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PASSAGES Community activist Elpidia Valles, mother of Center CEO, remembered
by Carrie Maxwell, Windy City Times

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Elpidia Casillas Gomez Valles—mother of Center on Halsted CEO Modesto Tico Valle—died peacefully in her sleep on Jan. 16. She was 78.

A pillar in the community, Valles was a machine operator/punch press operator for many years but spent most of her free time feeding and clothing people experiencing homelessness in Old Town—many of whom were living under the North Avenue bridge—as well as helping her two sons take care of their friends and boyfriends during the AIDS epidemic, all without the ability to read or write. ( She had a second-grade education. )

"She really stood for justice and equality for all people so it was fitting that her funeral was on the same day ( Jan. 20 ) as the Women's March on Chicago this year," said Valle. "When I came out and then my younger brother Danny came out during the height of the AIDS epidemic it was not a struggle for her to accept us and she also gave me permission to be out and proud. Seeing the discrimination, hatred and ugliness during the AIDS epidemic really opened my mom's eyes. When I took her to the first display of the AIDS Memorial Quilt at Navy Pier it was so powerful for her. She never hid the fact that she had two gay sons.

"My mom even came to the hospital to visit our friends and boyfriends who were dying of AIDS when we needed a break. She did not want them to die alone. She was always known for her food, and brought it to the hospital so we would eat nutritional meals. My mom inspired me, my siblings and everyone around her to do good and that is what we did."

Valles was born Nov. 16, 1939 in San Lorenzo, Puerto Rico. When Valles was 15, she moved to the mainland in Ohio with her uncle to escape the cycle of poverty and oppression she faced as a young woman in Puerto Rico. At the time, girls on the island were maids, cooks and nannies and she wanted more for her life. She took care of her uncle's kids and the household, however, he encouraged her to advance in life.

She married Juan Valle on April 27, 1957 at St. Rose de Lima Church in Youngstown, Ohio and they moved to Chicago's Old Town neighborhood after a stint in Puerto Rico where Valle was born. Valles chose Old Town because 50 years ago, the area had the best schools and housing was affordable for low income families.

Following Valles' death, her name was added to the memorial window on the third floor at the Center. The memorial window glass etchings look out onto the rooftop garden and honor deceased individuals who made a difference in the community. Their legacy is noted with the years of their life, as well as their printed name and personal signature.

"My staff told me they wanted to honor my mom because she was such an important part of our community. Over the years, the Center's seniors, youth and staff always looked forward to her meals," said Tico Valle. "They surprised me by having her signature stenciled on the glass. It was very moving when they revealed it to me. The photo of me and my siblings next to the etching was one of the ways we came together to honor our mom."

In addition to Tico, Valles is survived by sons Juan and Danny, daughter Elpidia, brother Ignacio Casillas, sisters Ines and Ramona Torres, grandson Juan Jr., and great-grandchildren Carlos, Angel and Jaylynn. She was preceded in death by son Carlos, mother Celina Gomez, father Modesto Casillas, brothers Bartolo and Nimio and sister Lydia.

"My mom would always say, 'Where there is food for one, there is food for all. From one plate we all eat,' said Danny. "My mom was and always will be a believer."

"My mom loved everyone," said her daughter Elpi. "She would give the shirt off her back and the food off her plate to anyone. She also fought for the rights of people that were being treated inappropriately and would always remind us, 'Nunca juzgues a nadie' ( Never judge anyone )."

"When I had the enormous pleasure of meeting Mother Valle in 1988, at the now legendary and historic AIDS Memorial Quilt display at the old Navy Pier, I knew this was a woman of valor," said longtime community HIV/AIDS activist and Open Hand Chicago Founder ( now a division of the Heartland Health Outreach ) Lori Cannon. "She had such pride in Tico's success within the LGBT and HIV/AIDS community and was a hands on gal when it came to volunteering, cooking for those who were alone and hungry and always that wonderful laugh and beaming smile. She was one in a million. Tico was fortunate to have learned from the best. We all were."

After the funeral and burial, more than 200 family and friends gathered at Center on Halsted to celebrate her life.

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