An Oral History Of Taco Land 10 Years After The Death Of Ram Ayala

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Ever the prickly character, those that knew him well said Taco Land club founder Ram Ayala, murdered a decade ago, was a teddy bear on the inside. - Ryan Parker
Ryan Parker
Ever the prickly character, those that knew him well said Taco Land club founder Ram Ayala, murdered a decade ago, was a teddy bear on the inside.

On the night of June 23 a decade ago, the San Antonio Spurs bested Detroit for the second championship of the Duncan-Ginobili-Parker era. As the city celebrated the new Finals bling, the rock 'n' roll community mourned the death of Ram Ayala, killed that night in a robbery of his bar, Taco Land.

Creative in his profanity and saturated with beer, Ayala had a hard shell — like a near-frozen, potentially sour can at the back of the fridge — covering a generous and giving heart. His libertine candor, a libertarian booking policy and dangerously cheap tallboys made Taco Land a haven for touring and native rock 'n' rollers.

A decade after Ayala's death, the San Antonio Current caught up with some Taco Land regulars:

Roland "Nightrocker" Fuentes, Taco Land employee: We met when I was underaged, probably like most everybody else. Trying to sneak into the bar.

Erik Sanden, Buttercup: I met Ram at the bar in 1989. I was 17. He did not know that.

Phil Luna, Shit City Dream Girls / Employee: I was in high school, had a band. We were scared of Taco Land, it was a dark, divey place. After about four gigs, we called and said 'hey, can I speak to Ram? This is Phil from the —' he just cut me off. 'I know who you are, pussy. What do you want?'

Kory Cook, Sons of Hercules: Well, Ram called everybody pussy, as a term of endearment. But for me, it was 'Austin pussy.' And that was more endearing than anything else he could have called me. 

Current: Ayala could fill a book with offensive, unforgettable catch phrases. But political correctness, basic hygiene and TABC considerations wouldn't have made the cut. In 2002, the San Antonio Current published a list of Ram-isms, including "one more time for the march of dimes," a request for the band to play on.

Phil Luna: He carried a water or soda bottle filled at the start of the night with gin. As he drank it and people brought in bottles, people would pour whatever they had into his water bottle. So it'd have four or five different liquors in it and he'd say, 'kiss The Baby, motherfucker!' And you'd have to take a drink and it was usually really good.

Erik Sanden: He only had a license to sell beer, but he'd have The Baby every night. And he'd pour whiskey and schnapps in there when it already had gin. 

odie. (mononymic), Buttercup: It wasn't a glass bottle. It was like a Sprite bottle.

Current: A projectionist at the Aztec Theatre earlier in life, Ayala opened Taco Land in 1965, selling 10-cent tacos to scrape a profit. In 1969, he bought the little building at 103 West Grayson. By the late '70s, there were no more tacos, only beer and bikers. But as punk hit San Antonio like a tattered fist, Ayala began hosting shows in the early '80s. At the time, the now-swank Pearl neighborhood had yet to see the redemption of a developer's pocketbook.

Jeff Smith, Hickoids: I would describe it as a shabby, dis-used, industrial part of town. 

odie.: It was the industrial zone. I wouldn't say scary, but it was dicey. If you fell over the side by the river, there was like 10 years of beer cans and dead leaves to break your fall.

Erik Sanden: It was not a perfect place, at all. In a lot of ways, it was a shithole. And full of all the attendant problems. I got beat up there, I know people who got shot there, and of course Ram. It was not 'Taco Land: the perfect place.' Racist song on the jukebox.

An Oral History Of Taco Land 10 Years After The Death Of Ram Ayala
Erik Sanden

Phil Luna: He hated the Current. They did a review of a show one time and he had this jukebox with albums from the '50s & '60s — great fucking juke box. But he had some David Allan Coe in there, "She Ran Off With a Nigger." Loved it, he played it all the time. And he said 'nigger' all the time. So the Current, of course, called him racist and he was like, 'aw, my family reads this, that's not me. Fuck you, you don't know me.' So he wouldn't deal with the Current for years.

Current: As the owner of a rough-and-tumble bar, Ayala had a hard exterior. But once you broke through it, he was a good ally to have.

Kory Cook: I've always been fascinated by the fact that people respected him and loved him. He was a scary, mean man. He may have had love in his heart, but you couldn't really see it unless you really got to know him. I think it comes down to the fact that people respect other people who are transparent and will be exactly who they are business-wise. He didn't have to go to work and be nice and be fake. And when people saw that, they respected it.

Denise Koger, bartender: He was very macho and blunt, but at the same time he was a teddy bear.

