For The Better of Pilsen

By Ali Campbell

Paulino Villarreal Sr., 60 sits on a wrinkled, blue foldup chair outside his house, surrounded by his family. Though barely speaking, Villarreal is fully engrossed in the lives and stories of his children.

He said he was just visiting; an old Texas resident temporarily taking in his Latin roots, Pilsen. His wife, Judy, had a completely different story, pointing to the street signed that bore the name of her husband. The street’s formal name is Laflin Street. But it became honorary Paulino Villarreal when he stepped in to eliminate gang violence on his block.

“In the last few years, Pilsen has really grown up though, largely because of my husband,” Judy Villarreal said. “We made a difference in our community.”

Villarreal’s experience with gangs and progress for eliminating the conflict on his street displays the passion and care that the Pilsen community has for keeping the streets both safe and respected.

The Pilsen population of approximately 44,133 people has become predominately Latino in the last 20 years. Even with both similar nationality and religious affiliation, drugs, violence, gangs, and prostitution still hover the area.

“Even with its problems, this is one of the warmest communities,” a Loyola University Chicago professor who has done research on Pilsen, Ralph Braseth said. “The Latino community is largely centered on their church.”

Latino gangs have continued to circulate within Pilsen’s boundaries nightly; 16th Street, Halstead Street, Western Avenue, and Cermak Road. A major crossroad street for those gangs was Laflin Street. This is Villarreal’s street.

A residential area, unwillingly, became the point of crossfire. By making the road a one-way street, gangs, drugs, and violence could not cross paths; therefore preventing deadly shootouts.

“He wanted to make it safer for our grandchildren and the next generations,” Judy Villarreal said. “It is all what you make of your community and how you respect it.”

Looking over at a single man who made such a difference, he was congratulated on his accomplishments, replying with a simple “thank you.” Judy Villarreal looked back and said: “We are proud of this community. No one is getting us to leave this time.”

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