Samuel Alvarado wasn’t shopping for anything in particular on a recent Wednesday morning.
The father of two came to spend the day with his children and enjoy the variety of good Latino foods at La Gran Plaza in the Southside.
He drove two hours from Dublin, a small town southwest of Stephenville.
La Gran Plaza, 4200 South Freeway, is one of the most visited shopping centers in Fort Worth. It has nearly twice as many annual visitors as The Shops at Clearfork. The mall’s owner and business merchants attribute high foot traffic numbers to the variety of Hispanic-oriented merchandise and cultural events. Adding to its appeal, the center also helps first-time business owners grow their trade.
In 2005, the city of Fort Worth awarded a grant of up to $42 million spread over 20 years to La Gran Plaza, according to the Fort Worth Economic Development Department. Since then, sales have tripled from $34 million in 2004 to $117 million in 2022, said Robert Sturns, director of economic development for the city.
“La Gran Plaza has become a true community gathering space for locals and visitors alike, and they are not just an economic driver for Fort Worth — they’re an important cultural hub for our city,” Sturns said in a statement.
The 1.2-million-square-foot mall is filled with over 300 businesses that sell Hispanic-oriented merchandise.
Visitors can get a whiff of leather as they walk past stores selling Mexican huaraches, or sandals. Puffy, bright-colored quinceañera dresses line the windows of shops.
Walking on, the smell of tacos al pastor and freshly made pupusas, a Central American flatbread, fill the halls.
La Gran Plaza ranks fifth for the average number of weekly visits, behind The Parks Mall in Arlington, North East Mall in Hurst, Montgomery Plaza in Fort Worth and Hulen Mall in south Fort Worth, according to commercial real estate firm JLL.
Although not malls, the Fort Worth Stockyards and Sundance Square are also popular attractions in the city. In 2022, 10.1 million people visited Sundance Square, followed by the Fort Worth Stockyards with 7.3 million visitors.
Fort Worth has 15 major shopping centers, according to retail customer analytics company Buxton.
Sundays are La Gran Plaza’s busiest days. The mall’s corridors are filled with the mariachis’ trumpets and guitars. Young, aspiring performers learn to play at the mariachi academy inside the mall, and dancers can join the folk dance group, Ballet Folklorico Azteca.
The mall sees between 25,000 and 30,000 visitors on Sundays, La Gran Plaza owner José de Jesús Legaspi said.
From Fort Worth Town Center to La Gran Plaza
Legaspi bought the mall in 2004 and converted the then Fort Worth Town Center into a shopping center that caters to the Hispanic community.
Previous mall owners struggled to keep it running, especially after major department stores like JCPenney and Sears left, Legaspi said.
Fort Worth resident Lenzell Smith, who has been shopping at the mall since its previous incarnation, considers La Gran Plaza part of the community.
The convenience attracts him to the mall.
“I know where everything’s at. You don’t have to take long walks looking for everything,” Smith said.
Entrepreneurial, loyal customers
La Gran Plaza’s owner said the mall has created a loyal customer and merchant base.
The camaraderie, Legaspi said, has helped the mall grow. Families, just like the Alvarados, will come from as far as 60 to 100 miles to buy from Latino businesses.
Legaspi credited Hispanic attendance to the mall’s warm environment.
“Rather than going to another mall, (visitors) would rather come here and be welcomed with a smile and not taken advantage of, or feel threatened that somebody’s going to come in and do something against them,” he said.
Arlington resident María Vásquez has worked at Ilusiones Liz for 18 years, selling quinceañera dresses and wedding items.
She believes people are attracted to the store because there are so many other Hispanics who also shop at La Gran Plaza.
JC Jewelers employee Joaquín Coria has been at La Gran Plaza for 14 years. His brother started the business there because of the clientele.
“More than anything it was to be in the Hispanic community and be among us,” Coria said in Spanish.
Legaspi has a team at La Gran Plaza that helps first-time business owners. Many times, merchants don’t speak English or know where to get a loan.
So, over 15 years ago, Legaspi opened up El Mercado at the mall. The 125,000-square-foot retail incubator, as he calls it, is a place individuals can open their businesses with little risk, especially if they don’t have the funds or have little inventory.
He has seen some businesses grow from one stall to 10 in the “market” and others moved into larger spaces inside the mall. El Mercado has around 135 small businesses.
A home away from home
Fort Worth resident Gisela Mingura likes to come to the mall not just to shop, but to eat and walk around.
“We come to spend time with the family and probably because there are more Hispanics who come here,” she said in Spanish.
La Gran Plaza is a home away from home for many Hispanic shoppers, Legaspi said.
The shops, events and even architecture of the mall were chosen to remind some customers of Mexico, Legaspi said.
Instead of popular department stores for general audiences, his mall reflects the needs and wants of the Latino community — and reaches beyond.
“The mall has become a symbol that we are an economic force,” Legaspi said. “We are an economic engine that can benefit everybody.”
Marcela Sanchez is a reporting fellow for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.