The Tamale Lady

The Tamale Lady. That’s what everyone calls the weary young-old woman who pushes her shopping cart to the middle of the block and sets up on the sidewalk, selling breakfast for $1 and $2.


Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
The Tamale Lady at her Astoria Boulevard station.

She does have a name. It may or may not be Idalia Garcia. It’s not important. But her story is.

Idalia has been The Tamale Lady for three of the nine years she has called America her home. Her family was poorer than poor, and she had a pretty hard life in Guerrero, Mexico, which is why she left.


Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Selling tamales helps her support her two children.

Like many, if not all immigrants, she was seduced by the elusive promise of prosperity.

She couldn’t find work in her native land, and she couldn’t find work here, which is why she ended up selling tamales on the street on Saturdays and Sundays.

She doesn’t have much schooling. She doesn’t know much English. She doesn’t have papers. And she doesn’t have a way out.


Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
Get breakfast on the go for $1 to $2.

It’s all well and good to talk about the future, but Idalia has to deal with the here and now. She has two children — a 9-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old son.

She lives with them and their father in a two-bedroom apartment nearby. He has a full-time job in a cafeteria, but he doesn’t make enough money to pay all the bills.


Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
She’s on the sidewalk every Saturday and Sunday.

“It’s very expensive to live here,” she says through an interpreter. “Mexico was much cheaper.”

Idalia gets up at 3 a.m. to fix the food and arrives at her station on Astoria Boulevard between Crescent and 23rd Streets at 6 a.m. She packs up around 11 a.m.


Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
One of Idalia’s homemade tamales.

The couple hundred bucks she makes each weekend is not enough to buy her a better life.

Idalia, a blend-into-the-background woman with the cherubic cheeks of a child, puts on a brave face and a big smile, but there’s a sad longing in her eyes. She wants to do something with her life. She’s only 35.

“I’m sorry I left Mexico,” she says. “It wasn’t supposed to turn out like this.”


Photo by Nancy A. Ruhling
She has a steady stream of customers.

Quitting the sidewalk stand is not an option. When it’s freezing, she bundles up, and when the sun bores into the concrete like a laser, Idalia takes shelter under a sky-blue patio umbrella.

Still and stone-faced as a statue, she stoically waits for the customers.

A construction worker in hard hat and dust-covered boots stops to buy a couple of tamales. The Tamale Lady takes the $5 bill and fishes in her pocketbook to get him change.

Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at
Copyright 2014 by Nancy A. Ruhling