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.