Virginia Ramos, the Mission District’s beloved Tamale Lady, who died two weeks ago, used to say:
“I don’t know you, but I love you.”
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On a bright, typically-Mission October Wednesday morning, family, friends and customers touched by Ramos over the years gathered to remember her at a Catholic service at Mission Dolores.
Ramos’s family wept in the front pews, flanking the casket. A few dozen friends and customers — people who got to know her love — scattered in the front rows. Most pews in the grandiose basilica remained empty, devoid of the thousands who relished in her tamales and sang her praises. As of Sunday morning, two weeks after her passing, a GoFundMe page to help cover her funeral expenses had raised just $3,620 of its $25,000 goal.
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A young man carried a small basket of white lilies down the aisle of the basilica, resting them in front of the altar. Minutes later, a black hearse transporting Ramos’s casket parked on Dolores Street in front of the church’s main entrance.
Six men, wearing black along with white gloves, carried the casket up the stairs to the church’s entrance and, accompanied by two funeral home staffers, ushered the casket down the aisle. Draped in silken white cloth with a green cross and knitted gold embellishment, it was placed in the center of the aisle, directly in front of the altar stairs
For some, the abundance of cheese or pork stuffed into Ramos’s namesake tamales made her unforgettable, and gave her the calling of an after-hours savior. Many recalled her as a fixture in the community, one who would always lend an ear to the troubled, offer advice to those in need, and love to whomever she graced. In some ways, she embodied what San Francisco believes itself to be — and, perhaps at some time was — yet now fails to manifest, amid tech behemoths and explosive rents.
Eerie silence dominated the service. Pastor Francis Garbo’s voice led the service as the only sound echoing inside the 100-year-old church. Organ music occasionally rose above the mumble of prayer whistling through the nave. The thud of kneelers being swung out from the pews reverberated, so people could kneel on them instead of the floor.
The mystery that is death, Garbo said, is certain and uncertain. We will all die, yet we don’t know when, how or, sometimes, why. He implored the small group of mourners to watch Coco, the Disney movie, saying its message, rooted in faith and tradition, spoke to the importance of remembering, always, “the memory of the family.”
“The first death will come to us when we stop breathing … the second death will come to us when the body is lowered to the ground … the third death will come to us when there is nobody who will remember us.”
“ … But let Virginia Ramos not die for a third time, for we will remember her.”
Larry Morgan, a San Francisco resident who attended Ramos’s service, clutched a bouquet of white flowers for her family. Morgan knew Ramos from the Eagle Tavern, and reminisced about her cheese tamales and the friendship they honed over the years:
“I’ll always think of her with love. [She was] always concerned about my well-being and just [gave] me advice, so I could be happy in life.”
Though death, Morgan said, is inevitable, news of Ramos’s passing took him by surprise. Immediately, he wondered if anyone would pick up her baton:
“There are many young people in The City that need someone like her, [someone] that can guide them. Who will step up?”
Monica McKenzie and Patricia Sanchez, both daughters of Ramos, told SFBay that Ramos, 65 when she died, was a person who made people feel at home.
McKenzie, a captain in the U.S. Army wearing her service uniform, said:
“[It was] her motherly instinct; her personality; she was humble; she was a good person.”
“She didn’t know you, but she loved you — she was like that.”
On Tuesday, a day before the funeral and burial, Ramos’s family held a public vigil for her at Duggan’s Funeral Service at 17th and Valencia. A handful of friends and former customers came to honor Ramos.
Amesia Doles, who has lived in San Francisco for 17 years, attended the vigil with her husband, Sean Thomas. Doles told SFBay:
“She just was definitely part of the fabric of, especially, our earlier existence in San Francisco like 15 years ago drunk at a bar — [and] she would be there, a savior with her tamales. It feels sad that she is not around.”
Ramos began dishing up her home-cooked tamales to drunks and sobers at bars around the Mission in the 1990s. Her insulated cooler, stashing her coveted cravings, rolled across The City from bar to bar. She became a familiar face at bars like Zeitgeist, Lucky 13, Eagle Tavern, Bender’s and Noc Noc.
Wes Rowe, owner of Wesburger ‘N’ More on Mission street, remembered standing outside a bar with his friends and seeing Ramos pull up in a “beat-up red car.” Voices would shout:
“TAMALE LADY is here.”
