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Albany Park

Northwest Side Organizer Who Fought For Affordable Housing Dies From COVID: ‘Albany Park Is Better Because Of Her’

Maria Elena Sifuentes, who was president of Communities United, began organizing by fighting for better public education when her kids were in school.

Maria Elena Sifuentes (center).
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ALBANY PARK — As Maria Elena Sifuentes waited to get her second coronavirus vaccine shot, she was already making plans to see her friend, Diane Limas. 

Both women were on the board of Communities United — Sifuentes as president and Limas as vice president — and had fought housing injustice in the area for years. But they hadn’t been able to see each other for months because of the pandemic.

Their plan was to wait until Sifuentes was fully vaccinated, and then they’d go to Marie’s Pizza & Liquors to order martinis and pizza and catch up, Limas said.

But Sifuentes contracted COVID-19 before she could get her second shot.

The activist died June 10 from acute respiratory failure and pneumonia from coronavirus, according to the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office. She was 57. She is survived by five children.

“I can’t tell you how much I’m going to miss her,” Limas said.

Sifuentes was born in Brownsville, Texas, after her parents had immigrated from Mexico. Her parents moved the family from Texas to Pilsen, and Sifuentes later moved to Albany Park. 

“She was always very proud of being a Chicana,” said Raul Botello, Communities United’s co-executive director. “Her mom was also very active in Pilsen and volunteered to help fight for Benito Juarez Community Academy to be built.”

Sifuentes’ mother’s influence is partially why once her own children began attending Chicago schools, Sifuentes got involved in neighbors’ efforts to improve the quality of public education. After her children graduated, she expanded her organizing efforts to housing justice because she saw how her neighbors kept getting displaced, Botello said. 

“I believe that if one puts their heart and mind into wanting to succeed they can accomplish it,” Sifuentes wrote in an essay for the Teacher’s Testimony Project. “It is nice to know that I have a bit of my mother’s and father’s strengths to make a difference in the world.”

Maria Valdez became friends with Sifuentes after they met through the Grow Your Own Teachers program. She launched a GoFundMe last week to help Sifuentes’ family cover funeral costs, raising nearly $6,000 as of Friday morning.

“She was a single mom, so it was just her and her kids. She raised such amazing kids that are all grown now. She was so sweet and fun loving and very much into her community,” Valdez said. “And if she saw an injustice, she was the first one to get fired up and say, ‘Let’s take it to the streets and do something about it.’”

Once in the early 2000s, Botello remembers speaking to Rev. Joseph Tito about the organizing work the group was doing in the community. Tito was the pastor at Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church in Albany Park at the time.

“I remember calling and Father Tito answers the phone and as we started chatting he said, ‘You’re going to see Maria Elena right?’ I said yes. ‘So are you going to tell her to come to church on Sundays?’” Botello said. 

Botello agreed to convey the message.

“She told me, ‘Raul, the reason I don’t go is because I’m volunteering with you and Communities United to fight on these issues. I’m doing Christ’s work out here. So tell Father Tito, if you see him, I’m acting on my Catholic beliefs,’” Botello said.

When Limas heard that story, she laughed and said her friend was always ready to help others, whether she was providing a kind word or her time.

“She’d send you a message in the morning out of nowhere like she could read your mind that you were having a bad day. ‘Hey, thinking about you. Have a good day.’ And it would make me feel better,” Limas said. 

Sifuentes would also speak to people at events for Community United’s Survivors Alliance For Healing & Justice. Sifuentes was a survivor of domestic violence and shared her story with others in similar situations and offered guidance. 

“Our organization is better because of her. And Albany Park is better because of her,” Botello said.

Before the pandemic, Sifuentes, Limas and other members of Community United’s housing justice team would often carpool to meetings and go out to eat afterwards. The team’s members were “inseparable” as they worked on initiatives like the Chicago renting ordinance and fought for affordable housing in Albany Park, including the proposed development at 3557 W. Lawrence Ave.

“She was a strong, powerful Latina woman. A lot of our young people, Black and Brown youth, really looked up to her because of that. She was a role model for them and they learned from her,” Limas said. “And they saw that they could become that force for good working on issues that are important to them.”

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