Community Stunned By State Sen. José Peralta’s Death

By ARIEL HERNANDEZ

Peralta’s casket leaving St. Joan of Arc Roman Catholic Church in Jackson Heights. Photo by Walter Karling

Hundreds gathered Tuesday at Saint Joan of Arc Roman Catholic Church in Jackson Heights to say goodbye to state Sen. José Peralta, who tragically died on Thanksgiving Eve at age 47 due to septic shock.

During the funeral, his widow, Evelyn Peralta, fought through her tears to deliver his eulogy.

“My husband was an incredible man and no one could ever replace him,” said Evelyn. “I will miss his smile, his scent, his affection.”

Evelyn shared the story of their first encounter in 2000 on the 7 train. She said the two had seen each other twice a week for a month before Peralta approached her at the Grand Central train station.

“My life changed because I had finally found a partner who was passionate, hardworking, intellectually stimulated and had so many aspirations,” said Evelyn. “José and I were perfect together. We were inseparable.”

She went on to share how important family was to him.

“His love for his family was indescribable,” said Evelyn. “He looked forward to coming home to us every day, after long days…and believe me, there were very long days. I shared him with his community, but I understood and came to terms with it because I knew this was his passion. He was proud of his two boys, Matthew [21] and Myles [13]. They were the light of his life.”

During her eulogy, Evelyn thanked and shared kind words with individual family members and members of Peralta’s office.

“José’s passion for politics began at Queens College as the student body president. He was elected to the New York State Assembly in 2002 and became the first Dominican-American elected to the New York State Senate in 2010, a position he was proud of and worked tirelessly to make sure his district was well represented, even though he had very little resources,” said Evelyn. “José had a humble heart and went out of his way to help those in need.”

Evelyn grew very emotional at the mention of the DREAM ACT (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act), of which Peralta had been the lead sponsor and for which he pushed for almost a decade.

“This was a piece of legislation he was most passionate about,” she said. “I truly hope that the New York State Assembly and Senate will finally pass the DREAM ACT and give my husband some credit for being the main sponsor.”

Earlier this week, Congressman Adriano Espaillat (D-Manhattan/Bronx) sent a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo asking that the DREAM Act, if passed, be named after Peralta.

“On behalf of his constituents in New York City and the greater immigrant diaspora in New York State, he was unyielding in his desire to see the New York state DREAM Act passed and signed into law,” the letter read. “In memory of Senator Peralta, I respectfully ask that when the New York State Legislative Session reconvene on Jan. 9 that both the Assembly and Senate name the [DREAM ACT] in honor of Peralta.”

During the service, José’s brother Edgar also spoke, sharing some life lessons he learned from José.

“On November 10, 1971, God lent us a wonderful human being,” he said. “Those closest to him knew him as Joe. I had the honor and was lucky enough to grow by his side, learning everything he knew. He taught me many valuable lessons in life. He taught me how to put everyone before yourself. He taught me how to treat others the way you would like to be treated. He taught me how to be respectful and professional to all people. He taught me the most important lesson in life is that life has no meaning unless you humbly serve others. These are lessons I will carry on throughout my life and that I will pass on.”

Edgar said José wasn’t just his brother, but was the brother of everyone in the community.

“On November 21, 2018, God had a higher purpose for him,” Edgar said. “He called him up. It was tragic news to all of us, but God needed a man with his tireless effort by his side. I know Joe is looking down at us right now with a humble heart. He is thinking I don’t deserve all this praise; I was just doing my job. Joe, the work of a great leader and a wonderful human being is putting others’ needs first and sacrificing yourself for all.”

The devastation of Peralta’s immediate family and friends was evident during the ceremony, as was that of several constituents, who struggled to contain their emotions.

“Whenever I had an issue, I knew if I reached out to my senator, that his office was always going to help,” said Maria, an elderly immigrant who said she lived in the district longer than Peralta had served. “He will always be my senator.”

Another Jackson Heights resident said there were times when he was disappointed in some of Peralta’s actions, but he never stopped believing in him.

“No one is perfect,” he said. “Peralta brought so much good to our community. I saw him all the time around Jackson Heights in the summer, winter; it didn’t matter. He always asked me how I was doing and whenever I had a question, he took the time to listen. But I think everyone can agree that the one thing he was known for was his big smile. Even when he was trying to get his point across to someone he disagreed with, he was smiling. He truly cared about everyone in his district, regardless of their color.”

Luís, an Elmhurst resident who attended the funeral with his elementary-school–aged son, said there were many years when his family struggled to afford food or necessary supplies, and that Peralta’s turkey drive, school-supplies drive and toy drive “saved our lives.”

“If it wasn’t for him, who knows how many Christmases I wouldn’t be able to gift my son or how many Thanksgivings I wouldn’t have a turkey?” said Luis. “To some these things are small, but they impacted my life. And it wasn’t like he did this for a photo op. He actually greeted everyone, interacted with all the kids and showed so much love. His death is devastating.”

Last Friday, Evelyn told the New York Post that the city’s medical examiners had determined that Peralta suffered from sudden septic shock, which led to organ failure.

Evelyn said that days before Peralta’s death, he had complained of headaches and shortness of breath. But it wasn’t until he developed a fever on Nov. 20 that she rushed him to Elmhurst Hospital, where he died the next day.

Peralta’s family created a GoFundMe page for funeral expenses. Within 24 hours, the family’s $25,000 goal was exceeded, reaching more than $60,600.

The Queens Tribune conducted a day-in-the-life interview with Peralta this past summer, where he expressed his pride in serving his community and expressed the paramount importance of family.

Reach Ariel Hernandez at ahernandez@queenstribune.com or @reporter_Ariel