KCRW's UnFictional Unbelievably true stories of chance encounters that changed the world. A pair of mail-order shoes that led to the film The Outsiders. A secret road to a California paradise. The day LA and smog first met. Stories that will stick in your head like a memory. It's UnFictional, hosted by Bob Carlson.
KCRW's UnFictional

KCRW's UnFictional


Unbelievably true stories of chance encounters that changed the world. A pair of mail-order shoes that led to the film The Outsiders. A secret road to a California paradise. The day LA and smog first met. Stories that will stick in your head like a memory. It's UnFictional, hosted by Bob Carlson.

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Mauricio Across the Border - Part 2

Mauricio moves back to Mexico. He finds himself in a whirlwind of fame as the star of the hit television show, Tunéme La Nave, the Spanish-language version of Pimp My Ride. But then life catches up with the fantasy. Maurcio tries to cross back to the U.S. and is abandoned in the desert. Miss part one of this story? Listen here. This story is also available in Spanish through NPR's Spanish-language podcast Radio Ambulante. Read the script below: LEVI: Mauricio grew up in a historic neighborhood where a guy rides a bicycle through the streets at night selling tamales. MAURICIO: The tamale guy, it's a really popular thing over here in Mexico. The street Mauricio grew up on is like a parody of what you'd expect. MAURICIO: I used to miss this... It's in a car neighborhood, lined with parts stores and mechanics who specialize in different repairs. MAURCIO: Every business here is about cars: bolts, cables, batteries, radiators. Right across, you have engines, they fix transmissions. On the other side they fix the suspension. Mauricio used to ride his bike through here, peering in at what the mechanics were doing on his way back home. MAURICIO: Well this is the house. The house Mauricio grew up in is small, painted green green – shaded by tall palm trees that his grandfather planted. When he left LA, it was his first time back here in nearly 20 years. His first time in Mexico as an adult. And he realized there were parts of his own identity that he hadn't really explored. MAURCIO: If you go outside Mexico... and live outside your country for 20 years, you come back to your country, it's like coming back home. You feel so [much] more Mexican. If you were Mexican, you feel two thousand percent more Mexican. Mauricio's got tattoos all over his arms, including a huge West Coast Customs logo. And when he got to Mexico, he started adding tons of new ones of important figures in Mexican culture and history. MAURICIO: Zapata. Pancho Villa. Miguel Hidalgo, Benito Juárez, La Quetzalcoatl, Coyolxauhqui. Josefa Ortiz de Domínguez. Mauricio left Mexico with dreams of being on television. But what's extraordinary about Mauricio is his wildest dream did come true. Just not on the side of the U.S. border he would have expected. Sunset at Mauricio's shop (Photo Courtesy of Levi Bridges) [SOUND: "TUNÉAME" THEME SONG] Once Mauricio got back to Mexico, the two guys who brought the West Coast Customs brand to Mexico came up with the idea to launch a version of "Pimp My Ride" in Spanish. And Mauricio became the host. They called the show "Tunéame La Nave" — it's a direct translation of "Pimp My Ride" that's so perfect it's almost poetic. MAURCIO: To me when they say we're going to record this show to me was a test. Let's see what happens. Mauricio didn't get his hopes up. They made a pilot, but nobody was sure whether it would go anywhere. The idea was that people would send in pictures of their cars each week and Mauricio would choose which one would get tuned up. [ARCHIVE SOUND FROM "TUNÉAME"] Woman: ¡Ay por favor no sea mala onda, tunéame la nave de mi hermano! Man: ¡Por favor TV Azteca tunéame la nave! Mauricio designed most of the show himself. He didn't want there to be any acting, not like on "Pimp My Ride." But most of all: he wanted the show to be funny. MAURCIO: I wanted to put the salsa in it. Mexicans we always wanna put chili in it, we want to put lemon in it, we want to put salt in it. So I wanted to put the spices in it, you know. The result was a like a blend of Three Stooges and "Pimp My Ride". Where workers bumble around the body shop spilling paint thinner on each other. Fade up archive tape, fade out under next track [ARCHIVE SOUND FROM "TUNÉAME"] Mauricio: ¡Eh Churromais qué te pasó! Churromais: Disculpe Mau, la neta. Mauricio: ¡Mira nada mas me llenaste de tinner. The show got picked up by TV Azteca, one Mexico's main television channels. MAURCIO: After the show air, it hit big. I had fans from five years old to 70 years old. 80 years old. Suddenly Mauricio's show was being broadcast to every state in Mexico.. Mauricio became famous in his own country. He was literally the Xzibit of Mexico's "Pimp My Ride". [ARCHIVE SOUND FROM "TUNÉAME"] xxxxxxxxxxxx Announcer: Siempre existe un líder