Growing up in Mexico City, Mauricio always dreamed of being on television. Then life came along – school, work, a difficult home life. He started working in car shops, first as a teenager in Mexico and then as an undocumented immigrant in Los Angeles. It seemed like he’d left his dreams of television behind. And then, he met Xzibit.
This story is also available in Spanish through NPR’s Spanish-language podcast Radio Ambulante.
Levi Bridges is an audio producer currently based in Moscow, Russia.
Photo Courtesy of Mauricio Hernández.
Read the script below:
LEVI: You don’t forget a guy like Mauricio Hernandez. He’s got a long pointy beard. Always wearing these dark sunglasses. And long dreadlocks that hang practically down to his waist.
The first time I met Mauricio, he was standing in a parking lot just outside Mexico City, speaking at some kind of promotional event. I thought I’d see him somewhere before. Maybe on TV. Back in the U.S.
Later that afternoon Mauricio and I ate some street tacos.
MAURICIO: Uno, dos de nada más con puro papa.
LEVI: Dos campechanos.
And no joke, multiple kids stopped to ask Mauricio for his autograph.
As we ate, Mauricio told me about a dream he had growing up. Mauricio’s had lots of dreams over the years. And, somehow, many of them have actually come true.
MAURICIO: My first dream was to be in television. That was my first dream...be famous. Some way somehow.
Mauricio says that when he watched TV as a kid, he’d imagine himself being one of the actors, like this one show that used to be on Mexican TV back in the 80s.
MAURICIO: ...that was called “Chiquilladas.”
[“CHIQUILLADAS” theme song plays]
MAURICIO: It was this TV show in Mexico that was all about kids. So I wanted to be on this show.
[ARCHIVE SOUND: “Bienvenidos chiquillitos y chiquillatas al programa de Chiquillliadas”]
When Mauricio was 8 years old, he learned that the crew who made Chiquiladas were offering acting lessons for children. Mauricio was psyched. He told his mom all about it.
MAURICIO: My mom… I remember she told me, like, ‘Hey don't get so excited… we don't have no money to do that.’
When Mauricio got a little older, his childhood dream of being on television went on the back burner. He worked at a mechanic shop in high school to make extra money. Mauricio really liked working on cars – almost as much as he liked the idea of being on TV. He wanted to buy his own car, but he never had enough money. Eventually Mauricio started noticing that lots of his friends were going to the U.S. to work. And they were coming back with cool stuff.
MAURICIO: Cars, motorcycles, clothes, tennis shoes. You know, I was like, wow! I was like "shit, man. I want to be there."
When Mauricio was 16, his brother came back to Mexico to take him to California. Mauricio’s home life wasn’t great. His mom would yell at him a lot. Mauricio says she sometimes got physical with him .
MAURICIO: As a kid, you never forget…the words, the objects where she used to hit...you.
LEVI: Was that part of the reason why you guys left home so young?
MAURICIO: I seen a lot of problems in my family. Especially with my dad… my dad is an alcoholic.
It was that year – 1991 – that Mauricio and his brother first tried to cross the border into California. They wanted to go to Los Angeles.
MAURICIO: Back then the border didn’t have a wall. You could just cross so easy.
The guys got caught by Border Patrol twice. The second time, they spent a few hours in jail. And were deported back to Tijuana. Mauricio hated that feeling of being locked up. Like a prisoner.
MAURICIO: I told my brother: "if this time we don’t pass...I’m going back." If we get caught again, I’m going back.
Mauricio crossed again. And this time he made it on a Greyhound. The bus eventually got stopped at an immigration checkpoint. And an officer came on board.
MAURICIO: He's kind of like walking towards me. And then, um, I close my eyes, and I started snoring.
The agent bought it. Mauricio looked too relaxed to be undocumented. He made it all the way to LA.
MAURICIO: The Greyhound bus station and downtown L.A. is right about…in Skid Row.
[Sounds of Skid Row]
MAURICIO: And you get out of the bus and you start seeing all these homeless people, drug addict people…Dude, I wanted to, like, I wanted to go back!
