‘A born leader’: Family, friends recall rapper, community organizer Justin Chavez of Holyoke

  • Holyoke rapper Justin Chavez, who performed as Extraordinaiire. Chavez died unexpectedly on April 17, 2022, at the age of 34. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Holyoke rapper Justin Chavez, who performed as Extraordinaiire. Chavez died unexpectedly on April 17, 2022, at the age of 34. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Holyoke rapper Justin Chavez, who performed as Extraordinaiire, seen here in a screenshot from the 2016 music video for his song “Made in Holyoke.” Chavez died unexpectedly on Sunday at the age of 34. SCREENSHOT

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    Holyoke rapper Justin Chavez, who performed as Extraordinaiire, center wearing a "Yoke Boy" sweatshirt. To his right, in the white sneakers, is childhood friend Israel Rivera. Chavez died unexpectedly on April 17, 2022, at the age of 34. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 4/21/2022 9:28:22 PM
Modified: 4/21/2022 9:27:05 PM

HOLYOKE — Standing in front of a brick wall with the words “Paper City” colorfully painted behind him, rapper Justin Chavez was clearly in his element. It was the 2016 music video for his song “Made in Holyoke,” and the unique character of the city — Puerto Rican flags, the canals, towering mill buildings, High Street — provided a background for his love letter to his hometown.

“Made in Holyoke,” Chavez rapped, a line that would eventually become his brand. “City full of pride, city full of hope, the city that’s alive, the city that we know.”

It was through his music as the rapper Extraordinaiire that many knew of Chavez, whose sudden and unexpected death over the weekend shocked the Paper City. Across the region, family, friends and acquaintances offered reflections on the life of a 34-year-old who was as recognized as much for his community organizing as he was for his warm smile, lyrical artistry and smooth flow.

“Justin was a mover. He was a go-getter. He advocated for those who were less fortunate, who didn’t have or weren’t able to use their own voice,” Elsie Rodriguez Garcia, his mother, said in a phone interview Wednesday. She described him as a natural leader, which did not surprise her given his early involvement in all of the youth programs she ran when he was growing up. “Boy oh boy, he wanted to do so much — and all at the same time — for the city of Holyoke and for his people.”

Chavez grew up in the Flats neighborhood, which was where he met Israel Rivera, who back then was an older guy Chavez looked up to in the neighborhood and then at the Boys and Girls Club, where Rivera was a peer leader.

“It wasn’t like a friendship, it was more like brothers,” was how Rivera, who is now a city councilor, described their connection. “I think a lot of people are going to miss the smile and the laugh. That whole demeanor. He was a likable dude.”

Full of ideas

Rivera said that he’ll miss the random texts and calls from Chavez, who he said always had ideas about how to help his fellow Holyokers. One of those calls came in 2016, when Chavez shared the idea of hosting a Thanksgiving dinner at Kelly Elementary School in the Flats. Earlier that year, a huge fire in an apartment building on High and Appleton streets displaced at least 40 people, and his mother said that Chavez wanted to be sure that people had a warm meal and community to share during the holiday.

“It was an awesome thing,” Rivera said, describing how hundreds of people came together to eat and build bonds. The event morphed into yearly community dinners for hundreds of neighborhood families, continuing until the COVID-19 pandemic. “A lot of that came together from an idea that Justin had.”

Rodriguez Garcia said that her son wanted to show that people in the community could come together and support each other. She said people would always say about him “no tenía pelos en su lengua” — a phrase in Spanish that literally means “he had no hairs on his tongue.” He didn’t mince words.

“If he wanted something, he went straight to the source and knocked on the door,” she said, describing how he raised funds for the dinners, going to businesses to get them to contribute resources and food.

When more families were displaced in a deadly New Year’s Day fire in 2017, Chavez was there too, contributing his time and energy to relief efforts for the families.

“The people in that building lost everything,” Chavez told The Republican that day. “But we are strong. Our community is strong.”

‘Always lending a hand’

When Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in September 2017 and evacuees from the island arrived in Holyoke by the hundreds, Chavez helped move them into their new homes. His mother noted that the lyrics of his songs often dealt with trials and tribulations, like the song “Untold,” which was about panhandlers in the city.

“He would help panhandlers in the street, give them food … What did this boy not do but give his love to his people,” Rodriguez Garcia said. He was “always lending a hand, always helping. Always walking the streets to get people’s stories.”

That attitude rubbed off on others in his neighborhood and beyond.

Mayor Joshua Garcia — the first-ever Latino mayor in a city where the majority of people identify as Puerto Rican — said that Chavez’s “Made in Holyoke” brand and movement “really connected with a lot of people in the neighborhood he grew up in.” And although Garcia grew up in the South Holyoke neighborhood, he said that kind of pride in Holyoke and the parts of the city that are often forgotten is the reason why people like himself and Rivera ran for office, making history this past election cycle.

“He would mostly reach out to me on a mentor role, to talk about things, and he would mentor me and push me on different levels,” Rivera said. Chavez encouraged him to run for office to make a difference in the community, inspired by Rivera’s story, having gone to prison and returned home to get his college degree and work as a community activist. “A lot of the stuff where I am today, he kind of played a role in that … Pushing me to inspire people.”

Soccer dreams

Chavez also had struggles of his own that appeared in his lyrics, Rodriguez Garcia said. Growing up, her son was a talented soccer player who worked hard to get a full-ride scholarship to college “because where we came from, it wasn’t as easy and as accessible to think that far, in terms of college, with the expenses,” she said. But just before his senior year, with scouts showing up to his games, he tore his ACL and couldn’t play. Then, during his first week of soccer training at Holyoke Community College, he hurt his knee again, she said.

“There was the turning point,” she said. “There was the sadness.”

Rodriguez Garcia said that the signs of her son’s battles with depression appear on his social media feeds and in his lyrics. She said that Chavez was like many who have mental health struggles: “They show a happy face to everyone and they continue to help others, but in their own space that’s where they’re fighting those demons and they don’t want anyone to know.” During the pandemic, those challenges have only increased for many, she said, particularly young people.

“It’s like a wildfire spreading,” she said. “We need to really pay attention. It’s one of those silent killers no one talks about.”

Herself a Catholic, Rodriguez Garcia said that she feels that God had a plan for her son and that he fulfilled his purpose. His family discovered him at his home on Easter Sunday, laying down and covered up with his blanket peacefully. She said she intends to continue his legacy, hoping that people remember all the good that he did for the people of Holyoke.

“Just a born leader that passed too soon with a list of things that he was going to be able to make much more positive impacts on,” Rodriguez Garcia said. So she intends to spread his “Made in Holyoke” message of unity, she added, doing all she can to make his dreams come true.

“He just kept giving to his city until his last breath,” she said. “He’s a legacy of Holyoke, and that’s where he left his heart.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.
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