The friends, family and loved ones of Jahaira DeAlto Balenciaga are mourning the death of a community advocate, anti-domestic violence activist, mother figure and local ballroom drag scene icon.
“Jahaira was a legend for the trans community,” said Nolan Tesis, 28, a close friend of DeAlto’s. “She was a mother to so many that didn't have parents. I think that she took the most pride in her role as a grandmother and a mother, a chosen family for many individuals in the LGBTQ community.”
DeAlto, 42, died in a violent attack at her home in Dorchester on Sunday. Boston police received a call for a person stabbed on Taft Street. When officers arrived, they found two women suffering from stab wounds: DeAlto and Fatima Yasin, 28.
Yasin’s husband, Marcus Chavin, 34, was arrested and charged on two counts of murder. Authorities have not disclosed a motive for the alleged attack.
Yasin, Chavin and their two children, aged seven and eight years old, were staying at DeAlto’s house at the time of the incident.
Chavin struggled with mental illness, according to Boston police. Tesis said that in offering her home to the family, DeAlto wanted to “make a safe space for them to get out of a bad situation” — a kind of protection and altruism that Tesis said DeAlto was known for.
“What mattered to her more than anything else, more than any career opportunity or recognition, was her role as a mother and the direct impact that she had on people in life," Tesis said.
Tesis and DeAlto met in 2009, when Tesis was 16 years old, had just come out as gay and had made an attempt to end his own life.
“She came into my life at a time when I really didn't have hope and just showered me with so much unconditional love,” Tesis said. “I am the person I am today because of her life and what she brought to my life.”
Tesis said he has DeAlto’s name tattooed on his wrist, and she had his tattooed on her neck. They were best friends, Tesis said, and in many ways they were part of a family.
“When people come out to their families, a lot of them are kicked out of their homes," Tesis said. "So people create family structures to navigate life together. The older people in the community give their knowledge to the youth in the LGBTQ community to help them navigate this world as queer people of color.”
DeAlto was also a legend of the local ballroom scene, where she was a member of the House of Balenciaga, a group in the drag community.
"The House of Balenciaga regretfully acknowledges the death/murder of our own Jahaira M. DeAlto, a community advocate and friend to many," Harold Balenciaga wrote on Facebook Sunday night. "Let us not forget her ongoing work against domestic abuse and continue to uplift her name and ensure her memory lives on in this ironic twist of fate."
Originally from Dorchester, DeAlto began her ballroom career in Boston in 1996 and nurtured relationships with other trans women of color to create a chosen family.
“I am the mother who raised the children whose rainbow sparkled too brightly and blinded their birth moms," DeAlto wrote in a Twitter thread on Mother’s Day last year. "I cherished what they discarded. I took on earthly assignments for the moms who'd earned their Heavenly reward. For their babies who still needed raising. I did that. Happy Mother's Day to all the moms they don't make Hallmark cards for. We know who we are. And this is our day, too.”
DeAlto spent most of her life honoring the remembrance of another member of her chosen family: Rita Hester, a transgender woman and close friend of DeAlto’s who was brutally murdered in Boston in 1998, a tragedy that sparked an international annual Transgender Day of Rememberance.
“She came out as transgender in the 1990s, and she's witnessed so many friends and transwomen and people who she's called sisters be murdered and slain,” Tesis said.
DeAlto is the 21st reported transgender person to be killed this year in the United States and the seventh trans woman of color killed in a month, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
“Whether it was an attack towards a trans identity or not, a lot of trans women of color meet this demise because they navigate so much violence in their lives," Tesis said.
DeAlto emphasized the importance of trans visibility through her work as an activist for transgender rights and domestic violence prevention, as as a speaker at the Ryan White Conference on HIV/AIDS and Harvard University and as a guest lecturer at Columbia University's School of Social work.
“Jahaira DeAlto was a beloved member of the ballroom community, a community leader and a tireless advocate for folks experiencing domestic abuse,” the Transgender Law Center, the nation’s largest trans-led civil rights organization, wrote in a tweet Monday. “We honor your life today, Jahaira, and we are devastated by your loss. We send love to all who loved you.”
The Massachusetts Office of Victim Assistance awarded DeAlto with the 2019 Victim Rights Month Special Recognition Award for her work as a counselor and a member of the Elizabeth Freean Center LGBTQ Community Advisory/Action Group.
“As a survivor of violence myself, I know personally that the journey from victim to survivor comes with owning your own story,” DeAlto said in a video posted by the office on Facebook in 2019.
“She is a survivor, an advocate and a voice for victims and survivors across the Commonwealth,” the caption reads on MOVA’s Facebook post. “Jahaira has worked diligently to increase access to sexual and domestic violence response services for LGBTQ survivors, and has made notable contributions toward advancing victim rights.”
DeAlto gave the keynote address at MOVA’s Victim Rights Conference in 2019, a speech that brought Tesis to tears.
“I bawled like I have never bawled,” Tesis said. “She came of age in the 90s, when there was no hope for trans women. Some of her dreams were put aside because she didn’t think those dreams were possible, because she was trans. To see her being recognized by the state, to see the resilience, her journey — I was proud beyond belief.”
DeAlto ran a YouTube channel, JahairasMission, where she talked about trans issues and body positivity and regularly checked in with viewers, making jokes and lighting up Newport cigarettes.
“She had a wit and humor that was very distinctive," Tesis said. "She's hilarious. That's one thing that always was special about her. She could contribute so much intellect and brilliance around the issues that she advocated for, but she could do it in a manner that was relatable and that could really reach so many different people.”
DeAlto took on big issues and delighted in small things, Tesis said, like her love of food, for big stuffed lobster, for ballroom culture and jokes and laughing with friends.
“She always talked to me about wanting to know that her life mattered,” Tesis said. “I don't think that she knew the magnitude of how much it mattered to so many people.”