LEVI: Was that not at all what you were expecting
MAURICIO: Yeah. I was thinking about seeing Disneyland right across the street.
It wasn’t at all what he was expecting in LA. And that wasn’t the only thing that surprised him.
MAURICIO: When I arrived to L.A. The cars were like really catching my eyes.
In California Mauricio saw a Pontiac Fiero — this little sports car with a spoiler on the back — that he was totally into. There was a car renaissance going on in LA at the time. This was the early ‘90s and rappers like Dr. Dre started putting lowriders in their music videos. And the California street culture of tricking out cars went mainstream.
[DR. DRE song plays]
MAURICIO: The first time I seen a lowrider, I really went crazy, I was like, wow, I remember that time was it was very popular. The pickup trucks, when they used to put hydraulics above the bed and they used to make ‘em dance and get up and spin around…jumping.
MAURICIO: My cousins were kind-of like in gangs and the gangster culture.
Mauricio, by contrast, was pretty straight-laced.
MAURICIO: Normal. I guess, you know, tight pants, tennis shoes.
[KID FROST song plays]
MAURICIO: My cousin took me to a first lowrider show and they dressed me up as a cholo, because they were like: “You're not gonna go to a lowrider show dressing like you dressed.” They gave me some overalls, like, huge overalls… Nike Cortes…Flannel. And I had long hair. So they tell me "we'll get your hair in a ponytail." I didn't feel good because I was... that wasn't the way that I dressed up. But it was fun because I got the chance to see all these cars; the first time I heard Kid Frost. And all these popular artists from Chicano culture. And it was fun.
With his cousins in LA, Mauricio got to know a whole new part of his family. But that doesn’t mean he always felt welcome in California.
[ARCHIVE TV Sound]
Man: We’re getting word this evening of some rock throwing by youths in South Central Los Angeles.
Man: There’s a reported structure fire.
Man: The violence erupted after the acquittal of four white policemen in the beating trial of black motorist Rodney King.
Mauricio was still settling into LA when the city revolted in the LA Riots of 1992. One night during the riots, Mauricio and his cousins were walking past a convenience store.
MAURICIO: It was kind of like a 7-Eleven…the lights were out….The windows were all broken. And we're like “Hey let's go get some more beers.” You know, they're free.
They went inside the store and picked up a couple 12-packs. But before they had time to walk out, the cops showed up.
MAURICIO: You could hear the tires and you see the lights that were already pointing inside the store and you could hear the officers…At that time, I didn't know any English, So when I heard these officers really mad and screaming really loud... Of Course… Put your hands up… you learn that right away. And I remember the officer. He…pulled me out of the store and threw me on the ground. Threw me on the floor. And then I remember I felt like about maybe four or five officers started kicking me. They started kicking me like, ah, fucking soccer ball.
The cops let them go that night. Mauricio thought he’d get summoned to court for loitering or trespassing, but he says he changed addresses soon after and never got a notice in the mail. The guys thought about pressing charges themselves — against the cops who beat them up. But they were too afraid to take legal action. Partly, of course – because Mauricio was undocumented.
Mauricio says, the longer he stayed in the U.S., the more his immigration status started to bother him. The fact that he couldn’t get a driver’s license. The possibility that he might get arrested and deported someday—treated like a criminal—were always in the back of his mind.
MAURICIO: It was something that will always, like, put you down.
Mauricio’s girlfriend, a young Mexican immigrant named Claudia, was also undocumented.
MAURICIO: I started a family and at a young age…I had a kid when I was 18 and having a kid is not easy.
Mauricio and Claudia ended up having three sons. Maurcio was the breadwinner. And he found a job – doing something he loved.
MAURICIO: I wanted to work on cars professionally.
He had to start at the bottom — as a janitor at this body shop in Westchester, near LAX.
MAURICIO: I was cleaning the bathrooms,…sweeping the shop.. I was working with a lot of the Central American people. Central American people and Mexicans, we don't get along that well. They used to see me come in. They used to throw me the trash on my, on my feet. You know like here, ‘Pick that up.’
But Mauricio stuck around, learning more and more skills.