en cualquier proyecto. ¡Él es Mauricio! Mauricio speaks before a crowd of fans in Mexico. Photo Courtesy of Mauricio Hernández MAURCIO: Nobody told me you're gonna become famous. A lot of people started to recognize me. Not long after the show started to air, Mauricio went to downtown Coyoacan — not far from the Mexico City neighborhood where he grew up. A crowd of people surround him. MAURCIO: And they start asking me for a picture. And then it was an autograph. And then it was a picture. Then it was an autograph. It was full of people, you know, so I couldn't move. I just started walking fast, walking fast. And everybody was following me like 'Hey come on, come back.' LEVI: And when you were a kid, you always wanted to be on TV. Did you think about that part of it? [MAURICIO LAUGHS] You know that like you can't just go out of the house anymore? Were you aware that was part of the deal? MAURCIO: Of course! When you're a little kid, you never thought about being famous. I always wanted to be in television. Mauricio didn't let it go to his head. He was flattered by the attention. And pimping out cars for free, that felt so good in a country like Mexico. Where it's way harder for people to afford things. Where material things, especially cars, can sometimes have way more value than in the U.S.. MAURCIO: When you buy your first car in Mexico, you take care of your car for long, long time. People of Mexico, we love our car. The car is part of the family. You talk to them, you call 'em your baby, you put a name on the car. I can say if we Mexicans can put our car inside the living room and watch TV with the car, we would do that. That's how we are, Mexican people that's how we are. Tunéame La Nave was supposed to be kind of a comedy. But the show would also get emotional. . People were really moved when they saw the finished cars. Photo Courtesy of Mauricio Hernández [ARCHIVE SOUND FROM "TUNÉAME"] Man: Fue del año 83 cuando me accidenté. Me dieron un balazo en mi pierna. Perdí mi pierna. MAURCIO: I had a, like, sadness inside of me because it was hard for me to see people crying, see people getting really sentimental. I wanted to cry with them, you know. So at the end of the recording sessions, I would go to my office, close the door. And I remember I used to cry a lot. Mauricio's a genuine kind of guy. And that came through in the show. It's probably part of why fans were so drawn to him. But Mauricio says the attention he was getting in Mexico created a rift between him and Ryan — the owner of West Coast Customs. MAURCIO: I don't want to call it jealousy, but when I became a celebrity in Mexico with his brand, I guess he felt kind of jealous. And I totally understand that. But, it was not something that I planned. Mauricio says that Ryan eventually came down to Mexico for an event promoting West Coast. MAURCIO: And we sit down in the table of signing autographs. And we had this line full of people that wanted to get an autograph. And I remember Ryan was right next to me and people would come to me to get an autograph. And I was already thinking, this guy is gonna get mad because people didn't recognize him. Mauricio says that after just a few minutes Ryan got up from the table and left. MAURCIO: I felt something was wrong, because I knew him So Mauricio went to check in with Ryan. He wanted to know what happened. MAURCIO: And he's like 'Nothing.' I was like 'You sure?' And he told me, Yeah, I'm sure. Why don't you go and take care of your fans? They all want you.' And after that, it, it wasn't the same. It didn't just affect their friendship. Mauricio says when Ryan sold the franchise they made an agreement. MAURCIO: Ryan was supposed to get me a visa back so I could go and see my kids. And that's so I can come back and keep working for West Coast Customs in the States. That was part of the deal that we made before I was come into Mexico. Mauricio tried talking to Ryan about the visa. But he says, Ryan just kind of ghosted on him. Ryan didn't talk to me for this story, so you won't be hearing from him. I reached out to him a few times, and his publicist sent me an email saying they wish Mauricio " our very best." When I first talked about all this with Mauricio five years ago, I got the impression he was kind upset with Ryan. But that's not how Maurcio's describes what happened. LEVI: Did you feel like he betrayed you in any way by not saying, 'oh, yeah, of course, I'll get right on this and bring you back. I know you want you to come home.' How do you feel, how would you describe it? MAURCIO: Not betray. But yeah, left. Left alone. Kind of abandon. Just abandoned me. Probably it's not that I wasn't like I wasn't important to him. But it's just like I didn't wanted for him to feel like that. Like that 'Oh I have to do it. Oh I have to bring this guy.' I wanted it to for him to come out from his heart. I woulda like for him to love to do it. Like 'when can I bring you back? How can I bring you back?' Mauricio