ARCOLA, Ill. — Jesus Garza came from Mexico as a young man looking for a better life. From factory worker to auto mechanic Garza built a successful business in the city of Arcola — 170 miles south of Chicago. But then he tackled his biggest challenge of all: politics.

Garza defies conventional wisdom. The 52-year-old immigrant launched an improbable bid for mayor last year. Historically, many Mexican-Americans lean Democratic. But the city of Arcola, records show, is heavily Republican. So how did Garza pull it off?

A young Garza found work in carpentry work. He worked a 12-hour shift at the nearby broom factory. He would work from 6 p.m. until 6 a.m. the next morning. When he went home to sleep, his wife Hortencia, would make him a lunch for his second job as a mechanic from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.

His proficiency at rebuilding transmissions drew a lot of attention. While everybody was rebuilding one transmission a day, he would do two a day.

Thirteen years later Garza opened his own repair shop. At that point, he had a growing family. He named it 3 J’s Transmission — all three of his children’s first names start with the letter J.

Clyde Powell, am Arcola resident, said he’s impressed by Garza’s fairness. He has a reputation for doing honest business.

“If you ask anybody they’re going to say 3 J’s is the place to go if you need work done,” Powell said.

But the farming community of under 3,000 people at times struggles to retain or attract new jobs, concerning Garza.

But with a potent brand for getting things done, Garza sees support for a move into politics. So he announced a bid to be the first Mexican-American mayor in Arcola history.      

With the help of family and supporters, he started knocking on doors and reaching out. He knew he’d get much of the Democratic Hispanic vote, but knew he had to appeal to Arcola’s many Republicans.

“It’s going to be a challenge but again it’s earned with hard work,” Jesus Sanchez, a supporter of Garza, said.

Local GOP voters, according to election officials, voted overwhelmingly for former President Donald Trump in 2020.  The same Trump who infamously called Mexicans drug dealers, criminals and rapists.

But in Arcola’s April 2021 mayoral election, voters of all political stripes propelled Garza to victory with 42% of the vote in a contest with three other candidates.

It was celebration and joy at the Garza home after the historic win.

Garza spearheaded a push to install streetlights and beautification efforts.

“You can drive through the parks and see the changes he’s made,” Valerie Goode, an Arcola resident, said.

Garza’s remarkable win drew national attention. Last week, a man from Texas called and said he wanted to open a business in Arcola.

Garza’s grandchildren, and a new generation in Central Illinois, point to an optimistic future for the town with a less combative, more cooperative approach towards government.

Garza says new businesses are opening in Arcola and he’ll remain focused on bringing jobs and opportunity to the city he loves.