“[She] brought people together, a lot. The fact that you could be in a bar with a bunch of random strangers and then suddenly you are all eating tamales and you all have something in common.”
Rowe described her as having “this call,” almost like an “angelic figure.” Her popularity rose over the years, which he described as:
“It was almost like a claim to fame — how well you knew this kind of mysterious woman that is the Tamale Lady.”
Ramos was born in Jalisco, Mexico in 1953. She learned how to make tamales from her grandmother when she was still a young child. Yet, in a documentary called “Our Lady of Tamale,” by Cecil Lossy, she said she came “from nowhere.” Ramos detailed being strangled and assaulted by her uncle when she was 14. Her grandmother didn’t want her walking by herself at night and asked her son to accompany Ramos. That’s when he attacked her.
Ramos said in the documentary:
“My uncle tried to kill me.”
She said she had to marry her husband, with whom she lived for almost 14 years because she “had no place to go to.” She moved to the U.S. in the 1980s and raised seven children.
Ramos said in the documentary:
“I want to say thank you to everyone. Virginia is a person who [came] from nowhere. It’s like a different world, a different country. But, I found love. I never had it when I was young.” I don’t know how to explain how much this means to me.”
Lossy told SFBay he thinks that Ramos believed in the American dream. He described her as the epitome of somebody that came from nothing and became something:
“She had it tough, and she really built something out of nothing. She was not just a shrewd businesswoman but she also cared about the community. I know she was doing it to make money. But, I think after she found that the bars were the place [to sell her tamales], she started finding people that were in need of help.”
“I think in a way it was her mission. She definitely had a motivation to provide food for the hungry, and I think she also wanted to be there for —she called them — ‘her people. I need to be there for my people.’ She was a safe person to talk to, and she was a zero bullshit type of person. She wasn’t … trying to be something she wasn’t trying to be. She was just always humble and real.”
Lossy said Ramos’s children told him she spent a lot of time on San Francisco’s Woodward Street, policing and building the community there to try to keep it a safer space.
He said Ramos was unreluctant when it came to helping people. He once asked her for advice about a friend of his who he felt was “vortexing on a speed problem.” She took the time out of her day and drove with Lossy to talk to his friend, whom she had never met before.
“She said — ‘Come on, I’ll go talk to him, spray some holy water around his house, burn some incense, do what we can for him.’”
“She had that sort of helping spirit toward strangers. Her kids told me that they found a bunch of receipts for funeral services and stuff that she had paid for [for] people they didn’t even know. She was pretty generous and caring.”
Lossy and Ramos first met twenty years ago at a bar when he bought a tamale from her after performing with his band. Their friendship blossomed when Ramos asked Lossy to make the documentary about her, and before long, Lossy said he took her to some places she’d never been to: Her first boat ride, the bowling alley, and the amusement park, where he put her in the front car of a roller coaster.
Ramos told Lossy when she got off the ride:
“Honey, I’m glad I didn’t have a heart attack.”
He screened “Our Lady of Tamale” at her 50th birthday party at Mission’s Zeitgeist, a gritty, wildly popular bar at Valencia and Duboce closely associated with Ramos.
Isaac Camner, also known as “Eyeball,” has been a bartender at Zeitgeist for close to twenty years. Camner echoed the sentiment of Ramos meaning lot more to the community than her tamales:
“When she recognized you, she would get to know you. She made a point in getting to know all the people that visited her. We’ve had several conversations … she can pick up on your vibes, so she tried to make you happy.”
“She’s just a great lady. It was her way of giving to the community; she definitely brought smiles for everybody.”
To some, Ramos became the person that kept the “underground,” the folks frequenting the bars — musicians, artists — alive. Wherever the artists were, Ramos was there, too.
“She provided food and insight, and that’s a big thing when you’re underground. In other words, she kept us alive both literally and figuratively in a way.”
In 2013, Ramos was banned from selling tamales at Zeitgeist and other bars. San Francisco Environmental Health Department said bars would be held liable for allowing an unlicensed vendor to sell in their establishments because of the health code.
Lara Burmeister, a manager at Zeitgeist told SFBay:
“It was very disappointing to our customers because she was a fixture. She [had] a terrific personality and someone they liked to interact with … We are in the Mission, we’ve been here forever, [and] I think there is a lot of value to folks who are icons in our community.”
“I think our customers didn’t quite understand. At the time, we actually got a lot of backlash for it.”
