Left: South Chicago elotero Ruben "Pepe" Olivares poses with young customers. Right: Olivares' cart at 91st Street and Houston Avenue. Credit: Provided

SOUTH CHICAGO — A beloved elotero was robbed last week and his neighbors have since donated thousands of dollars to help him recover, making clear his family’s years of support for their Southeast Side community have not gone unnoticed.

Ruben “Pepe” Olivares was selling sno-cones, chicharrones, fruit and more from his cart at 91st Street and Houston Avenue around 4:30 p.m. Thursday when someone stole more than $2,000 before shooting at him.

No one was injured, though Olivares’ cart was damaged. No one was in custody as of Friday afternoon, Chicago Police spokesperson Breanna Ogunkoya said.

“It could’ve went so much worse than it did,” Olivares said in Spanish as his daughter, Jacquelin Landa, translated.

The robber took the day’s income as well as Olivares’ money for rent and bills, Olivares said.

“Money comes and goes — it’s not something [I’m] really worried about,” he said. “Right now, [I’m] going to take a little break to make sure everything calms down.”

Art therapist Alex Galván, who works at the SkyART visual arts center on Olivares’ block of 91st Street, organized a GoFundMe for Olivares and his family soon after the shooting.

Neighbors donated enough to replace the stolen $2,000 within five hours, and the fundraiser continued to blow through larger goals through the weekend.

The fundraiser reached more than $7,800 as of Monday morning. To donate, click here.

“[I’m] thankful for the community and all the help they have provided,” Olivares said. “The people that donated and put a dollar, or whatever it was — [I wish] that it [returns] way more money for them.”

Left: Ruben “Pepe” Olivares gives two thumbs up as he works his snack cart at 91st Street and Houston Avenue. Right: Olivares poses with a group of young people at his cart. Credit: Provided

Olivares plans to use some donated money to restock his treats, install cameras on his cart and build a secure stash box “so he can have his money somewhere nobody can see or easily take it,” Landa said.

He also called for more security along 91st Street, considering a senior home, grocery store, SkyART and Arnold Mireles Academy are all near his cart, he said.

Young Southeast Siders are Olivares’ “main supporters,” and he is touched at how people of all stripes have supported him in Thursday’s aftermath, he said.

Kids are even among the fundraiser’s backers and have donated $5 or $10 where they can, SkyART executive director Devon VanHouten-Maldonado said.

The elotero’s customers “talk to him like he’s their brother, their sibling, their father — they all trust him,” Landa said. “When people come, he’ll be like, ‘That’s my niece, that’s my uncle.’ He claims everyone as his family.”

Olivares and his wife, Patricia Mota, are neighborhood pillars beyond selling treats to Southeast Siders.

They’ve shown their generosity in numerous ways: offering up discounted vendor services to local organizations, sending clothes to Mexico and even organizing a baby shower for a young pregnant neighbor who needed support, neighbors said.

“That’s why the community is rallying around [Olivares] and making sure he gets back way more than he lost,” VanHouten-Maldonado said.

Galván has developed a “really authentic and organic relationship” with the family, she said. Olivares, Mota and their kids attended her graduation party, for which Mota made rice and beans.

“If I’m donating clothes, [Mota] is my person to go to, and she will find someone to give them to,” Galván said. “They’re the epitome of community.”

Left: Ruben “Pepe” Olivares hugs a young child at his cart at 91st Street and Houston Avenue. Right: Customers line up at the elotero’s cart. Credit: Provided

Despite neighbors’ plentiful donations, money can’t resolve all the impacts of last week’s robbery for Olivares and his loved ones, Galván said.

Galván encouraged customers to ask the elotero and other 91st Street neighbors what they need to recover from Thursday’s traumatic events.

“The money is just the surface of it, [given the] emotional trauma and damage that has likely been done,” she said. “One of the best ways to support people through that is to make people feel like they are a part of the community — that they are loved and not alone.”

The armed robbery took place as a group of SkyART photography students was set to step outside with their cameras, VanHouten-Maldonado said. The kids and staff have been traumatized by what they witnessed, he said.

SkyART will offer open therapy hours to the kids and other neighbors, with more details to come, VanHouten-Maldonado said. To support the the center’s slate of free programs, including the therapy sessions, click here.

The robbery has South Chicagoans brainstorming how to ensure public safety in all forms, as “we’re safest when we’re in community,” Galván said. “There’s power in numbers and in relationships.”

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