MAURICIO: Shampoo a car, you know, wax the car, clean interiors…And then I learned how to color sand and buff the cars… and then… body work and then I end up doing paint.
[XZIBIT song plays]
Mauricio started picking up side gigs. Another one of his cousins was working for a body shop called West Coast Customs. One day, he asked Mauricio to help him do the body work on a vehicle that looked like a small delivery van.
MAURICIO: They used to call it Diahatsu…It was a Filipino car.
The Diahatsu was a complete wreck. West Coast Customs needed all the body work on the van completely redone and repainted quick.
MAURICIO: We do it Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
And as they worked, Mauricio noticed something.
MAURICIO: We start seeing cameras.
People were coming out and filming them work in the shop. Mauricio had no idea what was going on.
MAURICIO: They didn't tell me anything. At first it was like maybe a documentary. I don't know…but it was all very professional cameras.
And even though he still dreamed of being on TV, he didn’t ask what was up.
MAURICIO: I was like well we're here to... to do the job. Our thing was the money…Never mind the cameras, you know.
But then one morning they were pulling masking tape off the Diahatsu to finish the paint job.
MAURICIO: I remember…we went early…And I see Xzibit walk into the shop.
Xzibit.. The rapper.
Xzibit just showing up really took Maurcio off guard.
MAURICIO: Kind of like whoa. You know, like damn…So, of course, I tell him “Hey. Can you sign me an autograph?” And he was a really cool guy.
[ARCHIVE Sound of the first episode of “Pimp My Ride”]
Xzibit: I’ve always had a love affair with cars. Big ones. Fast ones. Especially expensive ones. Cause I’m your boy X-to-the-Z Xzibit
Mauricio got a picture with Xzibit and then he and his cousin put the last coat of paint on the Diahatsu.
MAURICIO: And they paid us and they tell us, “We want you guys to be on Wednesday at 5:00 p.m.” And my cousin and me were like, “For what?” “Uh cause we're recording this show and we want you guys to be there. All the people that work on the car. They got to be this TV show.”
They didn’t tell Mauricio anything else. Just come back on Wednesday to film something for a TV show. But Mauricio was pumped.
MAURICIO: I was like, dude, I'm gonna be a TV show. That I wanted since I was young.
Next week Mauricio comes back to West Coast Customs. And there are cameras — everywhere.
MAURICIO: All right, guys, you guys right here. You guys right here. …And then they say action and you see Xibit coming in with the guy….The owner of the truck
[ARCHIVE sound of the first episode of “Pimp My Ride”]
Wyatt: Holy (beep)
Xzibit: Checkout the inside homey
Wyatt: I can tell you I’m impressed already.
MAURICIO: It was a pilot… It was just a pilot
The pilot — of “Pimp My Ride.”
[“Pimp My Ride” theme song plays]
“Pimp My Ride” aired on MTV in the early 2000s. It was kind of one of the first reality TV shows. The basic premise was every week the host, Xzibit, finds some poor girl or guy driving a real clunker. And then they’d pimp that car out.
[ARCHIVE sound of the first episode of “Pimp My Ride”]
Wyatt: Hi I’m Wyatt. I’m 18 years old. This baby is my ride. There are no shortage of things wrong with the car. Two words for you here: Duck tape. Top speed: 60 miles an hour.
Xzibit: Today’s your lucky day, Wyatt. I’m about to pimp your ride.
Xzibit would bring the cars over to Ryan Friedlinghuas — the owner of West Coast Customs.
RYAN: Hi, welcome to West Coast Customs. I’m Ryan. And this is the shop….
[ARCHIVE sound of the first episode of “Pimp My Ride”]
Xzibit: Alright check this out Ryan man
Ryan: I have never seen one of these before in my life.
Xzibit: Yo man neither have I. I think there’s like two in the U.S.
Ryan: I think it more looks like a golf cart.
MAURICIO: They never thought it was gonna hit….it hit big. It hit, really big…I remember they call us like after the TV show airs. They called us like right away.
West Coast Customs eventually hired Mauricio full time. He did the body work on a lot of the cars that appeared on Pimp My Ride.
