his voice getting shaky whenever he’d bring up his mother, even long after her 2016 death from cancer.
The two were very close, and family members remember her spoiling him as a child. “She was always making up excuses for what he did,” one relative said. Theirs was a boisterous home, a Queens basement apartment that sometimes hosted rats, but also happiness. Holidays were a big deal, featuring fried food from Fatima’s native Brazil. The TV played constantly, a very American condition. While Santos’s father Gercino was often the primary breadwinner, working as a house and building painter to support the family, Fatima cared for Santos and cleaned houses. She and Santos and Santos’s sister Tiffany were a tight unit, before and after Fatima’s relationship with Gercino ended. She was devoted to her offspring, posting on Facebook in Portuguese not long before she died, “I love my children, they are my everything .”
There were also moments throughout Santos’s life when his mother would leave him for a spell in one place or another. He would stay with a relative while she went to Brazil. One time, when he was grown and she returned to New York, Fatima’s roommate remembered Santos frequently checking in on his mother, even though he lived some distance away. It seemed that Santos missed her.
At various points, they cohabitated, even when he was an adult. It could sometimes be tense. Another roommate remembers them fighting about everything you can imagine—cigarettes, money—and sometimes, Fatima would retreat to her bedroom and just cry. Santos would say horrible things to her, tell her to leave the house—“his” house, he’d say. This too would become a trait of his; he’d flip a switch, and threaten the nearest of friends or kin.
But there was often something pushing him back to his mother.
Santos’s sister, Tiffany, once left a “review” on his political Facebook page calling him a “son who dedicated his life to give our mother the most comfortable life when she was loosing [sic] her fight to cancer.” Santos’s care for Fatima is even stenciled into Queens public records. On Christmas Eve 2015, Santos appeared in housing court for failing to pay $2,250 in rent, and the complete audio recording of the proceeding reveals him saying matter-of-factly that his mother was staying with him, “for health issues.”
He talks not only about his deep feelings for his mother, but also his great pride in her life. Santos has called Fatima “the first female executive at a major financial institution.” He cites her prominence in local Republican politics, calling her “active with the party as a donor for over two decades.” He fondly remembers her leaving her “nine to five” to canvass for Rudy Giuliani, and bringing young Santos along. And he has clucked about her escape from the South Tower on 9⁄11, the way she got caught up in the “ash cloud.” There is good reason to believe that none of this is true.
City, state, and federal campaign finance databases show no evidence of political donations. She does not appear to have been a registered voter in New York, and her immigration records betray no sign that she was even a US citizen, though she worked for years to legalize her status and at one point had a green card. The 9⁄11 story is also questionable at best: In her own immigration paperwork, she claimed she was not in the United States that year. One entry from June 2001—just before the attacks—lists her current address as Niterói, Brazil. Santos continues to insist his mother was at Ground Zero, and perhaps she reentered or remained in the country in a way not reflected in the documents. Immigrants and employers sometimes tell tall tales on their applications about dates, details, and locations. But the son’s full claim about his mother’s 9⁄11 experience has further holes, including the campaign bio in which he says in successive sentences that Fatima was a financial executive and that she was “in her office in the South Tower” on the tragic day. People who knew her remember nothing about Wall Street jobs or Wall Street wealth.
There is something touching about Santos’s ambition to construct a pioneering, world-bestriding life for his mother, constructing a false memory palace in her honor, boosting her to heights she was never quite able to see. Over the years, he has told whoppers about his father, exaggerating Gercino’s achievements as well. But on the public stage it was to his mother’s memory that he returned over and over again.
Fatima’s genuine American story began sometime in the 1980s. Immigration records suggest that she came across the southern border in the San Diego area, and found work in Florida.
Her introduction to American life was more Grapes of Wrath than Gatsby, far from the life of wealth and privilege Santos pretended she’d led. Fatima’s paperwork for legalization says she spent 110 days picking beans and squash on David Jones’s farm in Goulds, Florida. Steve Jones, son of the namesake farmer, told me the fields were full of immigrants then, working sunup to sundown, in the 90- to 100-degree Florida heat. They donned long-sleeve shirts and towels on the neck to provide a miserly shade. Men and women and sometimes their kids worked together, shoving food into their mouths from Tupperware for quick sustenance. The beans were tossed into hampers that earned the picker five or seven dollars per.
There were dangers: Crack hit some of the workers hard in the mid-1980s. Cold snaps dried out the available work too. Some pickers stayed years, while others continued on to other fields or places like New York, which is where the immigration records suggest Fatima ventured next.