was really stranded in Mexico. Getting his own TV show, becoming famous, that was not part of the plan. And despite all the cool things that ended up happening, Mauricio wasn't planning on staying in Mexico. MAURCIO: I had a promise to my kids in the States that I was gonna come back on Christmas Eve so I could be with them. He'd been in Mexico for about six months. By this point, it was summer 2009. Time was ticking. And if he was going to make it back in time for Christmas, Mauricio realized he couldn't count on Ryan anymore to get there. MAURCIO: I was like if he doesn't want to help me, then I'm going to do it. Mauricio chats with one of his workers at his shop in Valle de Chalco, Mexico. Photo Courtesy of Levi Bridges So Mauricio says he tried applying for a tourist visa. People who don't earn a lot of money in Mexico often get denied visas because folks in U.S. consulates think they're just trying to find a way to work in the U.S. But a Mexican television host. Easy. MAURCIO: And the people at the embassy they asked me, you know, have you ever been in the States? Which I say, "No." And at that moment, they told me, 'OK, well, your visa is approved.' But then a week after, the embassy called me up and tell me that I had to go again. You know, there was some kind of problem. I went to the appointment and the same consul he asked me right away, he say 'Why you lie to me?' The consular workers investigated Mauricio. He still had a record from that time during the LA Riots when the cops found Mauricio and his cousins taking beer from that looted convenience store. MAURCIO: So they give me a five-year penalty to get into the United States. But because I had that promise with my kids about me going to see them on Christmas Eve, I had to be there, get there, no matter how. I just wanted to get there. Mauricio was committed to reuniting with his kids. He only planned on being gone from LA for four months. Now almost a year had gone by. He'd already missed out on a lot of their life helping Ryan build West Coast Customs. MAURCIO: I wasn't the perfect dad. But I can tell you I was always trying to be the perfect dad. And he was damned if he wasn't going to keep this promise. So Mauricio did something really bold — there was really only one way he could get back to his family. He went up to Tecate, a Mexican town on the border with California, and hired a coyote. A smuggler. To take him over the border. MAURCIO: It was five thousand dollars which I was going to pay to cross, and they were going to cross me through the mountains. At that moment, I can tell you honestly, I was scared. He was afraid of getting caught by the Border Patrol. Of getting locked up. Spending Christmas in jail instead of with his kids. Maybe never getting back to California at all. MAURCIO: It was hard to cross at that moment. They had, like, so much security around the border. Crossing the border is dangerous. Thousands of migrants have died trying to get to the U.S. Many trying to reunite with their families. And here was Mauricio, a Mexican celebrity—a guy with a national TV show— making good money, walking through the arid borderlands. Like countless other migrants. Mauricio met up with two coyotes in Tecate who planned to sneak him over the border, walking, with a group of migrants who were also trying to reach the U.S. MAURICIO: We were like about twelve people, 15 people. I remember it was people from Oaxaca. It was people from Guatemala. The coyotes told them all to empty their pockets. Get rid of everything they had. MAURICIO: An ID, cell phone, keys, coins, bills, wallet. You couldn't take anything. Just water. They set off around midnight. Slipped under a barbed wire fence and started walking through the darkness. Tecate's a small city in the mountains east of San Diego and Tijuana. It's high, semi-desert country, with scrappy shrubs and these massive boulders scattered everywhere. Before they left, the coyotes made sure that nobody, especially not the Border Patrol, could track them. MAURICIO: They gave us this carpet. With some wire. Whatever you were wearing: boots, tennis shoes, whatever. You had to put carpet on the bottom. So you don't make the footprints. With the pieces of carpet attached under everyone's shoes, Mauricio says they took off trudging up into the mountains. The coyotes were walking fast. Really fast. Something about them didn't seem right to Mauricio. MAURICIO: I knew a lot of people doing different drugs, you know, and I knew those two guys were getting high on the way. I knew the smell of crystal meth. And I like caught 'em like a couple of times smoking. And that's why they were walking so fast. They were not getting tired. I had that feeling that something was, something was wrong. As they walked into the darkness behind these two methed out coyotes, the temperature kept dropping. MAURICIO: It was cold. It was in December, I remember it was really cold. I had this bad ass jacket. One of those big puffy