MAURICIO: I feel so proud of myself to be on the first TV show of cars in MTV. We ended up doing “Pimp My Ride” for six years. Those six years were the happiest years of my life.
It was a dream come true. But after the pilot episode of “Pimp My Ride,” Mauricio says he didn’t appear on the show again. He was always behind the scenes. Working on the cars, not in front of the cameras.
MAURICIO: I wasn't on “Pimp My Ride” because most of the show was acting.
When Mauricio says acting, he means that many of the people who you saw working on the cars weren’t necessarily the ones who actually pimped them out. Mauricio and some other guys from Mexico were the ones doing a lot of the grunt work.
MAURICIO: So let's say I was sanding the car. And then the camera crew used to come to me and say, ‘Stop, stop. Can you give this to them?’ And so they can speak on on the camera.
One of these stand-in workers was named Alex.
[Pimp My Ride audio]: Now me and Alex are gonna go out and test drive this thing.
Alex would take Maurico’s place working on the car. And then the producers would ask him questions.
MAURICIO: “So what are you doing Alex?” “Well I'm sending this car so we're getting ready for paint.” “Oh, OK. Cut!” So they used to give me back to the block and the sandpaper and I used to finish the car.
MAURICIO: I didn't feel, like, offended. Because first of all, I wasn't getting paid to be on television. I was getting paid to work. And to me, being in television or being around the television show, that was a plus in my life.
LEVI: Wait the people they would bring in to say, ‘hey, this is the guy who is sanding the car,’ were they normally white?
MAURICIO: I can tell you this, they were not Mexican.
LEVI: And so who was really doing the work?
MAURICIO: Well most of the guys were Mexicans. At one point I remember the shop, it was probably about 80 percent Mexicans.
This was the early 2000s – it was a different time. Enforcement of the U.S.-Mexico border was ramping up after 9/11. There was a lot less immigration enforcement than there is today.
MAURICIO: At that moment, I remember you could still go to Alvarado Street in Los Angeles, get a Social Security number and a fake alien card. You can tell right away it was fake. And people in body shops they knew. Of course they knew.
LEVI: The people who worked at MTV, did they know you guys were undocumented?
MAURICIO: They knew. Because there were people that didn’t really speaks English. It came to a point where nobody cares. You know? Nobody cared about you being illegal if you would just show me fake social security numbers and a fake card. So as long as you have those papers, you feel so confident about looking for a job anywhere.
Mauricio says it was kind of an open secret that some of the guys who helped pimp out the cars were undocumented. He remembers that the people who worked on the show would even joke around with the Mexican mechanics about their immigration status.
MAURICIO: They used to just scream, just laughing, “Hey la migra! La migra!” We used to turn around and say, “Who cares?”
One day, someone way more important than la migra came to West Coast Customs.
ARCHIVE: Hi, this is governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of the great state of California.
At one point, Mauricio says that Schwarzenegger also brought his car to West Coast to have some work done. It was right after he had just vetoed a bill that would have given undocumented immigrants the right to get driver’s licenses in California. When Schwarzenegger came to get his car, Mauricio looked over at his boss, Ryan.
MAURICIO: I remember Ryan, tell me: "Well, Arnold Schwarzenegger is going to come and pick up his truck." Ryan, he was a sarcastic man. Ryan's like “you drive the truck. Give him the keys.” And it was funny because like Schwarzenegger doesn't wanna give us a driver's license and I'm driving this car. So it was funny. (LAUGHS)
The media and popular culture often portray undocumented immigrants as living in the shadows. But Mauricio says he was right out in the open, driving the car of a Republican governor — who’s also an immigrant. Over the years, lots of other celebrities also brought their cars to West Coast.
MAURICIO: We had cars for Paris Hilton. Shaquille O'Neal. For Kobe Bryant. Sylvester Stallone. For Snoop Dogg.
By day Mauricio was leading a glamorous life meeting the rich and famous. At work, being undocumented didn’t really matter. It’s like West Coast Customs was a miniature sort of sanctuary city. But even though Mauricio worked on cars for a living, he never drove a nice one himself. Mauricio worried his car might get impounded if he ever got caught driving without a license. And it wasn’t like Mauricio was just rolling around with Snoop Dogg all day. The job was tough. Long hours, and really hard work, for not a lot of money.
