Married at 14, a mom at 15 and with only a few years of schooling, Basilisa Diaz Galindo immigrated to the United States at 44 and established a Chicago taco stand that draws lines of foodies and plaudits from esteemed chefs.
At first, she sold goodies from the cooler she lugged to Mexican soccer matches in Chicago parks. When she discovered Maxwell Street, it reminded her of el mercado in her Mexican hometown.
She used her recipes to establish Rubi’s, a family foodstand that now operates at the new Maxwell Street, 800 S. Desplaines St.
“We have to make things we’d like to eat ourselves,” she used to say.
Customers line up each Sunday for her made-on-the-spot tortillas loaded with steak, pork, mushrooms, nopales (cactus), huitlacoche (corn fungus) or flor de calabaza (squash blossoms). Her secret sauce? A mole of many ingredients.
Hungry patrons have included Mayor Rahm Emanuel, rapper Action Bronson and “Shameless” actor Jeremy Allen White. Chef Rick Bayless dropped by with a foodie friend in tow — Andrew Zimmern, host of the Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods.”
“The first time I tasted Rubi’s food was when Maxwell Street Market was on Canal. I was blown away by the depth of flavor and the respect for tradition,” Bayless said. “She was cooking for herself. She was not necessarily cooking for her audience, or cooking this because it will sell better. It was evident that she was cooking the food she loved, and we got to love it too.”
Ms. Diaz, who’d been in failing health, died last month at a North Side hospice. She was 84, according to her granddaughter, Evelyn Ramirez Landa.
She grew up in the town of Iguala in the state of Guerrero, the baby in a family of five girls and seven boys. Her father, Facundo Diaz, died when she was young and the children — like their mother, Margarita Galindo — learned to be self-reliant.
At 14, Basilisa married a young man she met at a dance, Aurelio Ramirez Ventura, said their son, Gilberto, who operates Rubi’s with Maria Guadalupe Landa.
They lived apart for much of their 70-year marriage, according to their son and granddaughter.
She used to say, “ ‘I’m not going to let a man tell me what to do,’ ’’ said her granddaughter. “She was basically the man and the woman at home, a luchadora [fighter]. She always said that she was able to walk by herself, without a man by her side.”
Ms. Diaz immigrated to Chicago in the late 1970s, following her husband, who came here to work.
“She was so eager and had a vision about having a better life,” her granddaughter said.
She lived in Uptown, Buena Park and Albany Park. At first, she had a job in a factory.
On Saturdays, she started selling her food at soccer games played by teams from Guerrero. “Tacos barbacoa, fruit, mango,” her granddaughter said. She also offered te de canela, cinnamon tea, with a good kick from a shot of rum.
Ms. Diaz sold her sandwiches at indoor matches at the Odeum Expo Center in Villa Park. She wasn’t supposed to bring in outside food, but, “The soccer teams, they would help her smuggle the tortas in the Odeum. They would put them in their bags and say they were uniforms,” her granddaughter said.
She was proud about giving many other Mexican immigrants their first jobs in America. “I came here to give jobs to people — not to be given a job,” she’d say, according to her granddaughter.
On Sundays, she began selling her culinary creations at the original Maxwell Street Market. She named the foodstand Rubi’s after one of her granddaughters. Rubi’s also became a vendor this year at the 61st Street Farmers Market.
She liked to listen to music while she cooked. Her favorite vocalist was El Rey, Vicente Fernandez. She enjoyed the songs of Chayito Valdez, Victor Manuel and Paquita la del Barrio, whose barbed ballads of female empowerment include “Hombres Malvados” (Evil Men) and “Rata de Dos Patas” (Two-legged Rat).
And Ms. Diaz loved the Brazilian telenovela “O Clone.”
In addition to her husband, son and granddaughter, Ms. Diaz is also survived by her daughter, Monica Gomez; sons Jose, Andres and Marco, 23 more grandchildren and many great-grandchildren. Another son, Aurelio, died before she did. Services have been held.
“She would say,” her granddaughter said, “the United States changed her life.”