Phil Luna: If we needed money, or the car broke down or the house needed a repair — and it wasn't just me, it was anybody — we could always count on Ram. He'd buy people PA systems for their bands, whatever they needed.

Current: Eventually, Ayala's altruism and laissez-faire attitude established Taco Land as a home — literally — for rock 'n' roll in San Antonio.

Phil Luna: There was a two-car garage behind the bar. Ram cut it in half and made me a recording studio. I kinda lived there.

Erik Sanden: There was a chop-shop in there. I'm gonna use quotes on the word 'mechanic.' What's the opposite of a mechanic? Someone who breaks things?

Dead Milkmen, "Taco Land," 1987: Taco Land, it's a panacea / Taco Land, they're always glad to see ya.

Denise Koger: He was a punk rock angel. He helped everyone and he gave everyone a chance to play their music. It didn't matter what type of music it was or what type of band it was. He really, really enjoyed life and people being around him and he was a blessing to the world.

Jeff Smith: Taco Land had a magic quality because of Ram. It really transcended the facility itself.

Erik Sanden: His booking policy was yes; it made for incredible mashups of strange types of music playing together. We'd play Taco Land and the phone would ring super loud. In the middle of while we were playing, you could hear it. It was a payphone. That was the phone he'd use for the bar. He'd yell at us 'shut the fuck up pussy I can't hear the phone!' That phone would ring louder than the band.

Nightrocker: Taco Land is everything people say about it, the good the bad and the ugly. Taco Land was our CBGB's and Ram didn't set out to make it that. Very few businesses are so organic to the point like Taco Land was that it was just kinda there and it built itself.

Current: After 40 years running Taco Land, on June 23, 2005, Joseph Gamboa and Jose Najera entered the bar with the intent of cleaning the register at gunpoint.

Gamboa's Death Row Appeal: On the night of June 23, 2005, Ramiro "Ram" Ayala, the owner of a San Antonio bar named Taco Land, was working alongside employees Denise Koger and Douglas Morgan.

Denise Koger: I had to go check outside on the people on the patio and when I came back inside, the guy was leaning into Ram, talking real close to his ear. I walked up to the bar and I heard Ram say 'fuck you' and then the gun went off and he shot Ram right in the stomach.He fell back and Doug Morgan was behind the bar, so I hid with him. And the bad people came behind the bar. They grabbed Doug and they told him to open the register. But he didn't know how, so they shot him.

Najera told Gamboa to 'make the bitch do it.' So, I guess that was me. He grabbed me by my hair, he pulled me up and told me to open the register. I gave him the money, but I didn't realize they had been watching me the whole time. And I had put some money aside with the cigarettes we sold. He dragged me over to where the other money was stashed. I gave him that money and he shot me.

Gamboa's Death Row Appeal: Ram died that same night; Douglas lived for three more weeks before succumbing to his injuries.

Current: Ten years after the murder, Gamboa is on death row, while Najera is serving a 50-year sentence. After Ayala's death at 73, a void opened in the San Antonio music scene, finding it difficult to recreate the magic of Taco Land.

A makeshift memorial for Ram Ayala was set up outside Taco Land after his murder in 2005. - Justin Parr
Justin Parr
A makeshift memorial for Ram Ayala was set up outside Taco Land after his murder in 2005.

Phil Luna: Every band that had been playing there thought, 'What do we do now?' Half the bands never played again for that reason, they just cut it dead. 'Cause most of the bands had been created, or morphed into, just playing Taco Land. You created your style for that room and that audience.

Joe Reyes, Buttercup, The Swindles: Irreverent isn't even the right word. Iconoclast? He ran it the way he wanted it, but it was perfect. We had free reign musically forever. It was always, 'that's not weird enough, be weirder.'

Jeff Smith: I was heartbroken. Taco Land really provided the only continuity in the rock 'n' roll scene in San Antonio between 1982 and 2005. 

Current: In 2014, Taco Land reopened as Tacoland, under the direction of Chris Erck, proprietor of Swig Martini Bar. A Sunday-best version of the original, Tacoland has taken some heat — "Taco Bland," reads a Bottom Bracket Social Club T-shirt — but many patrons of the old spot harbor no ill will.

Denise Koger: I have nothing against the new Tacoland. Some people do, I don't. I'm sure Ram would be very happy to know people are still enjoying that little part of the world. Even if they don't remember him – he wasn't that vain – he'd be glad to know Taco Land is still there. It's still a place for people to get together and enjoy life. 

Phil Luna: We used to go on anniversaries and sit there and have a drink and it would deteriorate every year. That sucks. Now you can have a beer there, have a drink. The owner shouldn't have anything to do with the old spot, that's impossible. It was a world and it's gone. So do whatever you want.

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