In late 2018, the Ballroom community was hit with the shocking news of Grandfather Hector Xtravaganza’s passing. As many people knew, he was HIV positive for 30+ years, but it was not common knowledge that he also suffered from another serious health issue. So when he passed, it took the community by surprise – he seemed in good health until the end. Hector Xtravaganza died of lymphoma in New York City on December 30, 2018, as reported by the NYTimes.
A shoe designed by Hector for Bloomingdale's "Shoe York" exhibit and an urn
It definitely felt surreal to learn about Grandfather Hector’s passing, and it was also almost impossible to imagine another Ball without his presence, especially since I had just seen him a few months earlier looking perfectly healthy at the Latex Ball and then at the Heritage Ball. At times it feels like legends will never die, and in many ways they don’t because the legacy that they leave behind lives on for many generations to come. Grandfather Hector will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the most beloved and respected figures in the Ballroom community.
Growing up as Hector Crespo in New Jersey by way of Puerto Rico, Hector did not have the best experience coming out as gay, to say the least. His mother kicked him out of the house, and Hector never finished high school and lived on the streets of New York for a time. Eventually he was able to create a new family within, at that time, the extremely underground Harlem Ballroom community. Historically, the Ballroom community was known for being a refuge for those rejected by their families, and the Houses always served as alternative or chosen families, primarily consisting of black or Latino LGBTQ youth. Hector was no exception, finding himself embraced by the House Of Extravaganza (Extravaganza is the original spelling). He eventually became the Father of the House and later on changed his legal name to Hector Xtravaganza.
Hector experienced many ups and downs in his early days, but then his star began to rise in the ‘90s, after he was featured in the documentary Paris Is Burning in 1990 about the NYC Harlem Ballroom community. In the same year, Madonna’s song “Vogue” hit the mainstream, which ultimately brought some new opportunities his way (and to others in Ballroom as well). Hector also worked as the fashion stylist to Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown.
Hector was deeply affected by the AIDS epidemic during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, and he was diagnosed with HIV in 1985. Soon after his diagnosis, he dedicated his life to the Ballroom community, creating dialogue and awareness about HIV/AIDS, raising money to find a cure, creating legislature for the LGBTQ rights, and beyond. He was a fierce activist.
When Grandfather Hector’s Memorial Service was announced, I asked my dear friend Melanie Ninja Xtravaganza, who was also a very close friend of Hector’s, if I would be allowed to attend his service. At the time I was a photographer for Gayletter magazine and I wanted to document the event. The Memorial was scheduled to happen exactly 3 months after his passing, on March 9, 2019. She said that she would ask the House if it would be appropriate, and several days later I had the green light.
Hector wearing Tuxedo Gown that Billy Porter recreated during 2019 Oscars Red Carpet (still from video tribute to Hector's life)
When I got to El Museo del Barrio where the Memorial Service was taking place, I saw a line of people that stretched around the corner and down the street for almost a full block, all waiting to get in. Once I got inside the auditorium, the first things that caught my attention were several humongous shining subjects standing on both sides of the stage – two large golden letter X‘s, and an enormous stiletto shoe that Hector created for Bloomingdale’s “Shoe York” exhibit and a jewel-encrusted urn standing on a pedestal right next to it, both decorated with what looked like thousands of radiant and sparkly Swarovski crystals.
“It will be very hard to fill these shoes,”
Melanie whispered into my ear.
I started looking around the crowd, scanning some familiar and many unfamiliar faces from the Ballroom scene, everyone decked out in their best. There were furs, wide-brim hats, pillbox hats with black netted veils, high stiletto heels, large dark sunglasses, and expensive-smelling perfumes and colognes.
It seemed that I got there just in time, because G Xtravaganza stepped out onstage wearing a long caftan, barely giving me enough time to soak in the surroundings. G was the host of the Memorial, changing his outfits six times in total, most of them paying homage to Hector’s color of obsession towards the end of his life – burnt orange.
Dominique Jackson; Jennie Livingston; Mother Gisele Xtravaganza; Grandmother Coko Xtravaganza; Jose Disla Xtravaganza
Throughout the event a barrage of speakers came to the stage to talk about Hector’s life and legacy, from the Mother and the Father of the House Of Xtravaganza, Gisele Xtravaganza and Jose Xtravaganza, to Dominique Jackson, one of the stars of the hit TV show Pose on FX, to Jennie Livingston, director of Paris Is Burning, to NYC nightlife fixture Lady Fag, who confessed that she didn’t know she would be called on to speak, but nonetheless gave a heartfelt speech about the times she had the pleasure of working with Grandfather Hector. Dominique, who Hector would lovingly refer to as his daughter, reflected on Hector’s acts of kindness towards her, remembering the times when he was by her bedside during her gender reassignment surgery and when he gave her cash to go shopping for clothes and to pay her rent. At the end of the speech, Dominique urged everyone to “stop judging each other” and to become a more united community, storming offstage and heading to the back of the auditorium to cry outside of everyone’s view. Coko Xtravaganza, the Grandmother of the House Of Xtravaganza, was so emotional, she couldn’t utter a word and had to be accompanied off the podium moments after getting there to speak.