MAURICIO: Most of these cars, of course, were like trash. Body shop had three days to finish the car and give it back to them. Finish.
I remember there were days that we were probably leaving 2 o'clock a.m., 3 o'clock in the morning. And wake up at seven o'clock in the morning to go to work at 8:00 o'clock in the morning.
And all those long nights in the shop had a serious effect on Mauricio’s family.
MAURICIO: I sacrifice my family. I did sacrifice my kids. But I don't have no regrets because the money that I was making, of course, it was for my kids, for my family, for my house.
But his partner did not see things the same way.
MAURICIO: At one point she told me to leave West Coast. Leave it because you don't
have a life. You work too many hours. We need you at the house. We need you to be the dad. Me the mom. A family. And I didn't listen.
Mauricio says he figured he’d get a better job in the future, so he could give his kids the kind of opportunities he never had. Like a college education. But in the short term, fixing the cars that Xzibit presented on MTV wasn’t always the most glamorous gig in the world.
MAURICIO: Fuck it was a hard job.
LEVI: And how much money were you making?
MAURICIO: It was 300 a week, I believe. It was more the experience to be there. To me it was fun to be at the show.
It was fun, but there are signs that West Coast Customs had taken advantage of their workers in the past. In 2014, West Coast paid a settlement to workers after an investigation by the Department of Labor found that the company paid employees less than minimum wage, in addition to other abuses. According to the settlement, West Coast owed the workers thousands of dollars in back pay. By that point Mauricio had left West Coast. I’ll explain why later. But Mauricio didn’t see his boss, Ryan Friedlinghaus, as some cruel tyrant exploiting undocumented immigrants.
MAURICIO: He was not the romantic, sentimental guy. He always was the mean face, the strong guy. Ryan will always called the shop the "war field."
LEVI: The war field?
MAURICIO: Yeah, the war field. And he used to call us soldiers. And he used to say, “Well you're the one of the best of my soldiers. My best soldiers, they always go out on the front.”
Mauricio says that he and Ryan developed a close relationship. Mauricio was always working late, polishing the cars, making everything look good. And he says Ryan noticed.
MAURICIO: Ryan used to invite me in his office to eat with him. With his family, with his kids, with his dad, with his mom. You know, we're the same age. We were buddies.
Around that time, Mauricio says that Ryan was going through a divorce. He kept a lot of it private. But he came to rely on Mauricio. One night, Mauricio says, Ryan broke down.
MAURICIO: I remember his face. His face couldn't take it anymore. He started crying. And he told me, “I'm sorry. I got a lot of problems. And this car has to leave tomorrow to Dubai. And nobody's here.” I give him a hug. He hug me. He's like “Are you sure you can you help me finish the car?” I say “Yes for sure.” I looked at him and I told him, “You know, I got you.”
MAURICIO: You were kind of Ryan's right hand man.
MAURICIO: Yeah. Even though he always called me his soldier. I know I was more than that.
Mauricio’s neighborhood in Mexico City lined with mechanic shops and auto parts stores. Photo Courtesy of Levi Bridges
The work that Ryan and Mauricio did on Pimp My Ride had given West Coast Customs national exposure. But a body shop that refurbishes old clunkers, Mauricio says that wasn’t what Ryan wanted West Coast to be known for. He wanted to get back to high-end work for LA movie stars.
MAURICIO: West Coast was built up about celebrities. And once we did “Pimp My Ride,” we were the joke of the celebrities.
Ryan decided to leave "Pimp My Ride" altogether and move to a new state-of-the-art shop in Corona, California. Outside LA. Mauricio was one of the first people Ryan approached about the plan.
MAURICIO: And he told me right away that "no you have no option. You're coming with me."
The idea wasn’t just to launch a new shop. Mauricio says Ryan wanted to start his own TV show about what really went on inside West Coast Customs. That idea turned into a real show called “Street Customs” that aired on TLC and the Discovery Channel.
