PILSEN — Paulino Villarreal Sr. was a fixture on his Pilsen block for nearly 50 years, known for helping neighbors and giving people food and money when they needed help, his family said.
A longtime city worker and community volunteer who worked to make his block a safer place to live, Paulino Villarreal Sr. died last month after being diagnosed with cancer in October. He was 68. His death has been a blow to the tight-knit family and the Pilsen neighborhood.
Originally from Laredo, Texas, he moved to Chicago as a young teenager in search of a better life, his family said. Shortly after, he met the woman who would become his wife.
“We made our marriage work through everything,” said Judy Villarreal, Paulino Villarreal Sr.’s wife of 52 years. “Whatever he did, he did for the family.”
Several years after marrying, the Villarreals moved into their Pilsen home near West 18th Place and South Laflin Street. They had three children, Jose Franco Sr., Paulino Jr. and Lucia Villarreal, and seven grandchildren.
Paulino Villarreal Sr. worked for the Department of Streets and Sanitation in the neighborhood for more than 33 years, his family said. In addition to his day job, he constantly volunteered his time, whether it be supporting the men’s shelter down the street, giving out turkeys on Thanksgiving or passing petitions for elected officials, his children said.
“If he knew that you were hungry, he would feed you,” Judy Villarreal said. “If he knew you needed a couple dollars, he would give it to you.”
Paulino Villarreal Sr. worked tirelessly to make his block a safe space for all, Judy Villarreal said.
“We had bullets through our houses, but we didn’t give up,” she said. “The gangbangers would graffiti, and he would get them together and say, ‘You put it up, you take it down.’ … He wanted not just better for the family, but for everybody.”
HIs dedication to the community was formally acknowledged a decade ago when the city named West 18th Place and South Laflin Street “Honorary Paulino Villarreal Way” and posted a sign at the intersection. His children and grandchildren said Villarreal was a humble man, but he was “thrilled” by the recognition.
‘He Was A Grandpa To The Whole Neighborhood’
As the patriarch of the family, Paulino Villarreal Sr. “was your typical Latino parent — very strict, a very stern disciplinarian. He would never let me get away with anything,” daughter Lucia Villarreal said.
Villarreal was just as protective of his grandkids as he was of his children, the family said.
When Destiny Serrano, one of Paulino Villarreal Sr.’s granddaughters, would work night shifts, her grandpa would stay up late to make sure she got home safely since she lived right next door.
On another occasion, two of his granddaughters went on a road trip to Iowa by themselves, worrying him.
“[My father] didn’t talk to me the whole weekend they were gone,” his daughter Lucia Villarreal said with a laugh. “When they came back safely — then we could talk.”
Granddaughter Mireya Villarreal said she will fondly remember bike rides through the neighborhood and to the University of Illinois at Chicago campus with him.
“He always made sure each of us had a bike,” she said.
Even as Paulino Villarreal Sr.’s health deteriorated, he would follow his grandkids and neighborhood kids around with his walker, Mireya Villarreal said, looking out for them.
“He was a grandpa to the whole neighborhood,” Mireya Villarreal said.
Paulino Villarreal Sr.’s family said his favorite pastime was to sit on the bench outside his home to chat and greet neighbors walking by while Tejano music played.
Kids from the block call him a “cheerful man,” son Paulino Villarreal Jr. said. He said his father made it a point to always have ice cream in his freezer for kids to come in and grab during the summer.
After Paulino Villarreal Sr. passed, his family received an outpouring of support from people who knew him and remembered looking up to him as a father figure or mentor, Lucia Villarreal said.
“Every city street deserves to have a Paulino on their block,” one woman from the neighborhood wrote to Lucia Villarreal. “A true safe neighborhood only happens with alert, caring neighbors.”
‘It Speaks A Lot Of His Legacy’
Paulino Villarreal Sr.’s presence is missing from his living room. His family filled his corner rocking chair with his photo, his hats and his favorite Dallas Cowboys blanket.
Villarreal’s family said he was a true Texas man — a big Cowboys fan and lover of country music. Whenever the family listens to the song “The Cowboy Rides Away” by George Strait, they’ll think of him.
Judy Villarreal said the loss of her husband has been unbelievably difficult.
“This wasn’t supposed to happen,” she said through tears. “We’re supposed to have him. I can’t sleep without him. … It’s a mistake; it’s not right.”
The family said they’re doing what they can to honor his memory.
“My dad was the last of the great ones,” Paulino Villarreal Jr. said. “I’ll never fill his shoes, my sister or my brother. The three of us combined couldn’t do what he did. But we can try.”
Oscar Serrano, Paulino Villarreal Sr.’s son-in-law, said his legacy will live on in his family, who learned how to care for their neighborhood from their dad. Villarreal’s three children give out big candy bars on Halloween just like their dad did, and hold toy and school supply drives, Serrano said.
“It speaks a lot of his legacy,” Serrano said. “It shows how they’ve grown up with him. They took after him.”
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