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What is San Francisco Without the Tamale Lady?

Russell Yip/The Chronicle

For people of a certain era, Herb Caen represented San Francisco. For newer San Franciscans, maybe it’s someone like Jack Dorsey. For my era of San Franciscans, nobody represented The City more than Virginia Ramos, the woman we affectionately called the Tamale Lady.

For those of us who spent the late 90s and the 2000s aggressively drifting through San Francisco dive bars, searching for love and camaraderie, meaning and sex, Virginia was a constant. She wasn’t just a woman who sold tamales, she was a folk hero. When she would trundle into a bar, pushing the cart carrying her coolers of warm tamales, you knew she’d arrived even if you couldn’t see her. The sound frequency of the room would suddenly change; whispers and murmurs of “The Tamale Lady is here” would reverberate around the bar. Then you’d hear “TAM–A–LES” patiently hollered, but not quite yelled, as Virginia came into sight. In moments a crowd would coalesce around her clamoring for the life saving goodness hiding in her coolers.

Yes her tamales were fantastic, and were the vehicle that brought her into our lives, but Virginia was also a confidant, a giver of good advice, and a bastion of hugs. If she knew you she’d say “Hey baby. Everything good? What’s new?” and bring you in for a squeeze before moving onto the business of feeding you. Thinking back on it she was like an abuelita for an entire generation of San Francisco nighthawks.

Mural of the Tamale Lady by Megan Wilson

Virginia also literally saved lives. She even used to sell a t-shirt that said “Tamale Lady Saves” that had some kind of holy iconography on it. So many booze related fights, pregnancies, accidents, and other poorly made decisions were avoided because she would somehow appear at just the right moment to feed the drunken monsters that so many us would become. That was another part of her magic, you didn’t find the Tamale Lady, she found you.

My relationship with Virginia started nearly 15 years ago and had an important impact on the early days of Broke-Ass Stuart. In 2004 when I put out my first zine, Broke-Ass Stuart’s Guide to Living Cheaply in San Francisco, I’d written the following about her:

The Tamale Lady: This one might be a little misleading because, you don’t find the Tamale Lady, she finds you. On any given night in the Mission, Virginia, The Tamale Lady cruises around the bars selling her freshly made tamales, and they are FRIGGIN AMAZING! She sells at least 3 or 4 different kinds and give you hot sauce options also. And if that weren’t enough, she’s had the foresight to commodify herself; She sells Tamale Lady shirts and stickers. She’s the Jay-Z of the Tamale game. Keep your eyes peeled because she always shows up when you least expect her.

When I was getting ready to put out volume 2 in 2005, I approached Virginia one night at Zeitgeist (the place she was most often found) and showed her what I’d written. Then I asked if she would give me a quote for the cover. She did and it was this spectacular gem:

When you’re a baby, you have your mama to take care of you, but now that you’re grown up you have to take care of yourself. So don’t do drugs, and buy Stuart’s book.

To celebrate the new zine I threw a huge party at the Balazo Gallery (RIP) where my friends’ bands played and there was free food from the restaurant I worked at, Pasta Pomodoro. I also invited Virginia to come and slang tamales. Her being there was the highlight for many of the people who attended. All throughout the event folks would come up to me and be like “Stuart, you know the Tamale Lady? That’s awesome!” People loved Virginia so much that just her being at my party solidified my street cred and gave Broke-Ass Stuart real legitimacy.

My second zine. Note the Tamale Lady quote.

Virginia’s endorsement was so powerful that when Broke-Ass Stuart’s Guide to Living Cheaply in San Francisco came out as an actual book in 2007, we used the quote on the cover again. For many years people associated the Tamale Lady and Broke-Ass Stuart and because of this there were plenty of nights out at the bars where people would ask me if I knew where to find her. I always shrugged and said no. Even though I had her number, the only time I ever used it was to connect her with private catering gigs or people who wanted to interview her.

Virginia and I from my book.

Throughout all of this, Virginia and I became friends and whenever I’d run into her, we’d chat for awhile. She’d ask me about how my books were doing or about my TV show or website. I’d ask her how the tamale business was and when she was gonna open her restaurant. And while she was often saving lives and doling out love and advice, there were some really funny moments too.

Every year for her birthday Zeitgeist threw a party for Virginia (that is of course until the city forced them to stop allowing her to sell tamales there). It was always a raucous affair. Bands would play and they’d show the documentary that was made about her life. One year always sticks in my mind because after a long day of partying, Virginia was leaning over one of the tables and puking into a trash can as a couple crusty bike messengers rubbed her back. Considering Virginia was always the sober voice of reason in a sea of wasted scoundrels, it was funny for once seeing her on the flip side of the coin.

Unfortunately, as we found out yesterday Virginia Ramos, the Tamale Lady, passed away. As of now the medical examiner has not released the cause of death, but this much is certain: San Francisco has lost one of its most cherished legends. But Virginia’s death is more than that.

For me, and for the thousands of people who Virginia nourished nightly with food and love, it’s not just a friend and a folk hero who passed away, but our version of San Francisco. The Tamale Lady represented the San Francisco that we fell in love with. She was kind and generous and made a living doing what she loved: making people happy. Virginia was a symbol of the San Francisco that existed between tech booms, back before all our friends got evicted or were priced out, back when so many evenings were spent with so many people that we loved. Virginia was proof that we were living in the best city in the world because, where else could you end your night with a serendipitous hug and a tamale?

The Tamale Lady as drawn by Jeremy Fish

The thought of a San Francisco without the Tamale Lady absolutely breaks my heart. To say that San Francisco will never be the same without her is an understatement. For so many of the people, San Francisco will never be San Francisco again.

We love you Virginia. You will be so deeply missed.

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Broke-Ass Stuart - Editor In Cheap

Broke-Ass Stuart - Editor In Cheap

I've been called "an Underground legend": SF Chronicle , "an SF cult hero": SF Bay Guardian, and "the chief of cheap": Time Out New York, but to those familiar with my work, I'm just "that douchebag who writes books about cheap stuff and drinks a lot".