jackets for winter. MAURICIO: And it was really, really warm. But it was making that noise. It was them kind of material that makes noise. So I remember that guy he told me he's like you cannot go with that jacket. The coyote told Mauricio, he had to throw the jacket away. Any sort of extra noise, it might draw attention to their group from Border Patrol. Mauricio said he wasn't going to walk without a jacket. So the coyote gave him his. MAURICIO: His was cotton. He gave me this crappy ass jacket. They crisscrossed up into mountains, back and forth following an unmarked trail of switchbacks. MAURICIO: And I was already tired. I was really tired. It was really tough, like going through those mountains. LEVI: I've seen those mountains they are steep. MAURICIO I knew, physically I wasn't prepared. LEVI: Why? Were you just not in good shape? MAURICIO No, I wasn't in good shape. I was never doing exercise. I smoke, I smoke a lot. Mauricio was having trouble keeping up with the group. Eventually they all stopped in a cave up in the mountains. Mauricio collapsed on the ground. MAURICIO: I remember they told us just to wait there. And I could hear 'em like smoking outside because you could hear the lighter going, going and going and going. / And because I was tired, I don't know, it just happened in one snap. But I was tired. I don't remember, like, sleeping for a long time. But I do remember when I woke up, there was nobody at the cave.. At first I thought they're all outside, you know. And when I went outside. It was nobody. Nobody. The coyotes abandoned him out there. This is actually pretty common. As a reporter covering immigration and the border, you hear lots of stories about stragglers getting abandoned by coyotes during border crossings. Mauricio was out there all alone with nothing. The coyotes had made everyone empty their pockets. MAURICIO: But I kept my cell phone. I hide it. Mauricio had the number of the guy back in Tecate who had arranged this trip, so he gave him a call. MAURICIO: He kind of like got mad first, but then he told me stay there, we're going to come and get you. I was scared. It was really scary because then I was alone, left out in the mountains. The only light we had, it was the moon. You could hear snakes. tsts-tsts. You could hear the bushes move. LEVI: And you're like a city guy. Have you ever been out in the middle of nowhere by yourself like that? MAURICIO: No, of course not. No. No way. Never. Mauricio was just out there totally freaked out. Waiting and waiting. But nobody ever came. MAURICIO: And after like half an hour I called this guy and when I tried to call him, there was no phone. They shut down the phone. It never went through again. Mauricio started walking through the night, trying to find his way back to Tecate. MAURICIO: I was already getting desperate. I will see the Border Patrol. Like far away up in the hill. I will see the lights. I will scream, so they could hear me. I wanted to get caught by the immigration because I wanted to be safe. But Border Patrol didn't see him. He kept walking through the cold night. It was getting harder to see. MAURICIO: The moon went away. It starts getting cloudy, and then it started raining, like really hard. Now Mauricio was starting to panic. He kept tripping and falling in these deep depressions in the earth, bruising his arms and legs. MAURICIO: I couldn't see nothing. Like nothing. Like you will have your eyes open and you will see only darkness. Just like a blind people, but it was more desperate because you had your eyes open. I got panic. I panic a lot. Thinking 'I'm going to die here.' So I remember I started saying 'Mauricio start thinking, thinking, what you going to do?' He still had the cell phone. So when the rain died down, he called this Mexican emergency hotline. MAURICIO: And they told me, "How much battery do you have?" And I said 'I don't have that much. Can you find out with a satellite where I am? I don't know. Something.' But no. This was back in 2009. For the Generation Z kids in the room, the Find My Phone app wasn't really a thing yet. The people on the other end of the emergency hotline urged Mauricio to just stay in one place. Wait until morning. MAURICIO: I was already all wet because of the rain. And I started shaking. Like bad. Like really, really bad. I started having hallucinations, my kids' faces in the sky. And I will scream their names and tell them that I'm sorry so many times and I will cried and then I will laugh. I was getting nuts. I started remember when I was a kid, when I was a boy. What I did right, what I did wrong. I was preparing myself to die. I remember I told God I don't want to die like this, please. I don't wanna die right here. The worst thing that went through my mind it was like, 'I'm going to die here and nobody's ever gonna find my body.' Mauricio kept walking. Even after sunrise, Mauricio says there was this thick fog hanging over the mountains. It was still hard to see. He