Ray Sanchez is happy to be back in Fort Worth. He grew up in the city and owns and operates Little Nacho’s Paint & Body Shop in the 2900 block of North Main Street. He never realized how much he missed his hometown until he moved a few miles farther west to the City of River Oaks in 2008 and spent the next decade fighting for survival.
After leasing a shop at 700 Gustav St., Sanchez said he was targeted by River Oaks city officials and police, fire, and code enforcement officers. Sanchez battled back by attempting to unseat Mayor Herman Earwood in 2017. Sanchez received 178 votes compared to Earwood’s 283 and lost any hope of economic survival along with the election.
Sanchez needed a miracle.
He was surprised when one came along.
Sanchez had worked for most everything he ever had, growing up poor in a large family and dropping out of high school to paint cars at his dad’s body shop in White Settlement. In the mid-1980s, Sanchez opened his own shop in the 3000 block of North Main Street and dubbed it after his nickname, Little Nacho.
Sanchez said he expanded his customer base over the years by being fair and friendly, and he borrowed money from the bank in the 2000s to move his business a short distance away on North Main. He went from two bays to 10 to handle the growing number of customers.
Then the world changed.
“I lost everything in 2008 because of the recession,” Sanchez said.
The economic crash prevented customers from spending money on dented cars and paint jobs that could wait. Sanchez couldn’t pay his bank note and lost his property to foreclosure. After years of steady work, he found himself jobless. He couldn’t pay his house note, either, and was forced to live for spells in the homes of his grown children.
He kept working on cars the best he could and came up with enough money to rent a small building in River Oaks, just one block north of River Oaks Boulevard, the main drag that cuts through town. A similar type of business had operated there for years, and Sanchez figured he could succeed at the three-bay shop.
River Oaks is approximately two square miles and completely surrounded by Fort Worth. Officially incorporated in the 1940s, River Oaks is home to about 7,500 residents currently.
The new Little Nacho’s shop opened in 2009. New and old customers began showing up.
“As time went on, we started having more business,” Sanchez said. “People started realizing where I was at.”
Things went well for a while, Sanchez said, until police and code enforcement officers began writing him tickets for various offenses.
“Two or three months after we opened, a code enforcement officer came by,” Sanchez said. “She said we couldn’t wash or sand cars outside.”
The bays were hot and stuffy, and Sanchez’ employees preferred working under a carport that stretched across the front of the building.
“She said, ‘Y’all can’t work out here – you have to work in the shop,’ ” Sanchez recalled. “I said, ‘The mechanic who was here before me never had any problem.’ ”
In a one-year period, Sanchez said he received 27 citations, most related to parking issues. The shop had few onsite parking spots, and Sanchez parked some of his customers’ cars alongside streets near a residential neighborhood. Police sent a tow truck to impound them. Sanchez parked vehicles in a dirt alleyway next to his shop. Police told him to stop. Fire officials demanded a long, red fire lane stripe be painted across the front of the property, making it difficult to work on cars underneath the carport and preventing customers from parking there when visiting the site.
Sanchez recalled a police officer telling him one day, “Mr. Sanchez, don’t you get the point? We don’t want you here.”
Sanchez challenged his tickets in district court and lost.
“Those violations were cited because they were violations against the city ordinance,” said Marvin Gregory, city manager. “It wasn’t just him. It would have been anybody.”
City officials were responding to complaints from neighbors about Sanchez parking his customers’ cars on the streets, Gregory said.
“If it’s an ordinance, we’re supposed to enforce it,” he said.
Matthew Tatarko grew up in River Oaks, graduated from high school in 1978, and lived there for years before moving away. In 2013, he moved back to care for an ailing relative. Tatarko said the auto shop had been there long before Sanchez arrived and looked about the same as it always had.
“I remember walking past that shop in kindergarten,” Tatarko said. “It had been there 50 years and hadn’t really changed at all. [Sanchez] kept it up as good as anybody else. I didn’t find it objectionable.”
After losing the mayoral race in 2017, Sanchez faced yet another obstacle. This one proved insurmountable. A developer had purchased the building and gave Sanchez a month to vacate. Sanchez didn’t move his equipment and inventory in time and was charged $100 a day for 15 days until he moved out. He left with little cash and few prospects.
Someone told Sanchez that a chrome-shop business had vacated its building across the street from his old location on North Main and might be available for lease or purchase. Sanchez met the owner of the building, which was in dire condition. Still, the purchase price was more than Sanchez could afford. All he could offer was a small down payment.
The property owner refused, and he and Sanchez parted ways. Sanchez was still mulling over his shrinking options when the property owner called back a few days later. Something about Sanchez had touched the owner, and they came up with a hospitable purchase plan that Sanchez describes as “God’s work.”
In April 2018, Sanchez opened up Little Nacho’s with a half-dozen employees and has been working on cars there ever since.
Sanchez suspects racism was at play in River Oaks. Tatarko doesn’t know for sure but wouldn’t be surprised. After moving back to River Oaks, he complained to City Hall about signage and clutter on River Oaks Boulevard and was invited to a meeting with the mayor and others held at a local coffee shop. During the discussion, Tatarko said the mayor expressed an intense intention to force out Sanchez.
“I was talking about another shop in town, and [the mayor] said something about how Little Nacho’s is going to go away,” Tatarko said. “Anytime he said something about Ray Sanchez, there was vehement anger in the mayor’s face. His jaw would clench. He would tense up with such hatred. I never knew why that was.”
Earwood was unavailable for comment prior to publication.
Others in town figure city leaders were merely responding to complaints. Others surmise the new property owner didn’t favor an old paint and body shop in his development plans. What is certain is that city leaders made it difficult for Sanchez to operate a business in town, and he left.
I drove by the River Oaks site recently and noticed the building is still empty but being refurbished for a new tenant. The dirt alleyway is now paved and striped for parking.
As for the red fire lane that had been painted across the length of Little Nacho’s storefront, making it difficult for him to operate his business? The red stripe is gone now, although faint remnants of paint remain.