The history of Abel Moreno and family

The Moreno family, Elsie, Belita (top right), Aurora and Abel. / PHOTO COURTESY OF ELSIE MORENO

Over the centuries, there have been many first families. There have, however, been few “families of firsts.” But Oak Cliff had one: the Abel Moreno family.

Living in Kaufman and a friend of the Cuellar Family, when the Cuellars needed a logo for their expanding restaurant business, they asked the artistic Abel to design one for them. He didn’t disappoint.

“Dad put on a sombrero, sat down at a mirror, and, well, basically, drew himself,” says the family’s younger daughter, Elsie.

Any longtime diners at the El Chico Restaurants easily recognize the chain’s traditional (and first) logo — in actuality, a self-portrait of Abel Moreno.

In 1945 Abel returned from WWII and married Aurora Rodriguez, daughter of the first Spanish-speaking Presbyterian minister in Dallas. At one time Abel managed one of the Dallas El Chico restaurants, and he also taught commercial art in a studio off Jefferson Boulevard. The family lived on Saner Avenue and became active in the new Wynnewood Presbyterian Church before deciding to open the first Mexican eatery in Wynnewood Village: Moreno’s Patio Restaurant. In the late ’60s, the restaurant closed, but Abel went on to run the Dallas Morning News and Zales Building cafeterias, where his enchiladas were a popular menu item.

According to Elsie, her mother was the first Hispanic woman to graduate from Southern Methodist University. With a degree in Spanish and education, Mrs. Moreno was one of the first Hispanic teachers hired by the Dallas ISD, and did become the first Hispanic personality to work for PBS’s Dallas channel, KERA, slotted to teach Spanish on the small screen. She taught at W. E. Greiner Junior High before transferring to the newly opened Justin F. Kimball High School, where she was named the first department head of the school’s foreign language department. How’s that for firsts?

Elsie and her older sister attended Jefferson Davis Elementary School (now Barbara Jordan Elementary), but after a move to the Kiestwood addition, Elsie finished at Daniel Webster. Both sisters attended T. W. Browne Junior High, and were members of the drill team both there and later at Kimball.

Elsie earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of North Texas and, following in her mother’s footsteps, worked for the DISD. Teaching and coaching, she joined the family tradition of firsts when she became the district’s first female high school athletic director — serving in that position at Bryan Adams High School. A trailblazer for girls’ athletics in Dallas, she was promoted to assistant athletic director at the DISD administration level (not the first this time, but she was the second).

But of all the Morenos, the most recognized is the family’s other daughter, Belita.

After receiving a full-tuition theater arts scholarship from Southern Methodist University, she earned a BFA in theater arts and appeared in the first production to open the Bob Hope Theater on the SMU campus. And then, for Belita, it was westward — to Hollywood!

The former Cliffite acted in, among others, television’s “Roseanne” and “Murphy Brown”, and in 13 major motion pictures such as “Mommie Dearest”, “Clear and Present Danger”, “Swing Shift” and “Oh God, You Devil”. She’s appeared both on and off Broadway and has also worked as an acting coach for numerous well-know Hollywood stars, among them: Britney Spears, Eminem, Kate Hudson, Rene Zellweger, David Boreanaz, Holly Hunter, Diane Keaton, Lindsay Lohan and Katherine Heigel.
 As a successful comedic actress, Belita starred in television’s (you guessed it) first successful all-Hispanic sitcom, “The George Lopez Show”, as Lopez’s grumpy, sarcastic, ever-complaining mother, Benny.

According to Elsie, Belita is better known now than during the Lopez Show’s original tenure. With reruns showing constantly on numerous channels, “her face is all over the place,” Elsie says.

Along with the Lopez show, her other highly recognizable TV role occurred a decade and a half earlier. Playing Lydia, the advice columnist on “Perfect Strangers”, she attempted to keep cousins Larry and Balki in line at their newspaper office jobs.

Belita is now in the new TBS series “Fairly Legal” and is appearing in a FOX TV movie, “Truth Be Told” (out in April). Also on her schedule is another role in an upcoming series for NBC about the inner workings of Los Angeles, written by someone Belita describes as “the brilliant writer and director, Stephen Gaghan” (also the author of “Traffic”).

“As well as having many ‘firsts’ in our lives as a family, I think we all truly appreciate and are grateful all of the time for our wonderful lives,” Belita says. “We were raised never to take anything for granted, and as a result, most every day, I feel like one very lucky woman.”

Abel and Aurora are gone, Elsie lives and works here in Dallas, and Belita now calls Tinseltown her home. But during their lives, these Cliffites all achieved lofty goals and certainly proved their mettle in their fields of choice, all rising to the top.

For the Morenos, the accomplishment of being first appears to have been a family tradition.


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  • Elsie Moreno

    Thanks to Gayla for a beautiful job well done. I’m so glad that others enjoyed remembering my mom and the Wynnewood memories. I too remember the tornado and Dad running all the way from the restaurant to our house on Saner to make sure we were all okay.
    Thanks again Gayla…..Keep up the great job,
    Elsie

  • susn jones

    Waas MRS MORENO at Kimball ?I remember her .