called the SOS number one last time. MAURICIO: And then this lady answered the phone. I told her 'I'm really desperate. And I didn't have that much battery anymore.' I know it was the last shot that I was gonna had. And I told her, 'please tell my mom, tell my kids that I love them. But I know I'm going to die here.' They kept talking, trying to get Mauricio to give them any details that might help them find him. As the sun rose higher the fog lifted a bit, just enough to see the landscape ahead. MAURICIO: The land was like painted red. The trees, the bushes, everything was red. All that red was a long ribbon of flame retardants that had been dropped from the air to put out a wildfire. The emergency hotline transferred Mauricio to a guy who knew the region well. MAURICIO: He's like, "I know where you are." He told me that as long as I will see red walk in that direction. That was the last call because then my phone shut off. I knew if I will follow the instructions, I was gonna save my life. Mauricio kept walking, following the line of red flame retardants over a hill. And at the top, the city of Tecate came into view. In the city below, Mauricio saw an ambulance that had been sent for him. He ran down the hills toward the arms of a paramedic. MAURICIO: He hugged me with his blanket. And I don't remember nothin else. Later that night he finally regained consciousness. MAURICIO: I woke up with all this bags full of water warm around my body. They couldn't believe it because I had a 90 percent of hypothermia in my body. They couldn't believe how I survived. When the doctors released Mauricio, he got on a plane back to Mexico City. MAURICIO: I was feeling sad. I was feeling empty. I was feeling happy. Happy that he'd gotten a second chance at life. Sad and empty because he had run out of options to get back to his family in California. The trip over the border, almost dying, really traumatized Mauricio. MAURICIO: I was already having fearness of darkness. I had a panic. I couldn't sleep. He couldn't bring himself to try crossing the border again on foot. MAURICIO: No way was I gonna try that again. Now Mauricio had to confront a new reality, one where he wouldn't be living with his kids. MAURICIO: And my mind was like: I let them down you know. I told them, "well, I can't go. I can't go anymore." I risk my life to see you guys and almost die. I'm sorry. I know they were young, they couldn't understand. Mauricio started thinking about starting a new life in Mexico. Staying their permanently. He asked his partner to join him. MAURICIO: Bring the kids, come over here, let's make a life together. And she will always laugh. She will always laugh and say, 'Do you think I'm going to go there and leave the States and go back to Mexico? That's never gonna happen. Not long after that conversation, Mauricio and his partner separated. Mauricio's kids came down to Mexico a few times to visit. But their relationship wasn't really the same. Things felt strained with all the distance. Over the years they grew further apart. Today, they hardly talk. MAURICIO: Sometimes people gets the chance in life to become a good father. And some of us, we just don't. For some reason it doesn't happen because trust me that I try. As Mauricio was trying to accept everything that happened, he threw himself back into producing the TV show in Mexico. MAURICIO: Like they say you know the show has to continue. But doing the show wasn't the same. MAURICIO: I was missing my kids. I was missing a family life. During season three of Tunéame La Nave, Mauricio ended up hitting it off with someone he met on the show. They decided to start a family and eventually had a daughter. Mauricio's other kids are all boys. He always wanted to have a girl. MAURICIO: I will always like to be around my my sisters I used to comb their hair, get 'em dressed up to take them to school. Pick pick 'em up from school. I wanted to have my own girl. I wanted to have my own daughter. It felt like a second chance. MAURICIO: The love that I feel for my daughter, it's undescriptable. It's magic. Mauricio's daughter was born during the last season of Tunéme La Nave. TV Azteca canceled Tunéame in 2013, after four seasons. Mauricio said there were problems between the producers and the network. But even though this was the thing he'd dreamed of doing since he was a kid, losing the show didn't feel like that big deal. Especially after everything else he'd been through. MAURICIO: I didn't really care, we had the brand, we had West Coast. We had a shop. So I was like, well, we don't have a TV show. Let's make cars. I had this platform. I'm famous. I know how to work in cars. So I could just open up my new shop. Maurcio was happy just running his own body shop. And being a father again. But it was a financial adjustment. After he lost the show, Mauricio says that lots of people he'd grown close to, that he thought were his friends, really just wanted to be around him because he was on