The housekeeping work that Fatima found there had its own precarities. There were new spaces to navigate, fancy homes to learn. She had to figure out how to communicate in a foreign tongue: she spoke Portuguese, Spanish, and “Little English,” she claimed to federal officials. A 1989 form letter from someone who employed her as a housekeeper affirmed that she was a person of “good moral character and sound judgment.” Between 1990 and 1996 she also worked for Charles Goodman of the Upper West Side. This kind of household work was certainly not the high-flying financial wizardry to which Santos claimed his mother belonged, but it did bring her into its proximity at least. Her boss’s family had founded Marvel Comics decades prior, connecting Fatima in a way to Stan Lee, Spider-Man, the Black Panther, and over $29 billion of film revenue. She was known as an excellent cook and a hard worker, minding the five-day-a-week job until an abrupt end to her employment when items were found missing, according to a source close to the family.
This was typical work, with typical opportunities and challenges, for many people in the Brazilian diaspora that gathered in the apartments and houses of Queens. Other members of Santos’s family spent at least some time working in other people’s homes. His aunt Victoria appears to have worked for years as a top-level household staffer for someone legitimately high up in the business world, according to a friend and a family member. It’s an intimate act to clean or cook or look after the home of someone who has more money than you. You are touching the same linens, dusting the same books, overhearing the same phone calls in which masters of the universe shout or chortle or complain. You are so close, even if you leave and get on the subway or bus to your own place and cares. Tomorrow you’ll be back. It makes sense that someone with an active imagination, like Santos, would place himself and those he loved in more expensive shoes.
It was the stuff of fantasy. There may be heroes and boldfaced names in Santos’s family tree, as far as the genealogists can figure: a respected classical pianist, a distant ancestor considered a martyr in a revolt against the Portuguese. But his parents were people who worked onerously in whatever ways they could to support their families. They scratched and earned and took chances. They built a life. It’s the story of America. It’s what people remember on their deathbeds, and Fatima reached hers too soon. For almost everyone, a life of work and family is as good as things get. But it was never enough for George Santos.
Perhaps he looked around him and was not satisfied with what he saw. There was a Queens church called Saint Rita’s he used to go to on Eleventh Street, along with his mother and sister. For twenty years the church has had a regular Sunday Mass in Portuguese that draws Brazilians from all over the five boroughs and also Long Island and New Jersey. There are some doctors and lawyers but many housekeepers and painters, those who work in construction, people who might have an immigration issue after skipping an ICE check-in. People like his own people.
The church gets packed on Christmas and Easter. Other days, people give each other the peace of the Lord and take tabs on who is there. But even on an average spring Sunday there are dozens who come out for the sense of community, young men in colorful T-shirts and blond highlights mixing with kids keeping their backs ramrod straight in the pews, looking at the red banners with English words exhorting the flock toward “Reverence” and “Right Judgement.”
Fatima is still remembered there. Whether or not it was really true that she “instituted a grassroots daily operation to distribute sandwiches around the Northeast Queens area to homeless individuals,” as Santos claimed she did, she was a mother. She loved her children. And she died and was memorialized by this church in 2016.
It must have been excruciating for Santos. Even their fights showed how much they meant to each other. A December 2016 fundraising post said he had been busy nursing her and also that he needed monetary help to pay for a wake: “Fatima left two children who were not working because she needed 24 hours of care and now they need our help in this delicate moment.”
Luckily, the church came to his side, this flock of his peers. They may not have had much, and they may not have come from the worlds Santos dreamed of, but they opened their wallets now. For typical Sunday services, the collection box is a cloth bag given structural support by a wire basket. This basket is placed in front of the altar, within sight of the priest, a deterrent to someone skimming off the top as the dollars pile up. Here, the parishioners come to the front to drop their offerings into the clean white cloth of the bag, the color of First Communion outfits, the color of the ties worn by children who bear their mouths to the Father; a white that signifies, with all its unsubtle connotations, purity, rectitude, the lamb of whose blood etc., etc. A saintliness not exactly exhibited by what Santos apparently did with a bucket almost identical to that one.
The church’s collection was handed right to him. The amount is lost to history but was significant. Yet a source familiar with the funereal situation says the funeral home was never paid its debt, as of the spring of 2023. This was not chump change: similar mortuary work in 2016 used to cost in the $6,000 range and often higher.
It seems to George Santos, even the death of the mother he loved, his mentor, his friend, the woman he dreamed with and dreamed for, could become an opportunity.
Adapted from THE FABULIST: The Lying, Hustling, Grifting, Stealing, and Very American Legend of George Santos by Mark Chiusano. Copyright © 2023 by Mark Chiusano. To be published by One Signal Publishers/Atria Books, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, LLC.
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