At nearly 88 years old, Charlie Villasana is one of the last Little Mexico property owners in what’s now the booming, upscale area of Dallas’ Uptown.
A large “Closed” sign hangs in front of the Villasana Food Store, a brick building near Pike Park on Harry Hines Boulevard. But Villasana doesn’t want to let go of the family business that started in the 1930s. He gets nostalgic speaking about his parents, Rodolfo and Margarita, who passed away decades ago.
“I grew up in a grocery store,” Villasana said, sitting in the middle of an aisle in his business, where faded bags of Imperial Sugar remain on the shelves, bleached by the sunlight after sitting so many years. Old newspapers and phone books lay in piles.
It’s hard to picture the thriving Mexican neighborhood that once surrounded the store. Today’s Uptown and Victory Park are known for luxury apartments, office buildings, specialty cocktail spots and events at American Airlines Center.
Pike Park with its lacy metal gazebo, the Little Mexico public housing apartments and a couple of old, white-painted homes up for sale are among the few structures still standing through the growth in the last several decades. Mexican restaurant El Fenix began as a small cafe in Little Mexico before it moved to its well-known spot off Woodall Rodgers Freeway.
“It was booming,” Villasana said of his store in earlier times. Even as construction of the Dallas North Tollway started in the 1960s, sales kept up.
These days, it’s rare for anyone to step foot in the door. He often sits in the store with the lights off, only using daylight to see.
Villasana closed the store to the public about three years ago after a series of robberies and declining business, but he goes to his business every day as if it’s operating at its heyday. It used to be a deli, grocery store and bakery.
He still does wholesale for two restaurants locally, selling beans and canned goods with his sister.
Years ago, Villasana walked to work every day when he lived across the street on Turney Street, which became part of Harry Hines Boulevard. He’s never had another job outside of running his family’s store.
“One of these days, someone is going to pay a lot of money for this store!” Villasana remembers his father telling him when he was young.
He’s had a few offers, thought about selling before but never followed through. He just kept working. After his younger brother died last year, he started to think more about the store’s future.
And his own.
“My time is overdue. There’s not a day that I’m not thinking, ‘I’m leaving, sooner or later,'” he said.
The question is whether his Little Mexico store will stay.
Life in Little Mexico
Before the 1960s, when Jim Crow laws and segregation kept Mexicans out of many parts of Dallas, Little Mexico was like a small town within a city. It had schools, churches, a theater, restaurants, barber shops and grocery stores.
At its height, the Little Mexico neighborhood extended from Oak Lawn and Ross avenues on the north and south. The Missouri, Kansas and Texas railroad tracks (today the Katy Trail) were its western border and it stretched east to Maple Street into the State Thomas neighborhood.
It had been the long-impoverished area of Mexican and Jewish immigrants since the mid-19th century. As Mexicanos fled the Mexican revolution in 1910, its population grew over the next few decades. By 1930, the community had grown to 15,000.
Now and Then: Pike Park’s gazebo in 2017 and 1978
Then came Harry Hines Boulevard, the Tollway and other development. At first, the modest neighborhood flourished, but eventually the economic boom pushed out the Mexican culture.
“If you ask what’s left, there’s almost nothing left,” said Juanita Nanez, president of the Dallas Mexican American Historical League. The organization works to preserve the history of Mexican-Americans in the city.
Little Mexico “went through its stages: birth and growing, advancing and then slowly dissolving,” she said.
In the 1970s and 1980s, residents tried to resist rezoning and worried about the cost of moving from homes they’d lived in for decades, news accounts of the time show.
Remembering the history
The plaque at the Pike Park gazebo recounts the park’s history as a gathering spot for cultural and political life in the predominantly Mexican-American community.
Some feel there should be more to commemorate the first Mexican immigrants who helped build Dallas.
“There’s talk about the history and culture of these Confederate monuments,” Charlie Villasana’s cousin, Sol Villasana, said. “Well, we have history, too.” He said he wants to see more plaques and memorials remembering the history of Mexican-Americans in Dallas.
“That’s the kind of dismissal of our heritage that I’m offended by,” he added.
Sol Villasana, the Dallas Mexican-American Historical League and other historical organizations are working to change that.
Today, nearly all the families in Little Mexico have sold their property and moved out. Charlie Villasana said he had offers of a quarter of a million dollars for his property, but he didn’t want to sell.
“What it’s worth and what I want are two different things,” he said.
Villasana said the offer has to reach $2 million for him to think about letting go of his precious store. According to records through the Dallas Central Appraisal District, his three properties on Harry Hines Boulevard — including the store, a home and another lot — are valued at nearly $1.3 million.
For some families in the area, offers far exceeded what they could make in a year. Sol Villasana, who also grew up in Little Mexico, said it made many easy targets for buyers.
“Many people were ripped off. My family had been in business and real estate. They perhaps were more aware of the potential value,” he said. The two childhood homes Sol Villasana lived in are now a storage building and parking lot.
“But the pecan trees I played under are still there,” he said.
His cousin is starting to think about what happens after he’s gone, with no children to leave in charge of the Villasana Food Store.
Charlie Villasana said he would be happy knowing money from selling the store would take care of his wife and sister. What’s left would be donated to the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry group. His wishes are to help the poor.
Villasana said a friend has been joking with him for years around his October birthday that he’ll get him a “For Sale” sign for the store.
But Villasana tells him, “Don’t do that, you’ll kill my heart.”
And a piece of Little Mexico, too.