Honoring Ophelia Rios


Read by Ricardo Escobar at Flor y Canto para Ophelia, May 15, 2015

Ophelia was originally born in Edinburg, Texas and travelled

with her father and uncles, since her mother died when she was

3 years old. They worked while moving through New Mexico, Arizona, and landed finally in the valley.

As a tiny girl Ophelia was the “water girl” that provided water in a wood bucket at the end of the rows of cotton. She was proud of this. People came to her for water and drank from a ladle.

She worked picking cotton. She was known for picking a lot of pounds of cotton, that no one could believe, a young woman could pick and carry.

She packed dried fruit baskets.

She worked as an elevator girl in the only store in Merced that had 2-3 floors.

She learned how to drive at the age of 13.

Her father Gilbert taught her and her sister  how to shoot rifles at the same age, in order to protect themselves since he was gone most of the time.

Ophelia made tortillas for her Grandfather, her father, her brother, and her Uncle in Merced. She rolled out the “masa”/the dough with a Pepsi bottle for all the men.

O was very proud that she was working and bought furniture for the house.

Ophelia married Justino Balderrama in 1957 in Merced, California.  They moved immediately to Los Angeles, where her daughter Sandra was later born. Although Justino and Ophelia divorced in 1968, Ophelia kept the name Balderrama because she thought it was so lovely and unique.

O blossomed in Los Angeles and later in San Francisco where she

went back to school and obtained her 8th grade diploma, her high school degree, went to City College and then obtained her Bachelors in Sociology at San Francisco State University.

While in school she worked part time at the Jewish Community Center teaching art and at the Capp St. Senior Center, working with Seniors. She befriended so many people. She conducted oral histories and studied the Gypsies in the United States.

She was a founder of the Mission Coalition Organization and led pickets against slumlords in San Francisco, against Safeway for selling grapes and Gallo wine, and against the owners of a theatre that had replaced Spanish language movies with pornographic movies.

After getting her degree she worked many years as a Community Health Worker for San Francisco General Hospital and worked with newcomers to the United States and people who were homeless. She worked with the Asian Pacific Islander Project and worked with Laotian, Vietnamese, and Samoan families.

At the same time, while accomplishing all this, Ophelia raised Sandra as a single parent. 

She served as President and long time member of the Singletarians, (a chosen family of single men and women in San Francisco)  and she met Abe Davis, her soul mate..

O and Abe marched for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender rights.

She marched against the USA Invasion of Iraq.

She marched against anti-immigration legislation in Phoenix, Arizona.

O wanted to be alive to see a woman be elected to be President of the United States.

Throughout her life, Ophelia,  painted, did pastels,  sculpted, did collage, created pottery, and created much of her recent work from items she would find in the street. She had an eye and heart for rescuing things and people.