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Lives Lost: Purveyor of tacos, joy well loved in Seattle

SEATTLE – Tomas Lopez didn’t make the food he sold from his family’s bright green taco truck, but it was his face the customers knew.

Lopez sat at a table beside the truck in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood. He would count change from a fat roll of bills and juggle side-by-side credit card readers as he greeted his customers — long lines of Amazon employees, yellow-vested construction workers, the occasional journalist — with an ardent joy.

“Hello, my friend! Asada super burrito? How many today? Only one?”

“Hello, my friend! No yoga today? You must be hungry!”

“Hello, my friend! How many kids you have now – still only two? That’s OK, you have time. I have five.”

Lopez, 44, died of COVID-19 on April 2. His passing has been mourned by many who knew him only casually, but who nevertheless considered lunch at the truck and a quick conversation with him a bright spot in their day.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of an ongoing series of stories remembering people who have died from coronavirus around the world. ____

Lopez grew up in the Mexican state of Hidalgo, north of Mexico City. His village, Dengando, was so small it doesn’t appear on maps, said one of his sons, Isaac Lopez, 19. As a boy, Lopez tended to his grandfather’s sheep and cattle. For fun, he would make a soccer ball out of plastic bags and rubber bands and kick it against a goal he drew on a wall.

At about 15, he left for Mexico City, where he joined the military and became known for his traditional drumming. He played in a group of about 30 drummers during military ceremonies, Isaac said.

Lopez came to the United States in 1998, in his early 20s. He worked two years picking tomatoes and other crops in Oregon and then started in construction, doing drywall. He would call home to Antonia Zamorano, a girl he had met when she delivered food to the workers on his uncle’s farm. He returned to marry her and brought her back to the U.S.

Antonia started making food and selling it from the back of the family’s minivan at construction sites. From the minivan they upgraded to a taco truck, then added a second taco truck and a restaurant in Algona, near the small city of Pacific where they lived.

The family’s Tacos El Tajin was one of the first food trucks to park regularly in the formerly sleepy warehouse district where Amazon moved its headquarters a decade ago. The company’s employees and the construction workers building its campus proved reliable customers; Lopez’s joviality and the food kept them coming back.

Lopez simply loved to sell, Isaac said. He learned to trade phrases or crack jokes in German, Japanese, Hindi, Urdu and other languages to connect with Amazon’s international workforce. In February 2017, Tacos El Tajin got stuck in a traffic jam on Interstate 5. Unable to make it to Seattle, Lopez opened the truck right there on the interstate, selling tacos and a bit of levity to frustrated drivers.

“Sometimes all you need is a taco to be happy,” he said.

It earned him a quip from late night television host Seth Meyers: “Nothing gets traffic moving like a taco.”

How much Lopez meant to his customers was apparent after Isaac started an online fundraiser April 5, seeking $10,000 for the funeral and to keep the business afloat. Within 10 days, donations totaling more than six times that had poured in from more than 1,400 people, many of whom left comments describing their interactions with Lopez or how he would hand out burritos or beverages to homeless people in exchange for a handshake.

One called getting lunch at Tacos El Tajin “a momentary reset of positivity in the middle of our day.”

Isaac said his father could be demanding, making sure the family was up by 5 a.m. to get cooking.

Lopez loved spending time with his children, now ages 12 to 26. He would take them to the Space Needle, play chess or basketball, watch boxing. Isaac and Lopez sometimes played in a Sunday evening soccer game. Lopez was generous in girth as well as spirit, and the other guys were often surprised at how good he was, his son said.

Isaac has worked inside the truck taking orders, cooking and teaching employees to prepare the food, but his father recently began preparing him for a bigger role, including dealing with customers.

“Now that I don’t have him here and I have to help my mom run the business, I understand it,” Isaac said. "I wish he could have taught me more.”