Maria Garcia has just finished changing the oil and tuning up a black Honda Civic when she’s handed a phone. She rolls off her orange latex gloves, spotted with oil and dirt. On the line is a customer stuck a few blocks up the street on Central Avenue in northeast Minneapolis. His van stalled and he needs a jump.
Garcia, 45, jumps into her own van, then out when she spots the white Chevy on a hill under a tree. Garcia pops the van’s trunk and pulls out a red jumper box, cables and a bottle of starter fluid. She hands the driver the bottle and slides behind the wheel, revving the engine as he sprays starter fluid into the carburetor bore. The car rumbles as the ignition tries to catch.
Another normal day for Garcia.
“This business, everybody says this is only for men,” said Garcia. “But I like it for me.”
Garcia is one of just 1.7 percent of women who work as automotive service technicians or mechanics. In a male-dominated field, Garcia has been the sole owner of Mario’s Auto Sales in northeast Minneapolis since 2015; the shop works mostly on repairs and tuneups.
Garcia isn’t afraid to get her hands a little greasy, either. “I’m working. I like it like that,” said Garcia. “My father told me when I lived in Ecuador that this was not a job for women but, coming here, everybody’s working.”
Garcia emigrated from Cuenca, Ecuador, in 2001. She lived briefly in Spain, before heading to New York and then to Minneapolis to join friends. The middle of seven siblings, she was the only one to emigrate.
“I’m the crazy lady for the move,” said Garcia. “But, for my heart, it’s good and I’m happy.”
Working at the now-closed Minneapolis restaurant Babalu, she met her husband, Mañuel Sarabia, who was working at an auto shop. The two married in 2008, and worked side by side at the auto shop for almost 11 years. Sarabia died at 46 of a congenital lung disease in 2015.
Before his death, Sarabia bought a 1928 Dodge Brothers sedan that he planned to rebuild. The frame was mostly rust, the seats ripped and it came with a lot of raccoons, but it was his “big project,” said Garcia. While he was in the hospital, his employees fixed up the car, adding a bright, baby blue exterior.
After he died, Garcia not only had to run the business on her own, but also became a single mother to the couple’s now 8-year-old son, Cristan.
Garcia’s workday starts at 8 a.m., but sometimes she stops first to peruse a junkyard for parts before opening the shop. Her uniform is a blue button-up shirt, with a patch reading “Maria” on the side. She wears a thin silver rosary around her neck.
Despite his distaste for women in the field, Garcia’s father was her first mechanics teacher, in Ecuador; her husband was her second. Being on the job daily is the best training. She employs six workers, but still does oil changes, tires, brakes and “stuff that isn’t too heavy.” She said people are sometimes surprised to see a woman wearing the toolbelt.
“Everybody thinks that it’s the big guys or stronger guys,” Garcia said, flexing her arms for emphasis. “When people come here to fix their cars and they see me, they say, ‘You? You’re working?’ ”
Once, a man wouldn’t pay her for an oil change, even after she charged him half the price. He wouldn’t do business with a woman, she said. She called over a male co-worker, whom the customer paid in full.
Garcia said she wants her business to be for “everybody,” regardless of race or gender. She said working women need to stay strong, and stick together. “We, as women, can open many paths to help others, because we feel very closed in a world of men.”
Not all men, though. Garcia recalls a slow day when a man rushed into the shop, needing help with a popped tire. He had asked two nearby auto shops, but neither helped. Garcia grabbed a jack and changed his tire. Four months later, the man returned to thank her, with a soft pink rose, now sitting in a vase on the front counter.
Jenny Camgas, who works at the front desk at Mario’s, said Garcia is a respectful, and inspiring, boss. “She gives me more motivation,” Camgas said, adding that Garcia sometimes helps her handle customers, and is always relaxed, with a smile.
Back on Central, the van still won’t catch. The engine gurgles, then lets out a loud pop. The van ditched, its three occupants file into Garcia’s van as she heads back to her shop. On the way, Garcia points to a boy biking quickly down the street. He’s Garcia’s apprentice, Jacob Alexander Samaniego, 14, who has been coming to the shop for about a year for “training.”
For Samaniego, fixing cars is like “one big puzzle. I need help, but I can go as far as changing an engine,” said Samaniego, who wants to open his own mechanic shop in the future. He’s thankful for the early experience.
“If I make a mistake, no one’s upset about it, they just help me fix it,” said Samaniego.
In fact, the atmosphere of Mario’s is like a pit crew — everyone lends a hand (and changes a tire).
Garcia has no intention of putting on the brakes any time soon. She recently bought a second storefront just across the river on Second Street that repurposes old cars. “I would like to have it full in here, full of cars,” said Garcia. “Not really a bigger dealership but, when somebody comes here and says they need help, I can help.”
One special spot is already taken by the bright blue Dodge Brothers. The steering wheel is too rusted to move, but it has a new battery. And, Garcia noted contentedly, it’s now raccoon-free.
“Maybe this week,” she said, “I’ll try to start the car.”