My heart is filled with grief and sadness for the loss of my grandmother, Elida “Ellie” Rios. Fondly referred to in our family circle as “Gammie”. This incredibly resilient, poised, and tenacious woman passed away peacefully in her sleep early yesterday morning to find eternal rest.
She grew up in a quiet, small town in rural Texas with her parents, Felix and Ana Leal Zuniga. The middle child of six, her older and younger siblings: Celia, Eladio “Lalo”, Anna, Evelyn, and Ercilia “Ersie”, naturally found themselves enveloped in her caring and generous spirit. Her first language was Spanish, and she later learned to speak English when she started elementary school. She spent her formative years in Hebbronville developing a love of fashion and style all her own as she enveloped her family and friends in her kindness and love.
Upon graduation from Hebbronville High School, Ellie crossed paths with a handsome duster-pilot at the San Benito Airport. Her courtship with Guadalupe “Lupe” Gomez quickly blossomed, and Ellie found herself falling deeply for her first love. The two married and made a life together in Los Fresnos, Texas with their two children, Dahlia “Dolly” and Gil.
Ellie’s natural grace and glamour evolved into entrepreneurial success when she opened Ellie’s Beauty Studio. Her passion as a hairdresser embraced a desire to help other women find strength in their beauty. These weekly visits to Ellie’s offered far more than just a trim or a style, she also offered insight, wisdom, and community to all the women she served.
For those of you who did not have the privilege of crossing paths with this woman. I feel a key part of her story lies in her poise and grace. This is a woman who genuinely and wholeheartedly embraced her femininity. She had immaculately styled hair, teased just enough and always the perfect shade of blonde. She wore a full face of makeup that was never overdone but always finished off with the perfect tint of red lipstick. Her delicately manicured nails always wrapped around a fashionable handbag that she usually slung over her shoulder so she could saunter just so, lighting up the path along her way as though it were a high fashion runway. Her sense of fashion always mirrored the times, and one of her favorite pastimes until the very end came from the joy derived from retail therapy with her daughter, daughter-in-law, and granddaughters.
In July of 1966, Lupe tragically died in a plane crash leaving Ellie widowed with two young children. Her strength and tenacity allowed her to overcome numerous challenges as a single mother during a time when female entrepreneurs were not treated with the same level of prestige and success as their male counterparts.
Life after Lupe proved to be a challenge, but she never lost sight of her dream to build her business while also providing for her children. As any strong woman would tell you, it never comes easily. It requires steadfast dedication, application, and grit. She made sacrifices like renting her family home out to supplement her income while living in the back three rooms of her beauty shop with her children. Despite these challenges, Ellie proudly put her two children through college as she continued to scale her beauty business.
With time, Ellie found room in her heart again for love. And one day, as fate would have it, she drove her car to the neighboring town of Brownsville for auto repairs. As she waited for her car, she decided to pass some time at a nearby ice cream parlor for a treat. It was here that she met her second and final love, Rafael “Ralph” Rios, a high school coach and wood shop teacher in Brownsville.
The two of them built a life around her beauty shop and his teaching career. They grew old together in Los Fresnos watching their own children find love and expand their families. They both valued the importance of civic duty by serving their communities through service and leadership. Some of her most proud commitments included service to the Los Fresnos Junior Service League, Los Fresnos Band Boosters, Mr. Amigo Association, Sembradores Unidos, Alambras, Eucharistic Minister at St. Cecilia Catholic Church, and a member of the Red Hat Society.
Ellie was lovingly and fondly referred to as “Gammie” among family and loved ones. This moniker evolved from my inability to say, “Granny” as a little girl. Quickly this became the name adopted as her grandmother name. Growing up, those in our friend circle also warmly and respectfully called her Gammie. In many ways she was a grandmother to many always embracing them in a warm hug and nourishing their spirits with baked goods and iced tea.
Ellie led a long, rich, and storied life. She loved deeply, persevered fiercely, and taught me that femininity can be both beautiful and bold. Her legacy and memory as a wife, mother, sister, grandmother, aunt, businesswoman, and friend will live on in the stories her loved ones share. She touched my life in so many poignant ways, and I was so incredibly blessed to to have a grandmother like my Gammie.
Despite my sadness, I take comfort in knowing one day I will cross paths with her again in Heaven. Until then, Gammie, I’ll put on my bright red lipstick always channeling your grace and poise as I reflect on the day ahead in the mirror.
Hasta que nos volvamos a ver, Gammie, siempre te amaré y siempre te llevaré en mi corazón.