Ramos stopped selling tamales and tried opening her own brick and mortar storefront near 16th and Mission with the help of then District 9 Supervisor David Campos. Campos didn’t return a message seeking comment for this story.
In hopes of establishing her own space, Ramos raised $20,000 through an IndieGoGo campaign, $30,000 shy of its $50,000 goal, in 2013. Nevertheless, she was still able to lease a space at 2943 16th St.
Ramos partnered with the Mission Housing Development Corporation, who was funding the build out. Yet, over the years, her long-awaited restaurant space never opened for business. According to reports, the restaurant was slated to open in April but was held up due to permitting process and required mandatory renovations.
According to Lossy, Ramos had been paying rent for the space for five years.
In 2014, Mission Local reported that Ramos owned a four-unit apartment building on 24th street, which she purchased weeks before the economy collapsed in 2008. However, Mission Local reported that some of her renters said that she had difficulty maintaining the building in 2014. Ramos purchased the building for $875,000 and took out a loan for $500,000 and $100,000 in revolving credit, according to Mission Local.
According to Mission Local, Ramos’s loan was interest-only, and she still owed the same amount she borrowed despite paying some $5,000 a month for more than five years at the time the article was published in 2014. The Mission Economic Development Agency issued a press release in 2014, saying Ramos was a “victim of predatory lending.” According to the release, Ramos “tried to fix her loan issue on her own starting in 2010, when a balloon payment came due. No luck.”
Ramos told Mission Local in the article, that once she gets the loan she sought to open her tamale restaurant, “all of this is going to be solved.”
In the article, Ramos also said she originally bought the apartment building for her seven children.
Lossy said he thought it was “pretty cool” that she was able to buy a property, nevertheless. Lossy said that she put three of her seven children through college:
“I thought that was pretty impressive.”
He last spoke to her about a month ago. Lossy said he first heard about Ramos’s death when people began sending him condolences messages:
“That’s how I got the news, which is weird and sucked, but that’s how I found out.”
“[It’s] pretty damn sad. I don’t feel like it was her time. I feel like she took care of everybody but herself. I just loved her a lot, and she was like a sister [to] me. I’m broken up with her passing. I’m really going to miss her.”
* * *
Pastor Garbo swung a gold thurible in his right hand. The smoke, airborne, and slightly visible, injected the nave with the aroma of frankincense. He invited whoever pleased to come to the front for communion — sharing with them bread.
When Garbo would call for another prayer, people knelt and clasped their hands, their heads slightly tilted down, their eyes closed. Others stood, some of their faces creased by what appeared a sad, hollow expression. Tears streamed down other faces.
One of Duggan’s Funeral Service staffer approached the casket and removed the white cloth.
McKenzie stepped onto the altar and addressed the crowd:
“Thank you all for your support in putting our mother to rest. We appreciate the support.”
Ramos’s family members and friends, in pairs of two, walked back down the aisle, following the six men and two funeral home staffers as they led the casket out of the nave. Silence persisted, the only sound audible was the sniffing of tearful mourners. Outside, the casket was put back into the hearse. A small swarm of people in black remained. They cried. They hugged.
Stacey, a San Francisco resident who offered only her first name, said she first met Ramos many years ago. Ramos would come to her work and bring 300 tamales for everyone in her office:
“She was a very loving person, and we had a friendship that was very good and personal. She was just a really nice person. She meant a lot to everybody; I can’t even imagine how many people know her.”
“I hadn’t seen her that much around but, I knew, there seemed like there was something going on with her.”
Ramos’s cause of death has not been made public.
With orange “Funeral” stickers stuck to the windshields, Ramos’s family members and friends drove to the cemetery.
But, they wouldn’t forget her; no, no one will forget “Our Lady of Tamale,” Virginia Ramos, not even The City of tech.
Her two tag lines, spoken with a sincerity only a person who truly cared for others could muster, were:
“I don’t know you, but I love you.”
“Have a drink, smoke a little weed, but don’t do the chemicals.”
And she really believed that, said Lossy:
“I think she took it on as a sort of as a responsibility of hers to look after some of the people that she would see night after night sort of too drunk or obviously on drugs or whatever. So she sort of took it upon herself to look after these people, and I think caring for people and that kindness is something that the community really responded to.”
“I feel that we all need to sort of now carry on for her when we’re dealing with people; we need to show the love and respect that she gave to people and carry on that tradition. We surely need it in this world.”