Pimping His Ride: How Mauricio Hernández Followed His Dreams on Two Sides of the Border
When Mauricio HernÃ¡ndez met Arnold Schwarzenegger, the then-governor of California had just vetoed a 2004 bill that would have allowed undocumented immigrants like him to get driverâs licenses. At the time, HernÃ¡ndez worked for a well-known body shop in Los Angeles called West Coast Customs, where Hollywood celebrities like Sylvester Stallone, Snoop Dogg and Paris Hilton often brought their cars to for repairs and customizations.
âWhen Schwarzenegger came to pick up his car, I drove it and handed him the keys,â HernÃ¡ndez said, chuckling.
Growing up in Mexico City, HernÃ¡ndez dreamed of being on television and becoming famous. He used to watch a kidsâ show called “Chiquilladas” and aspired to be invited to be a part of the cast. When he was eight years old, he learned that the show was offering acting lessons for kids. But his family didnât have extra money to pay for the classes, so his dream was pushed to the back burner.
In high school HernÃ¡ndez started working at an auto repair shop to earn extra money. He liked working on cars â almost as much as he liked the idea of being on TV. He decided that he wanted to work on carsÂ professionally.
In 1991, after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border as a teenager with his brother, he got a job working as a janitor at a body shop in Westchester, near the Los Angeles International Airport,
âThe first time I seen a lowrider, I really went crazy,â HernÃ¡ndez said. âThey used to make âem dance and get up and spin around. And I was like, âHowâd they do that?ââ
Mauricio HernÃ¡ndez grew up in a Mexico City neighborhood lined with mechanic shops and auto parts stores. (Photo courtesy Levi Bridges)
Soon HernÃ¡ndez started picking up odd jobs fixing up cars. He had a cousin who was doing some gigs for West Coast Customs.
HernÃ¡ndez and his cousin spent a long weekend doing the exterior work on a rickety old van for West Coast Customs. As they worked, a camera crew came out to film them. HernÃ¡ndez figured they were shooting a documentary, but he didnât ask any questions.
âWe’re here to do the job. Our thing was the money. Never mind the cameras,â he said.
The following week, HernÃ¡ndez found out that they were filming the pilot episode of Pimp My Ride â the MTV reality show hosted by the rapper Xzibit.Â Each episode featured West Coast Customs tricking out an old clunker and adding wild features like an Xbox or a jacuzzi. HernÃ¡ndez went on to work on many of the cars that appeared on the show.
âWe ended up doing Pimp My Ride for six years,â he said. âThose six years were the happiest years of my life.â
The body shop soon launched its own reality show called Street Customs. HernÃ¡ndez became one of the showâs main characters â living his childhood fantasy on national TV in the United States. But he was also in California as an undocumented immigrant.
When his boss offered to sponsor HernÃ¡ndez with a U.S. visa if he returned to Mexico to open a West Coast Customs franchise, heÂ jumped on the opportunity.
In the winter of 2009, HernÃ¡ndez said goodbye to his partner and three kids and flew to Mexico City.
The World of TunÃ©ame La Nave
When HernÃ¡ndez left Los Angeles, it was the first time in nearly 20 years that he had been back to Mexico City â the place where he grew up dreaming about being on television. And whatâs extraordinary is that this dream of appearing on TV came true again, just not on the California side of the U.S.-Mexico border.
At the same time, HernÃ¡ndez worried that perhaps heâd made the wrong choice, and that this whole business venture in Mexico might fail. He promised his kids that heâd be back in California before the end of the year.
Once he returned to Mexico, the investors who brought the West Coast Customs brand there came up with the idea to launch a version of Pimp My Ride in Spanish. HernÃ¡ndez became the showâs host. They called the show TunÃ©ame La Nave, a direct translation of Pimp My Ride.
HernÃ¡ndez designed most of TunÃ©ame La Nave himself. The premise of the show was that people would send in pictures of their cars each week. HernÃ¡ndez would choose which one would get tuned up. He wanted the show to be funny â less formal than Pimp My Rideâand something that Mexicans could identify with.