  • susn jones

    Wasrs Moreno at KIMBALL in the 60?I remember her

  • Judy Gual Perrien

    The Moreno family will forever be in my memory. Belita, the
    Spanish club, Mrs.Morenos spanish class where I received the
    best lessons and inspiration promoting further studies and interest in the spanish language. I will always be grateful.

  • Susan Best Ramsay

    I rarely remember an activity at Wynnewood Presbyterian that the Moreno famiy wasn’t actively involved. Mrs. Moreno was my 4th year Spanish teacher at Kimball… I passed, but still wonder if she didn’t take a little pity on me! Wonderful family!

  • Lisa Levacy

    Thought you might know this family from Kimball! Love you much!!!! Sterling

  • Gayla Brooks Kokel

    Jane,
    Yes, Toy World was quite a place. Too expensive for my folks’ Depression-era thinking…which I actually agree with. I don’t believe I ever got a toy from there, especially as my grandmother worked at A Harris and got an “employee discount.” Always a handy deal, especially at birthday and Christmas times. But I did frequent the other shops along that strip between the restaurant and Toy World: Jan’s Bakery, Roberts Jewelers, the Red Goose Shoe Store. Would love to have a couple of hours of those days back. Good times with good folks…and so safe. Today, no thinking parent would let little girls walk out of a restaurant and down quite a few retail spaces to look through a toy store window—-at night! Anyway, it’s a great story. I’m sure Elsie and Belita will enjoy reading it.

    Gayla

  • Sherrie Luttrell Voegele

    Gayla, one more time you have taken us on a walk down memory lane and especially with the 50th anniversary of our graduating, seems like only yesterday that we were In Mrs. Moreno’s spanish class. She was such a delightful lady and it is so nice to know that her family has done so well for themselves. Keep up the good work Gayla. Sherrie

  • Eloise Myers

    Jane Little referred to the Toy World store. My memorie of that was very different.

    Dallas sufffered a tornadoe in the 1950’s Iwas needing to go to that store but the sky looked very weird and the radio was giving warnings about a possible storm.

    Son Glenn Zuber was with me so I asked if he would make the run with me rather than waiting to see what would happen. He agreed so off we went. I drove and he prayed.

    We achieved the store and were just before heading home when that cloud with the funnel appeared. I preferred to keep going and that worked in our favor. I have yet to make such a choice again. I can still picture that funnel as it snaked down our of that cloud.

  • Michele Condrey

    Mrs. Moreno was my high school Spanish teacher for 3 years! I loved her and she taught me so much about a beautiful language.

    Michele Condrey
    Class of 1965

  • Donna Lackey

    Thank you, Gayla, for providing so much info I never knew about Belita’s family. I went to school with Belita and we were friends in grade school. I knew they were friendly, outgoing people and loved in the community. Although I knew Belita went on to become an actress, I hadn’t heard of her career lately. Thanks.

  • Gordon McGuffin

    Ole, muchos gratias, benissimo, Seniorita

  • Frances George Phillips

    Gayla, once again you have captured a wonderful moment in our lives here in Oak Cliff. The story of the Moreno family brought back many special memories. I taught with Aurora Moreno at Kimball High, and I remember her as an especially “high energy” and creative teacher. Also, I have followed the career of Belita for several years, and I wish her even more theatrical successes. I was glad to hear of the many “firsts” of the other Moreno family members as well. Keep up the great work!

    Frances George Phillips

  • Sandy smith

    Great story about a wonderful family!

  • Jane Little

    How well I remember El Patio! When I was a little girl, we would have dinner there on Friday nights. My parents were leisurely diners, a habit I am happy to continue. But when my sister and I were little girls, we would leave the parents and walk down to the corner where Toy World existed. Anybody else remember that treasure trove? There we would stand, noses pressed to the glass, ogling the “high heel” dolls. I was about 30 before I learned they were Sissy or Madame Alexander dolls…a forerunner to Barbie.

    And although I didn’t take Spanish in high school (my father apparently wanted me to be good at crossword puzzles so I took Latin), I certainly remember Mrs. Moreno when I was a student, and Aurora, when I taught at Kimball. I could drive you do the Moreno house right now…really like a small town where we all knew each other, and where we all lived even if we were just nodding acquaintances…

  • Mary Newton Maxwell

    Mrs. Moreno was my High School Spanish teacher and I was her Rosita (little Rose). Oh, how I loved the language. Ella fue una maestra maravillosa!

  • Gayla Brooks Kokel

    For those of you who have been reading the Oak Cliff history columns over the last two years, you may want to go back and check out the comments written by others. Some of the posting/comment strings are still being added to … and many wonderful folks are continuing to add to the Oak Cliff Story. You may want to add something yourself.

    Thanks to all of you who are supporting Oak Cliff history.

  • Gayla Brooks Kokel

    The family photo is from the Wynnewood Presbyterian Church directory–from back in the day. I send my thanks to both Elsie and Belita for all the info they provided for this column. Both are “first” class!