Local mechanic Isa Flores made a name for himself thousands of miles from home

Photo Credit: TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Isa Flores is sad to leave West Linn, where he has worked for more than 20 years, but he remains positive about the future. Isa Flores needed a toolbox.

The year was 1984, and Flores was 17 years old. For the previous two years, he had worked as mechanic at a Volkswagon dealership near his home in the Mexican state of Jalisco.

It was a good job in a field he was passionate about, but it didn’t pay anything. The work was part of a program at the mechanical school he attended, akin to an unpaid internship. He needed to log 2,000 hours at the dealership to earn his mechanic’s certificate.

After that, Flores could start making a salary, but on one condition: He needed his own toolbox.

And that, as it turned out, was far from a simple request. A proper toolset in Mexico was almost impossible to come by, and Flores decided his best shot was to travel 1,450 miles north — across the California border and into the United States of America.

He’d find work, acquire his toolbox and head back home.

That was the plan, anyway.

• • •

Almost 30 years later, Flores still doesn’t have his toolbox. What he does have is a self-owned business, Isa’s Auto Service, that has called West Linn home since 1991.

He built a loyal following over the years with his tireless work ethic and a resolve to always do right by his customers. If he couldn’t guarantee success on a repair, he wouldn’t do it. If a customer was dissatisfied with his work — and it’s only happened twice, by his count — he would write a check to reimburse the fee.

All of this only made it more shocking to Flores’ customers when they learned earlier this year that his lease had been revoked, and that the auto shop on 22250 Willamette Drive would soon be replaced by a convenience store.

“When I read that he was being put out of work, I lost sleep that night,” said Toby Daniels, who has taken his cars to Flores for the past eight years. “Not because we couldn’t find another repair man, but just because this guy deserves to be in the community and helping people.”

Photo Credit: TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Isa Flores' son, Isa Flores Jr., works part time alongside his father at Isa's Auto Service - which will soon move to Oregon City.

Daniels resolved to help Flores get back on his feet, and he was joined by a number of other concerned customers. They helped Flores scout out a new location, and he eventually settled on the former Weiler Chevrolet building in Oregon City — just about a mile away from where the auto shop currently stands.

The whole ordeal has saddened Flores, who loves West Linn and refers to it as home even though his family lives in Clackamas. But he is nothing if not relentlessly positive, elated to be doing what he loves and willing to take the bumps that come along with it.

It’s a mindset that has passed through generations of the Flores family.

• • •

When Flores was 15, and he began his foray into the workforce, his grandfather told him to never leave the house without a sack to pick things up.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

His grandfather explained that it was a figurative sack, invisible to everyone but Isa Flores.

“Everything you put in the sack should be positive,” Flore’s grandfather said. If he could return home with a sack full of positive experiences, it was a successful day.

Flores listened, and he now thinks of it as one of two life-altering lessons from his grandfather. The other was to never live beyond his means.

“When you have a full-time job, life is easy,” his grandfather told him. “But we always make it so hard, because we make one peso a day and spend two.”

And so, though Flores has never been rich, he always made sure to save money for life’s unexpected turns — like this latest move to Oregon City.

• • •

It was money that attracted Flores to mechanics in the first place. When he was 7, he occasionally helped out at his uncle’s farm — cleaning pigs, feeding the cows, whatever had to be done.

When his uncle’s truck broke down, they would ride together to the local mechanic.

“When he was done, my uncle would pay him,” Flores said. “And that mechanic — boom! — to give us change he got out from his pocket a bunch of money, all greasy.”

The sight was enchanting to the young boy.

“Wow,” he told his uncle. “When I grow up, I’m going to be a mechanic. Look how much money he had in his pocket!”

His uncle laughed and said he wished he had that opportunity when he was growing up.

Flores promised that he would find a way, but it proved to be far more difficult than he anticipated. Even after he arrived in California to hunt for his toolbox, it was hard to find work because of his young age. He worked various odd jobs here and there and enrolled at night school to learn English.

He soon found that there was a mechanic class at the school as well, and he jumped at the opportunity.

Yet, it would be years before he could put his skills into practice. In between, he worked a grueling factory job as a machine operator. Nine-hour days felt more like 90 hours.

He lasted two years at the factory before finding his first mechanic job in Glendora, Calif.

It was there that Flores met Jesse Talhebe, who would soon come to him with a life-altering offer.

Talhebe was buying a gas station property in West Linn and invited Flores to join him as the mechanic at the adjoining auto shop. It was January of 1991, and Flores came straight to the auto shop after landing at the Portland airport.

It proved to be the perfect fit, a dream job for Flores. Talhebe ended up retiring about a year later, and sold the auto shop to Flores on a 20-year lease.

“I thought, ‘Wow, 20 years! I don’t know how I’m going to do that!’” Flores said. “I just needed my toolbox and I was going back to Mexico.

“But it passed, just like that.”

• • •

Isa’s Auto Service made it 21 years in West Linn before the lease was pulled. Somewhere along the way, Flores put his toolbox quest aside and decided this was where he belonged. He got married to his childhood sweetheart, Maria, had kids and grandkids, built a steady life for himself — all while working a job he loved.

“I love my wife, I love my kids,” Flores said. “But I feel happy here in the shop, or at any shop — when I was in the city in Jalisco, I used to work from 9 to 12 or 1 in the morning, happily.”

Perhaps that’s why, if you talk to him at the auto shop, there’s a palpable joy in his voice. He often punctuates thoughts with a friendly laugh and a smile.

“Over the years, more and more folks have developed tremendous fondness for Isa and his approach to business,” Daniels said. “Car repair service and fondness are not usually terms that are thrown together.

“He is the most honest, hard-working, friendly craftsman that many of us have ever seen.”

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