After armed robbery, South Chicago rallies around beloved elotero


The corner of 91st Street and Houston Avenue, next to a youth arts center in South Chicago, is not the same without Pepe’s elote cart, neighbors say. He has been selling corn, churros and other snacks there for more than a decade.

There are the children who run up to hug him — “mijos,” he calls them, a colloquial way to say dear, in Spanish — the long conversations with neighbors and the jokes and laughs with the kids at the nearby arts center from where he parks his cart. And even if someone is short a dollar or two, he still gives them their corn or whatever snack they’re craving.

Luego me lo pagas,” he tells them. “You can pay me later.” But what he really means is that it’s OK to take the snack without ever paying in full. It’s his way of showing love and appreciation for the community that has given him so much, he said.

But two weeks ago, on Sept. 21, Ruben “Pepe” Olivares was robbed at gunpoint right before 5 p.m. while selling on his usual corner outside the SkyArt studio at 3026 E 91st St. Three of his customers were standing with him when a masked man approached, pointed a gun and demanded money.

The gunman took more than $2,000 and shot in their direction five times — a sound heard by the children in the art studio. But no one was struck and the gunman fled, according to Chicago police. No one is in custody and Area 2 detectives continue to investigate.

Since then, Pepe has not returned to set up shop. The robber didn’t just take a week’s worth of income, Pepe said, he also stole his sense of peace in a community that he loves.

“I just need some time to recover,” said Pepe in Spanish while sitting outside his home a few houses from where the robbery occurred. “But I also just didn’t know just how many people cared for me, that they knew that I existed; that I matter in this community.”

Hundreds of the South Chicago community members, including children at the arts center, donated to a GoFundMe that Alex Galvan, an art therapist at SkyART created to help Pepe recover financially. It has reached almost $10,000.

“Pepe is a staple in our community,” said Tasha Robinson, chief operations officer at SkyArt. “I hope that he knows that now.”

Selling elotes, sometimes tamales and even Mexican flags, has been Pepe’s and his family’s livelihood since he migrated to South Chicago in 2010. But he has been a merchant his whole life, he said. In his native Veracruz, Mexico, he sold groceries.

Ruben “Pepe” Olivares pushes his elote cart over a mile down Commercial Avenue to cater an event.

Now he works most of the year. He starts in February, and only putsaway his cart through the colder months of the year. He named his business “Las Dos Hermanas,” after his two daughters.

His daughters, 21 and 19, now also run their own elote cart in the neighborhood.

“Some people make fun of us or undermine us, but this is a business like any other and it’s allowed me to support my family all these years,” he said.

South Chicago is a Black and Latino neighborhood that is, for the most part, quiet and peaceful, said Robinson. The robbery really struck the community and its response is no surprise, she said.

Many of the students at the center grow up not only seeing him, but getting to know him, forming a bond that goes beyond age, language and race. He and his wife, Patricia Mota are known beyond their elotes — they often participate in festivals and community events, often offering their goods for discounted prices.

Everyone at the center knows Pepe, Robinson said, and he participates in most of their events as a vendor. His wife also helps to clean the center.

The center, another pillar inthe community, provides children and young adults free visual art programs. It coincidently recently received a$250,000 grant to provide “Safe Space Programming” for youth through the Illinois Department of Human Services – Chicago Youth Development & Intervention Services.

“We teach our children how to take care of each other, how do we show up for our community,” Robinson said.

Pepe, is the epitome of that, Robinson said.

Riana Green, a community member, recalled the times that Pepe would walk over to her uncle’s car to give him his raspa — crushed flavored ice — through the window so that he wouldn’t have to get out of the car while he was undergoing chemotherapy.

“You helped him so I wanted to help you. You are a blessing to this community. Praying for you and thank you for what you did for my uncle. God bless,” Reene wrote on the GoFundMe page.

Pepe and his family said they are in awe of the “immense” amount of help that they’ve gotten. “May God bless them,” Pepe said.

Ruben “Pepe” Olivares, a beloved elotero in the South Side of Chicago, was robbed at gunpoint in mid-September on the corner where he has set shop for over a decade.

He said it’s his faith in God that is giving him the strength to cope with the traumatic event: “What if those bullets had struck me or my clients?” he said he asks himself. “I can’t help imagining an altar on that corner rather than my cart.”

The morning before the robbery an instructor at the center approached him to say hello. She gave him a hug and pointed out his shirt because it had an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe that matched the image of a pendant she had on.

After the robbery, she ran out and hugged him again.

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Ella nos cuido,” she told him. “She took care of us.”

In Mexico, his mother still waits for him. It was she who taught him to have faith in God and the Lady of Guadalupe. The two kept him safe.


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