PITTSFIELD — Jahaira DeAlto Balenciaga spent just a few short years in Pittsfield, but she didn’t need long to make her impact in the community.
“When she showed up into a room, you knew that she was there,” Kelan O’Brien, a friend of DeAlto’s and an organizer for Berkshire Pride, said at a Saturday evening vigil for DeAlto, 42, who died last Sunday in a violent attack at her Boston apartment.
“She was loud in the best type of way, she loved unconditionally, she welcomed everybody into her chosen family, into her community and we can see that here tonight,” O’Brien said to more than 100 people who gathered in Pittsfield’s Pontoosuc Park.
Classmates and others from Berkshire Community College, from which DeAlto graduated in 2019, remembered her as “a legend” in the community who could always make friends laugh and never hesitated to lend a hand to peers. Colleagues from the Elizabeth Freeman Center, where she worked for two years, celebrated her voice for fighting oppression in all its forms.
A relentless advocate for members of the LGBTQ+ community, DeAlto, who came out as transgender in the 1990s, also helped launch the first Berkshire Trans Day of Remembrance and the Berkshire Pride Festival. She was an accomplished dancer in Boston’s ballroom dancing scene.
Adopted from Beirut and raised mostly in Boston, DeAlto came to Pittsfield largely out of necessity.
Fleeing an abusive relationship, she wound up at the Elizabeth Freeman Center’s emergency shelter in Pittsfield, which she previously hadn’t heard of — “I thought they were taking me to Pittsburgh at first,” DeAlto said in March for a BCC “Alumni Story Hour.”
It was in Pittsfield that she met Michelle Hill, an administrative assistant at BCC, who convinced DeAlto that she had the ability to succeed in college.
“She said, ‘You see all that in me?’” Hill said Saturday. “I said, ‘How can you not? You’re destined to do great things.’ … And that’s what she did.”
Even after DeAlto graduated from BCC in 2019 and moved back to Boston to attend Simmons University, the pair continued to speak every week. When they last spoke on April 29, Hill had promised to attend DeAlto’s graduation from Simmons, where DeAlto was on track to receive a bachelor’s degree in social work in 2023.
DeAlto called Hill “madrina,” which in Spanish means “godmother.”
“I am humbled and forever grateful for those earthly angels who come into your life seemingly out of nowhere and introduce you to the possibility of who you can become,” DeAlto said in the March interview.
“With 200 years at my disposal I could not pay Michelle back,” DeAlto said. “What I can do is pay this forward. What I can do is be for somebody else what she’s been for me.”
Paying it forward is exactly what she did: Many in the LGBTQ+ community came to see DeAlto as a mother figure in a chosen family.
“I am the mother who raised the children whose rainbow sparkled too brightly and blinded their birth moms,” DeAlto tweeted on Mother’s Day last year. “I cherished what they discarded.”
While DeAlto received an array of awards and was invited to give several keynote speeches, she always took the time to thank and acknowledge the people she credited with helping her get there, those who knew her said.
DeAlto received the Victim Rights Month Special Recognition Award and delivered the keynote address at the Massachusetts Office of Victim Assistance Conference in 2019. DeAlto’s first instinct, after being introduced by Attorney General Maura Healey, was to thank B. Bradburd, whom she had met at the Elizabeth Freeman Center. Wahr told listeners Saturday that she had last seen DeAlto last summer in Boston, where DeAlto had helped organize a march in support of Black Lives Matter. When they met in the crowd, DeAlto’s face lit up, Wahr said, “like a star in the sky.”
“She had just organized this huge march … but she made me feel like seeing me was the most important thing that happened to her that day,” Wahr said.
Debra Jiménez said she hadn’t kept in touch much with DeAlto as an adult, but she traveled from Easthaven, Conn., to attend the vigil Saturday. Jiménez went to high school with DeAlto at the Devereux Glenholme School in Washington, Conn., where DeAlto often faced discrimination for her gender identity but always made herself available for her friends, Jiménez said.
“When they made us play sports, like softball, we would be laughing in the outfield, and she would practice her dance moves,” Jiménez said. “She had a natural ability to make other people’s lives better.”
Some who attended Saturday’s vigil did not personally know DeAlto well or at all, but they knew of her advocacy and impact. DeAlto “walked the talk,” said Janis Broderick, executive director of the Elizabeth Freeman Center. Ashley Shade, who led a moment of silence at the Saturday vigil, said that DeAlto inspired her to become an activist. Shade told listeners that “we can honor her legacy by continuing her work.”
“I want us to also take a moment to remember that there are other victims in this heinous crime that survived and are going to need a lot of help in their lives,” Shade said. “Let’s remember the living and the people who are here who need help. Let’s be here for each other.”
DeAlto and Fatima Yasin, 27, both died in the Sunday attack. Yasin’s husband, Marcus Chavis, 34, faces two counts of murder and one count of animal cruelty. DeAlto’s dog was also injured but survived, and Yasin and Chavis’ two children were present during the attack but were physically unharmed.
Neighbors told The Boston Globe that DeAlto had taken in the family and was “like a mother to [Chavis].”
On Sunday, Mother’s Day, Hill will be thinking of DeAlto — “I’m sure she would have called or sent me something or posted on Facebook,” she said.
But, she said she won’t be the only one with DeAlto on her mind.
“I’m sure that in places high and low, in Pittsfield and Boston and beyond, the name Jahaira will be spoken with love,” Hill said.
“Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms they don’t make Hallmark cards for,” DeAlto tweeted last Mother’s Day. “We know who we are. And this is our day, too.”