[Archive sound of “Street Customs”]
Announcer: On this episode of Street Customs…
Ryan: My name is Ryan. This is my company. This is my life. And this is Street Customs.
MAURICIO: “Street Customs” it was a really reality show, more than “Pimp My Ride.” It wasn't no actors.
Meaning no stand-in replacements for the guys working on the cars. Ryan offered Mauricio a spot as one of the main workers who appeared on Street Customs.
MAURICIO: Ryan saw me like a character. And he did give me a lot exposure on the show, on TLC.
[ARCHIVE sound of “Street Customs”]
Ryan: I’ve always had this thing with Mauricio. He’s worked for me for almost seven years now. I’ve always told him, ‘Dude, we’ve gotta cut your hair. We’ve gotta cut your hair.’
With his signature long dreads and pointy beard, Mauricio became one of the show’s most recognizable personalities.
[ARCHIVE sound of “Street Customs”]
MAURICIO: Ryan keeps telling me like, ‘Oh you should cut your hair.’ He told everybody he put a price on my dreads. Saying that he will give 100 dollars for each dread that anybody cut.’
Ryan: 100 bucks dawg.
And this is where Mauricio’s childhood dream became a reality. After they started producing Street Customs, Ryan asked Mauricio to represent West Coast at a really important car show: the SEMA show in Las Vegas.
MAURICIO: You see these people, you see everybody start clapping. And they’re clapping to you. And you're walking through this red carpet, through the stage. I feel like I made it. I remember they never stop clapping, (SNIFFLES) We were recognized as the people, we put the automobile industry on television. We were huge. We were artists. We were the best.
Mauricio was a main character on the show. He was relatable. Cool. The kind of guy you’d want to have show up at your party, Mauricio personified a character on television that served as a bridge that could connect people to the Latino community. And he did all this while he was undocumented.
MAURICIO: I did live two lives. You know stuff like, I’m gonna get caught. I don’t have a license. I’m not gonna do my taxes.
And there were always reminders everywhere of what could happen.
MAURICIO: Sometimes when you hear the news, when I used to hear that this happened over there.
TV Anchor: Across northern California over a dozen immigrants are behind bars right now after a new crackdown…
TV Anchor: The battle between California and the feds overs illegal immigration.
MAURICIO: That that's going on over here.
TV Anchor: Homeland Security began flying plane loads of illegal immigrants into Southern California.
TV Anchor: Immigrant communities across the country bracing for an ICE crackdown to kick into high gear
MAURICIO: You know, it was not something they will not let me sleep. But that it was something that you had to live with every day.
Mauricio really wanted to find a way to get legal status in the U.S. And eventually, he found one. . A wealthy Mexican who had some work done at the shop approached Ryan about buying the rights to open a West Coast Customs franchise in Mexico.
Mauricio helped with the negotiations. And the Mexicans had one key condition.
MAURICIO: "We're gonna buy the franchise. But Maurico's coming with us. Because we want him to build a shop and once it’s done, once he gets it running, then he comes back."
Mauricio was excited about the possibility of going back to Mexico. He was opening a franchise for a company with international recognition — Mauricio felt proud about that. After the two guys from Mexico left, Mauricio sat down with Ryan to hash out the details.
MAURICIO: I told them after they left I say, “Hey dude. But I don't got no papers and how am I going to come back?” And he's like “I’ll bring you back. Don't worry. I'll bring you back. I'll pay. The coyote,” he told me. “To bring you back, or we will find a way to get you a visa so we can get you back.”
A visa would mean legal status in the U.S. No more sneaking around always worried about getting deported. So in the winter of 2009, Mauricio said goodbye to his partner and three kids… and he crossed the border from San Diego to Tijuana – the same place where he’d first entered California as a teenager – and then he got on a plane to Mexico City.
Mauricio was worried that this whole business venture in Mexico might fail. But he reminded himself that he wouldn’t be gone long. Mauricio promised his kids that he’d be back by next Christmas, if not earlier.
But… Mauricio never returned to the U.S. again.
More on the next episode of Unfictional.