Three cheers for the Tamale Guy!

Dear Willow:

The tamale guy was released from the hospital!!!

You’re not familiar with the tamale guy?

For 20 years, every weekend the tamale guy would go bar hopping in Chicago. Not to drink, though. He would lug around a big red cooler, full of delicious, homemade tamales for sale. Exactly what you might want at midnight after a few beers.

It would be like if your favorite Mexican restaurant delivered, but you didn’t have to bother with ordering and the food showed up before you knew you were hungry.

He was such a fixture of neighborhoods like Wicker Park that it seems like everyone knows him. I don’t live in those neighborhoods, and I almost never go out to bars, and even I know the tamale guy. He came to the Long Room that one time I was there ten years ago, and for a couple bucks I got the best tamale I’ve ever had.

Every time he entered a bar, cheers would go up, and he’d be swamped with buyers.

He’s so beloved, Transit Tees had a patch made depicting his signature red cooler.

That being said, until recently, most people didn’t know his name. Kind of like a superhero, but with a red cooler instead of a red cape. Mild-mannered Clark Kent is really Superman. Claudio Velez is…The Tamale Guy.

And his COVID story is truly amazing.

When all the bars were ordered to close in mid-March, Claudio – like many in the hospitality and entertainment industries – found himself suddenly without income. He tried to switch to home delivery, but the city ordered him to stop. Now what?

A fan with the moniker Marisa KM organized a GoFundMe page, to help Claudio stay afloat until the bars could reopen. Her goal was $10,000. She raised over $36,000, from almost two thousand fans of the tamale guy.

That support was not only enough to keep Claudio on his feet, it was enough from him to open a little restaurant in mid-August called – what else? – The Tamale Guy.

On his first day open, he sold out.

If this were the end of Claudio Velez’s COVID story, it would be a tale worth telling, a lighthouse on the rocky shores of this pandemic, beaming out community and solidarity and hope.

God knows I needed this kind of story.

Experts in ongoing crises, like Dr. Aisha Ahmad of the University of Toronto, say that the experience of a slump occurring at the six-month mark is near-universal. Maybe you feel like you’ve hit a wall, like you don’t want to do much of anything. Like you have the symptoms of depression without actually feeling depressed. Like your personal surge capacity – your mental and physical ability to successfully deal with acute, short-term stressors – is entirely depleted by the never-ending onslaught that has been 2020, with no respite to build the reserves back up.

No? Just me?

Back to Claudio.

In mid-August, The Tamale Guy was a huge success, with lines stretching up to ten blocks and waits as long as two hours. And then, on August 27, two weeks after his dream was realized, Claudio was diagnosed with COVID, hospitalized, and put on a ventilator.

It was a shocking turn of events. Despite having only that one experience with Claudio and his tamales, when I heard the news, my stomach dropped.

Chicago held a little of its collective breath. And kept holding it.

The restaurant closed for cleaning and to see if any other staff would test positive. Claudio was still in the ICU.

A new GoFundMe was organized to help his family pay for his medical bills. It raised almost $57,000. Claudio was still in the ICU.

The Tamale Guy reopened in mid-September, after all of the staff – thankfully – were negative for coronavirus. Claudio was still in the ICU.

His condition honestly wasn’t something I thought about daily as September dragged on. But every time he crossed my mind, I did a quick search for any news, but it was always the same. Claudio – still in the ICU.

And then, a few days ago, somewhat suddenly, he was released. Off the ventilator, with a long road to recovery, but able to go home. To be with his family. To visit his beloved restaurant. The nurses and doctors who cared for him day in and day out while he fought for his life, they lined the hallways and clapped and cheered as he was wheeled out of the hospital.

Is someone cutting onions in here?

We’ve been talking a lot lately about narrative, a broad, overarching story made up of many smaller, more specific stories. At Willow, we’re usually thinking in terms of brand narrative for our clients, but I can’t help thinking of the narrative of COVID in America and how Claudio Velez’s story may be a part of it.

The existing narrative – especially in the last weeks – has been almost uniformly one of pain, death, disbelief, polarization, anger, fear, failure. And the data certainly bears out that narrative. More than 210,000 Americans dead from the virus. A ravaged economy. A national response that is confused at best and deliberately negligent at worst. Messaging that ranges from “Do not let this dominate your life” to “This is very dangerous and may kill you or your loved ones.” Small acts of violence across the country over the issues of mask-wearing.

These are the stories that are making up the larger COVID narrative.

But Claudio’s is different. His story resonates so powerfully, because in this one man, we see hope for all of us, both individually and as a nation. Like so many of us, COVID upended Claudio’s world, but he turned disaster into triumph with the help of a community of strangers. The odds were stacked against him, but he beat them, thanks to his well-wishers, his nurses, and his doctors.

It’s one man’s story, but it’s also the story of how we can and do take care of one another. How we can and do rally around each other. How it is possible to make it through this stronger and more resilient as a people.

This story is repeated when we read about the residents of a small town bringing casseroles to a sick newcomer. When we hear about an online group creating a signup sheet to bring baked treats to seniors isolated in nursing homes. When we witness an outpouring of support for those who are struggling with loneliness, illness, job loss.


That’s part of the COVID narrative, too. Even as we continue to deal with the very real repercussions of the pandemic, we’re not facing unrelieved bleakness. There are glimmers of light, if we choose to see them.

Thank you, Claudio, for reminding me of that. And the most sincere best wishes for your health and success.

Long live the tamale guy!


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