TV, or because he had money. MAURICIO: You rather be by yourself, then be with somebody that probably is going to hurt you. Because that people that you say that's my friend, he probably end up stabbing you in the back. A couple years later Mauricio's new partner also left him, along with their daughter. And although Mauricio doesn't want to get into all the details, he says part of the reason is that she lost interest when Mauricio's show got canceled. They had to reduce their standard of living. Mauricio was just a guy working at a car shop now. MAURICIO: It really hurt me. The separation really hurts me a lot. I had a lot of times of depression. Mauricio still had a national following in Mexico, and he'd hold events for his fans. He was struggling with depression. And a big part of his job now was trying to put on a happy exterior for the people who adored him. LEVI: What were you experiencing that you felt like you couldn't tell them? MAURICIO: My fans they seen a strong Mauricio. But I couldn't be that guy. From inside I was dying. A lot of people think being famous is easy. And it's hard. It's like you have to deal with your personal life and the life of the people, that think they know you. Mauricio says the love he got from his fans did help cheer him up. But only for a little awhile. MAURICIO: It's like a drug. You need that. But then when you turn off the light, when the show is over, then you end up in the room with nobody. MAURICIO: I didn't want to get recognized. I wanted to just cut my dreads, leave my cell phone, everything. Grab a backpack and just go anywhere. I don't want nobody to know about me. He ended up taking what might sound like a drastic step for a television celebrity in his mid-40s. He moved back home. With his grandmother. MAURICIO: She said 'I know where are you going through, why don't you just come here?' So I came back to the house. Being around my grandmother will always make me happy. Just listening to her, watching her walk, cook. Being home was just what he needed. Mauricio's relationship with his ex in Mexico eventually improved. He sees his daughter regularly and sometimes they do things as a family, even if they aren't together. Overtime he started to adjust. And Mauricio started opening up to his fans on social media about what he'd been through. He made himself vulnerable to them. MAURICIO: I started getting a lot of messages asking me for help. I was starting to be a psychologist for my fans once they see me strong, asking me how I did it. I lost a TV show, a family. How am I still strong? His fans started reaching out to him about their personal problems. People going through breakups or feeling depressed because they were overweight or lost their jobs. Some people reached out just because they were thinking about going to the U.S., to a place like California, like Mauricio did. LEVI: When you meet Mexicans who tell you that they want to go to the US, what do you tell them? MAURICIO: Not to go. It's not worth it. When Mauricio was living in the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant, he always felt like a second class citizen. Like he was living in a country where he didn't belong. And he wants to spare Mexicans from experiencing that. MAURICIO: I had saved a lot of people from going to the States. It's hard to say whether things would have worked out so well for Mauricio if he'd stayed in Mexico — whether he ever would have gotten a TV show or owned his own business. Living in the U.S. is part of what helped Mauricio make his wildest dreams come true. But along with all the good things that came out of that, being an immigrant also caused him a lot of pain. And he wouldn't wish that on anyone. [AMBIENT SOUND: MAURICIO'S NEIGHBORHOOD] Walking around Mauricio's old neighborhood in Mexico City, we talked about what it felt like coming back here for the first time after 20 years away. He says it was like a breath of fresh air after so many years suffocating in the U.S. MAURICIO: I feel like I could breathe again. I feel like I could be free again. I could be myself. I could walk the streets. And not worry about anything.

Mauricio Across the Border - Part 1

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. [ARCHIVE sound] 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. [ARCHIVE sound] 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.

The Dream is Over

Pete's always known there was treasure buried in the mountains near El Paso. But knowing there's treasure and going to get it are two very different things. Plus, Eddie Hart had been training for years – steadily making his way to the Olympics with laser-sharp focus. But once he got there, one mistake sent the whole dream crashing down around him. Will McCarthy is a furniture mover and freelance journalist in Central Texas. Kerstin Zilm is an independent producer from Germany living in Los Angeles. The hole in Pete's backyard. Photo credit: Logan Dorne. Pete. Photo credit: Logan Dorne.