CHICAGO — Twelve-year-old Junior Gonzalez walked into the living room and tightly hugged Rosa Valladares as she sobbed.
“Te quiero mucho mijo,” she told him.
“I love you too,” the boy responded in Spanish.
Just a few weeks ago, on Oct. 30, his mother, Esna Aracely Vásquez, 38, had died, leaving the boy forlorn and financially unsupported.
Valladares got a phone call on a Saturday morning and she rushed to the hospital to pick up the boy. When she walked into the hospital room to say goodbye, she promised her friend that she would take care of the boy — and has ever since.
“You can go in peace now,” Valladares said she told Vasquez.
Vasquez had migrated from Guatemala more than a decade ago and had no family in the United States to care for Junior. Up until her death, she had a restraining order against his biological father, records show.
The young mom had struggled with health issues for several years, and friends believe she died of a heart attack. The medical examiner’s office has not ruled on an official cause of death.
Immediately after Vasquez’s death, Valladares, a mother of two, set up a room for Junior in her small apartment and bought him some clothes. She then began to seek help to pay for her friend’s funeral.
Valladares is in the process of requesting legal guardianship of the boy.
“We love him dearly and we will take care of him; his mother knows we will,” she said.
In the days since, she has had some help from the Logan Square community in keeping her promise.
Neighbors, other Guatemalan immigrants in the Chicago area and teachers at Avondale-Logandale Elementary School, which the boy has attended since kindergarten, raised money to pay for funeral expenses and for Junior’s care.
Claudia Avila, the vice principal at the school, started a GoFundMe page that raised more than $7,000. Pablo Pineda, owner of Latin Patio, hosted a fundraising dinner, and the not-for-profit community organization Logan Square Neighborhood Association also rallied in support.
Nearly nine years ago, Valladares met Vasquez at a Logan Square laundromat when their young children began playing together. The two became best friends. Conversations while doing laundry turned into regular dinners and spending holidays together.
Valladares said that she and her husband never questioned caring for Junior as their own.
“We’ve always treated him like another son,” said Eduardo Reyes, Valladares’ husband.
Last month Reyes finally managed to get a new job at a factory near their home after losing his job during the early stages of the pandemic. The family had been relying on unemployment benefits for the past year.
Charles Golbert, Cook County Public Guardian, said that the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services is not likely to intervene as Valladares navigates the process to become Junior’s legal guardian, unless there is concern that the boy is at risk of harm.
Valladares said the support and love from the community has given her the strength to care for Junior. Her other best friend, Gloria Hernandez, has stood by her side.
Hernandez was also a good friend of Vasquez’s. The three women were like sisters, Hernandez said.
Like Vasquez, Hernandez is a Guatemalan immigrant who has no other family in the United States so they relied on each other, even having each other as emergency contacts.
“If she had asked me to care for her son, I would have done it too,” Hernandez said, “We’re grateful for all the support that Junior has received. I hope that it shows him that he is not alone and that we will never leave him alone.”
Both Hernandez and Valladares have children the same age as Junior. The three boys are inseparable.
“We want Junior to feel loved just like our children do,” Hernandez added.
A quiet and shy Junior, wearing his glasses and school uniform, hugged Hernandez when she went to visit on a recent Tuesday after school.
“Gracias por cuidarme,” he said. “Thanks for caring for me.”
Despite the pain, Junior has remained strong, the women said. When he feels sad, he asks one of them for a hug.
“I pray to God that he feels the hug from his mother through mine,” Hernandez said.