Crowds reaction to the Proclamation letter
A large Proclamation letter that was propped up throughout the entirety of the event at the base of the podium piqued everyone’s interest. From the auditorium the only thing you could see were large letters written in gold that spelled “Proclamation.”
Finally, Karl Xtravaganza, an old-school member of the House Of Xtravaganza, read the proclamation aloud – it ended with
“... I, Bill De Blasio, Mayor of The City of New York, do hereby proclaim Saturday, March 9th, 2019 in the City of New York as: ‘Hector Xtravaganza Day.’”
At that point everyone jumped to their feet cheering, clapping, roaring with elation and some bursting into tears.
At one point during the Memorial, an instrumental version of “Amazing Grace” accompanied a slideshow of photos from Hector’s early Ballroom years that started playing across a big screen. There he is in his famous Tuxedo Gown that Billy Porter recreated during 2019 Oscars Red Carpet … there he is in his early years posing for a fashion image, looking like a delicious snack.
There wasn’t a dry eye in the audience and all I could think was
“Oh my God, he was so gorgeous.”
At the conclusion of the Ceremony, 4 trans women: Monica Monroe Xtravaganza, Brenda Holder, Jasmin Van Wales Soulja, and Egypt LaBejia came out onstage, paying a heartbreaking tribute to Grandfather Hector’s life as they performed the song “The Other Side of the Rainbow” by Melba Moore. At the end of the performance, Brenda Holder was so emotional that she broke down in tears, unable to get up to her feet, eventually being swept up by a dear friend and audience member, and walked backstage with the other women who had just performed, all crying in unison.
Monica Monroe Xtravaganza, Brenda Holder, Jasmin Van Wales Soulja and Egypt LaBejia paying a tearful tribute
After the Memorial Service came to an end hundreds of people spilled out onto the street, saying their hellos and goodbyes, catching up and taking photos.
Melanie announced that we were all going to be walking to Dallas BBQ on the Upper East Side:
“That’s where the Xtravas like to go.”
Whoever was in the know ended up there, occupying almost half of the restaurant. Many of the Xtravas spread out to different tables, but it still felt like one large family. Even though the atmosphere at El Museo del Barrio wasn’t at all somber, as it was “A Celebration Of The Life Of Grandfather Hector Xtravaganza,” during lunch the atmosphere lightened up even more.
Father of House Of Xtravaganza Jose stopped by our table to say hello, and as he reminisced with old friends he said:
“You know, we never thought that what we were doing would garner this much attention. We were simply doing what we love.”
With the success of Pose on FX, a show Hector both consulted on and appeared in, the once-underground NYC Ballroom Community saw a resurgence back into the mainstream, almost 30 years after Madonna put a spotlight on the Community with “Vogue” in 1990.
Melanie Ninja Xtravaganza & Father Jose Xtravaganza
It has been over a year since Grandfather’s passing, but the Community still very much feels the void.
His cousin Jose Disla Xtravaganza shared that
“Hector always said: ‘Be the change you seek.’ He lived by that quote and always made an effort to be a part of the solution and not the problem in any situation.”
“He was so positive and he was such a force for good,”
Melanie Ninja Xtrava adds to Jose Disla’s quote,
”He loved the community so much, that he was the Grandfather to five Houses, including his first priority of the House Of Xtravaganza. Which is amazing because that never happens, you know. He wanted to see everyone be their best. His thing was ‘Live your life to the fullest.’ He lived his life to the fullest to the very last second and that’s a lesson for all of us. LIVE your life to the fullest!”
If there is another lesson to be learned from Grandfather Hector Xtravaganza’s legacy, it is that life works in mysterious ways; we adapt to it and it shapes us no matter the circumstances, sometimes serving as a reminder that everything happens for a reason. If Hector had never faced the obstacles introduced in his early life, he might have never had the opportunity to share his light, and inspire, give love to, and support the many people in the Ballroom community that needed it most.
May his Legacy live on. Rest In Peace, Hector, and stay “Forever Moist.”
Special thanks to Melanie Ninja Xtravaganza for contributing to the story.