Paulino Villarreal Sr., long-time municipal worker and volunteer from Pilsen, remembered as “the grandfather of the whole neighborhood”

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PILSEN — Paulino Villarreal Sr. had been a fixture in 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 municipal 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 years old. His death was a blow to the united family and the district of Pilsen.

Originally from Laredo, Texas, he moved to Chicago as a young teenager in search of a better life, his family said. Shortly after, he meets the one who will 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 their marriage, 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.

Credit: Provided
Judy and Paulino Villarreal Sr. have been married for 52 years.

Paulino Villarreal Sr. worked for the Neighborhood Streets and Sanitation Department for more than 33 years, his family said. In addition to his day job, he has consistently volunteered his time, whether supporting the Men’s Shelter across the street, handing out turkeys at Thanksgiving or passing petitions for elected officials, his children said.

“If he knew you were hungry, he would feed you,” said Judy Villarreal. “If he knew you needed a few dollars, he would give them to you.”

Paulino Villarreal Sr. has worked tirelessly to make his block a safe space for everyone, said Judy Villarreal.

“We had bullets in our homes, but we didn’t give up,” she said. “The gangbangers were doing graffiti, and he was rounding them up and saying, ‘You turn it up, you take it down.’ … He not only wanted better for the family, but for everyone.

His dedication to the community was officially recognized 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 “delighted” with the recognition.

“He was a grandfather for the whole neighborhood”

As the family patriarch, Paulino Villarreal Sr. “was your typical Latino relative – very strict, a very harsh disciplinarian. He would never let me get away with anything, his daughter Lucia Villarreal said.

Villarreal was just as protective of his grandchildren as he was of his children, the family said.

Destiny Serrano, one of Villarreal’s granddaughters, is a police officer in Chicago. When she worked night shifts, she let her grandfather know where she was in the city so he could listen to the scanner and keep an eye on her.

Credit: Provided
Judy and Paulino Villarreal Sr. and their seven grandchildren.

On another occasion, two of his granddaughters went on a trip to Iowa alone, which worried him.

“[My father] didn’t tell me about the whole weekend they were away,” said her daughter Lucia Villarreal with a laugh. “When they came back safe and sound, then we could talk.”

Granddaughter Mireya Villarreal said she will fondly remember riding bikes around the neighborhood and on the University of Illinois at Chicago campus with him.

“He always made sure each of us had a bike,” she said.

Credit: Provided
Neighborhood kids knew Paulino Villarreal Sr. as the “joyful man.”

Even as Paulino Villarreal Sr.’s health deteriorated, he followed his grandchildren and neighborhood children with his walker, Mireya Villarreal said, watching them.

“He was the grandfather of the whole neighborhood,” said Mireya Villarreal.

Paulino Villarreal Sr.’s family said his favorite pastime was sitting on the bench outside his home to chat and greet passing neighbors while Tejano music played.

Neighborhood kids call him a “joyful man,” said his son Paulino Villarreal Jr. He said his dad makes it a point to always have ice cream in his freezer so the kids can pick it up during the summer.

After Paulino Villarreal Sr. passed away, his family received an outpouring of support from people who knew him and remembered seeing him as a father figure or mentor, Lucia Villarreal said.

“Every street in the city deserves to have a Paulino in its neighborhood,” a local woman wrote to Lucia Villarreal. “A truly safe neighborhood only happens with alert and caring neighbors.”

“That says a lot about his legacy”

The presence of Paulino Villarreal Sr. is absent from his living room. His family filled their corner rocking chair with their favorite Dallas Cowboys photo, hats and blanket.

Villarreal’s family say he is a true Texas man – a huge Cowboys fan and country music lover. Every time the family listens to George Strait’s song “The Cowboy Rides Away,” they think of him.

Credit: Madison Savedra/Block Club Chicago
The family installed a photo and personal effects of Paulino Villarreal Sr. as a memorial in the living room of their Pilsen home.

Judy Villarreal said the loss of her husband was incredibly difficult.

“It wasn’t supposed to happen,” she said through tears. “We’re supposed to have it. I can’t sleep without him. … It is a mistake; that’s not true.”

The family said they are doing what they can to honor his memory.

“My dad was the last of the greats,” said Paulino Villarreal Jr. “I will never fill his shoes, my sister or my brother. The three of us combined couldn’t do what he did. But we can try.”

Credit: Provided
Paulino Villarreal Sr. was originally from Texas and was a lifelong fan of country music and the Cowboys football team.

Oscar Serrano, the son-in-law of Paulino Villarreal Sr., said his legacy will live on in his family, who learned to care for their neighborhood from his father. The three Villarreal kids hand out big treats on Halloween, just like their dad, and organize drives for toys and school supplies, Serrano said.

“It says a lot about his legacy,” Serrano said. “It shows how they grew up with him. They took after him.

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