âI wanted to put the salsa in it,â HernÃ¡ndez recalled.Â âMexicans we always wanna put chile 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.â
Soon TunÃ©ame La Nave was broadcast to every state in Mexico. For years, he had done the grunt work on cars that appeared on Pimp My Rideâbut he was always behind the scenes. Now Mauricio became famous in his own country. He was literally the Xzibit of Mexicoâs version of Pimp My Ride.
HernÃ¡ndez said that his success in Mexico created a rift between him and Ryan Friedlinghaus, the owner of West Coast Customs in Los Angeles. HernÃ¡ndez arrived in Mexico believing that his former boss would sponsor him with a U.S. visa which would allow him to return to his children in California.
But HernÃ¡ndez said that Friedlinghaus cut off communication with him in Mexico â he never helped HernÃ¡ndez get a visa. After making multiple attempts to interview Friedlinghaus for this story, his publicist sent an email saying they wish HernÃ¡ndez âour very best.â
Mauricio HernÃ¡ndez still regularly holds events around Mexico for fans of his show TunÃ©ame La Nave, which was based off MTV’s hit Pimp My Ride. (Photo courtesy Mauricio HernÃ¡ndez) (Courtesy of Mauricio HernÃ¡ndez)
But despite the fame he acquired from TunÃ©ame La Nave, HernÃ¡ndez didnât want to stay in Mexico.
âI had a promise to my kids in the States,â HernÃ¡ndez said, âthat I was gonna come back on Christmas Eve so I could be with them.â
HernÃ¡ndez traveled to Tecate, a Mexican town on the border with California, and hired a coyoteÂ to take him to the United States. He set off with a group of about a dozen other migrants from Central America and Mexico around midnight and they began walking through the mountains into California.
âIt was hard to cross at that moment, HernÃ¡ndez said. âThey had like so much security around the border.â
HernÃ¡ndez was a smoker, and out of shape, so he had trouble keeping up with the group. Eventually, they all stopped in a cave up in the mountains. Mauricio collapsed on the ground and fell asleep.
âI don’t remember sleeping for a long time. But I do remember when I woke up. There was nobody at the cave,â HernÃ¡ndez said.
HernÃ¡ndez started walking through the darkness trying to find his way back to civilization. Soon, it started to rain. HernÃ¡ndez walked through the freezing cold, tripping and falling in these deep depressions in the earth that bruised his arms and legs.
“I was preparing myself to die,â HernÃ¡ndez said. âI remember I told God âI don’t want to die like this, please.ââ
HernÃ¡ndez had an old flip phone in his pocket that still had some battery left. He managed to call a Mexican emergency hotline. When the sun rose the next morning, an operator on the other end of the line was able to give HernÃ¡ndez directions back to Tecate based on landmarks he saw. A group of paramedics met HernÃ¡ndez at the edge of the city. Later, they told him that he nearly died from hypothermia.
HernÃ¡ndez never tried crossing the U.S. border again. Although his show, TunÃ©ame La Nave, was eventually canceled, HernÃ¡ndez has formed a fulfilling life for himself in Mexico where he runs his own body shop and regularly attends events where fans of the show come to get his autograph.
Today Mauricio HernÃ¡ndez runs his own body shop in Mexico City that does personal customization on cars. (Photo courtesy Levi Bridges) (Levi Bridges)
Today, he sometimes uses his fame to dissuade other Mexicans from trying to enter the United States.
âI tell them not to go, itâs not worth it,â HernÃ¡ndez said.
Itâs hard to say whether things would have worked out so well for HernÃ¡ndez if heâd stayed in Mexico â whether he ever would have gotten a TV show or owned his own business.
Living in California part of what helped make his dreams come true. But along with all the good things that came out of crossing the border, being an immigrant â and losing his connection to his children in California â also caused him a lot of pain. And HernÃ¡ndez wouldnât wish that on anyone.
A version of this episode originally aired on the podcast UnFictional by KCRW.
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