Jessica Garcia at work at J&B Transmission, 1905 Greenleaf.Photo by Marcelo Ferrero

Walking into J&B Transmission and Auto Repair at 1905 Greenleaf St., one sees a young woman with a determined expression working on cars. Twenty-three-year old Jessica Garcia has worked at J&B for the past four years, and has become one of the shop’s full-time mechanics.

While women have been equaling or surpassing the numbers of men in many traditionally male occupations, auto repair is not one of them. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics data for 2017, only 2.4% of automotive service technicians and mechanics are women. As a woman of Hispanic origin, Ms. Garcia is even more of a rarity. Hispanic mechanics comprise only 22% of all mechanics, shaving off still more of that 2.4% statistic to 0.5%.

With scant women role models to lead the way, it is not surprising that Ms. Garcia never expected to become an auto mechanic. “If you would’ve asked me when I was 15, or even the day before I went to the mechanic shop, if I was going to be a mechanic, I would’ve been like, ‘Are you crazy?’”

In fact, when Ms. Garcia walked into J&B for the first time four years ago, she had been attending Lake Forest College with a career goal to become a music publicist. She was a full-time student and also had an internship at a music company in the City of Chicago. But her internship did not pay and she needed to find a part-time job to help make ends meet.

When Ms. Garcia had some car trouble, she brought her car into J&B for repairs. She met J&B’s owner, Jafar Sangtrash, who was kind and helpful and the father of twin daughters close to her own age. The two struck up a conversation, and Mr. Sangtrash offered her a part-time job working in his office. Ms. Garcia gratefully accepted.

Ms. Garcia started working at J&B’s office on Saturdays. She said, “At some point I didn’t have a lot to do, and Jafar told me to come over and hold the light while he worked on a car. He started to teach me everything he knows about how to fix cars, and I started to help him.” As time went on, Mr. Sangtrash asked her to start working for him as a mechanic.

All told, Ms. Garcia has worked in the shop for four years, and is currently one of its three full-time mechanics. She has learned how to do oil changes and tuneups, and she knows how to repair brakes, transmissions, cooling systems, and water pumps. She has learned how to replace window glass and how to put tires on the rim. Recently she removed an old engine from a car and installed a new engine by herself.

Although fixing things had been the farthest thing from her mind before Mr. Sangtrash hired her, Ms. Garcia remembers being extremely curious about how things worked as a child. She said, “I remember that I would take something apart, and I would put it back together just so my parents wouldn’t know I took it apart.”

Mr. Sangtrash says there is an important distinction between being a true mechanic and being a person who knows how to change auto parts. “I always say that, in order to be a mechanic, you have to have a mechanical aptitude,” he said. “You have to be able to problem-solve to be successful. Some mechanics can’t problem-solve and just can’t see it.” He added, “Jessica goes over there and figures it out. It’s a talent. Either you have it or you don’t.”

Ms. Garcia says she believes that her presence in the shop and the friendliness at J&B has attracted more women clients than most shops. She said, “You know how you always worry that you’ll be taken advantage of at a mechanic’s shop? How do you know if what the mechanics are telling you is true? … [J&B] doesn’t take advantage of them. So I see a lot more women customers here – I would say 50-50 – that don’t want to go to other shops.” She added, “And they also see me here and they feel they’re in a place where they’ll be told the truth. So I like that part – that women feel more welcome.”

For the ability to forge this unusual path, Ms. Garcia credits her mother for inspiring her to be persistent and pursue her goals. Her mother came to the United States from Mexico, escaping poverty and an abusive relationship. She eventually settled in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago and gave birth to Ms. Garcia at St. Francis Hospital in Evanston.

Growing up in Rogers Park, Ms. Garcia witnessed her mother’s hard work as an advocate for community policing. “[My mother] received an award for cooperation with the police in our community,” said Ms. Garcia. “She used to always go to the beat meetings, and she would round up all the parents in the community to get involved, go to meetings, and organize marches.”

Ms. Garcia attended Senn High School, and became the commander of the ROTC by the end of her sophomore year. She said, “That was the earliest someone has become a commander. I applied myself. I was always there on time and showed that I was interested.” She was also in the National Honor Society and was awarded a scholarship to Lake Forest College. In college, Ms. Garcia also worked hard, putting in extra-credit hours to graduate with a major in Communications and a minor in Entrepreneurship.

While Ms. Garcia enjoys working as a mechanic, her love of music means the most to her, and she still hopes to become a music publicist. She said, “When I was 10 years old I had a little radio that I always had with me in my bed, and every Sunday I wanted to know the countdown [of the hit songs] and I always wanted to know the top song. So I listened to the whole thing for the countdown.”

“In college they had a music department and I would go down there and play the piano by myself,” Ms. Garcia said. “I also took a class on the full history of blues. It was exciting to talk about music,” she added.

Her biggest dream is to discover a new musical artist and bring them to the attention of the music-loving world. Said Ms. Garcia, “If I was able to show a new artist to the world and give them everything – give them contracts and publicity all around the world, and be a music producer with a brand new artist – that would be the biggest sense of accomplishment I could probably have.”

Jessica Garcia has been so good at beating all the odds, one tends to believe her dream will come true.