CHICAGO — To those who knew her, Alma Zamudio embodied the heart of Chicago just as much as the neighborhood where she died.
A passionate community organizer, Zamudio advocated for better wages for migrant workers and lobbied in Springfield for college grants for first-generation students. Her research helped resurrect the No. 31 bus, providing much-needed public transit for Little Village.
Zamudio died last month at 26 after a chronic illness that worsened over the last year, her sister Maria Zamudio said. Her unexpected death remains a hard loss for the Latino communities and organizations she devoted her life to on Chicago's West and South sides.
"She was so young," Maria Zamudio said of her sister. "But I think she touched more lives in those 26 years than some people will in their lifetime."
On the final scorching-hot days of September, hundreds came to mourn the beloved activist — so many that by the end of the service, all 400 prayers cards were gone before the crowds had finished paying their respects.
Friends are also raising money to establish a scholarship in Alma Zamudio's name. More than 200 people have donated $12,600 since the Joliet native died Sept. 22 near Harrison Park.
"For me, remembering Alma goes far beyond what she did, but what she stood for," her friend Lynda Lopez wrote in a Streetsblog Chicago tribute. "Alma taught us what it means to challenge our work, to critically think about our roles and to truly center community as we seek to make change."
Alma Zamudio died Sept. 22 in the Heart of Chicago after years of passionately advocating for Latino communities. [Provided/William Carmago]
While the days since Zamudio's death have been a blur for her sister, stories from people whose lives Alam touched stand out in her mind, Maria Zamudio said Friday.
"I can't tell you how much she saved my life," one young man told Maria. An older woman said Alma Zamudio's paralegal work on an immigration issue helped her family in ways that would stay with them forever.
The people Zamudio helped were often those in whom she saw herself, her sisters said.
Their father, Guillermo Zamudio, was a farm hand who became a landscaper, while their mother Cibeliz worked in a factory. They moved to Joliet from Mexico when Zamudio was 4 years old.
The Zamudios were a "typical working immigrant family," said sister Edith Zamudio, 36. She and Maria helped raise Alma, the baby of the family, along with two older brothers.
"Alma was a force of nature since she was a little kid," said Maria, 33. "She was very artistic, but we didn't have a lot of money, so she would grab whatever she could get her hands on to paint."
Alma's interests expanded to include photography, swimming and playing the trumpet. She was smart in school, enough so that a college professor urged her to pursue a master's degree at an Ivy League university, but she ended up attending the University of Illinois at Chicago.
"She had a gift; whatever she was doing, she was good at," Maria Zamudio said. "She just made it look easy."
At the same time, Alma loved to laugh and "had this silly side," Edith said. The family's designated jokester loved to play with her nieces and nephews, take hikes and care for her dog, Fox. Once, while hiking through Incan ruins in Peru in college, Zamudio came upon a herd of llamas and insisted on getting a selfie with one she christened "Alma the Llama."
"We're experiencing this amazing sight, and she's following a llama and taking a selfie," Maria said. "That's classic Alma."
Alma Zamudio posted her hard-won llama selfie on Facebook, introducing followers to "my new best friend." [Provided/Maria Zamudio]
Her love of art continued into adulthood. She bought Edith her first painting set, and the two sisters would get together often for a night of wine and painting, Edith said.
"[She] encouraged me to do that," Edith Zamudio said. "And the way she paints was very effortless, and it came out so beautiful."
Zamudio graduated from the UIC in 2013 with a bachelor's degree in urban planning and public affairs and was a graduate student there when she died. Her family was "in awe" of what she accomplished as a community organizer, her sisters said.
Zamudio quickly put her education to use with the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, the Latino Union of Chicago and the Latin United Community Housing Association, or LUCHA.
"She advocated fiercely for our tenants and community members and was passionate about organizing around workers' rights and social justice in general, but especially toward advancing housing as a human right," said Juan Carlos Linares, executive director of LUCHA. "On this, Alma was a guiding north star for LUCHA."
In a message to the LUCHA community, Linares noted that the Tierra Linda affordable housing development set to open early next year in Humboldt Park, were developed thanks to the early work of Zamudio.
"She cared a lot about helping folks that oftentimes fall through the cracks," said Maria Zamudio. "She had a lot of conviction in what she thought was right and wrong, and she worked from that moral compass."