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Regional Interests

Pimping His Ride: How Mauricio Hernández Followed His Dreams on Two Sides of the Border

When Mauricio Hernández met Arnold Schwarzenegger, the then-governor of California had just vetoed a 2004 bill that would have allowed undocumented immigrants like him to get driver’s licenses. At the time, Hernández 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.

“When Schwarzenegger came to pick up his car, I drove it and handed him the keys,” Hernández said, chuckling.

Growing up in Mexico City, Hernández dreamed of being on television and becoming famous. He used to watch a kids’ 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 didn’t have extra money to pay for the classes, so his dream was pushed to the back burner.

In high school Hernández started working at an auto repair shop to earn extra money. He liked working on cars — almost as much as he liked the idea of being on TV. He decided that he wanted to work on cars  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,

“The first time I seen a lowrider, I really went crazy,” Hernández said. “They used to make ‘em dance and get up and spin around. And I was like, ‘How’d they do that?’”

Mauricio Hernández grew up in a Mexico City neighborhood lined with mechanic shops and auto parts stores. (Photo courtesy Levi Bridges)

Soon Hernández started picking up odd jobs fixing up cars. He had a cousin who was doing some gigs for West Coast Customs.

Hernández 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. Hernández figured they were shooting a documentary, but he didn’t ask any questions.

“We’re here to do the job. Our thing was the money. Never mind the cameras,” he said.

The following week, Hernández found out that they were filming the pilot episode of Pimp My Ride — the MTV reality show hosted by the rapper Xzibit.  Each episode featured West Coast Customs tricking out an old clunker and adding wild features like an Xbox or a jacuzzi. Hernández went on to work on many of the cars that appeared on the show.

“We ended up doing Pimp My Ride for six years,” he said. “Those six years were the happiest years of my life.”

The body shop soon launched its own reality show called Street Customs. Hernández became one of the show’s main characters — 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 Hernández with a U.S. visa if he returned to Mexico to open a West Coast Customs franchise, he  jumped on the opportunity.

In the winter of 2009, Hernández said goodbye to his partner and three kids and flew to Mexico City.

The World of Tunéame La Nave

When Hernández left Los Angeles, it was the first time in nearly 20 years that he had been back to Mexico City — the place where he grew up dreaming about being on television. And what’s 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, Hernández worried that perhaps he’d made the wrong choice, and that this whole business venture in Mexico might fail. He promised his kids that he’d 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. Hernández became the show’s host. They called the show Tunéame La Nave, a direct translation of Pimp My Ride.

Hernández designed most of Tunéame La Nave himself. The premise of the show was that people would send in pictures of their cars each week. Hernández would choose which one would get tuned up. He wanted the show to be funny — less formal than Pimp My Ride—and something that Mexicans could identify with.

“I wanted to put the salsa in it,” Hernández recalled. “Mexicans 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.”

Soon Tunéame La Nave was broadcast to every state in Mexico. For years, he had done the grunt work on cars that appeared on Pimp My Ride—but he was always behind the scenes. Now Mauricio became famous in his own country. He was literally the Xzibit of Mexico’s version of Pimp My Ride.

Hernández said that his success in Mexico created a rift between him and Ryan Friedlinghaus, the owner of West Coast Customs in Los Angeles. Hernández 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 Hernández said that Friedlinghaus cut off communication with him in Mexico — he never helped Hernández get a visa. After making multiple attempts to interview Friedlinghaus for this story, his publicist sent an email saying they wish Hernández “our very best.”

Mauricio Hernández still regularly holds events around Mexico for fans of his show Tunéame La Nave, which was based off MTV’s hit Pimp My Ride. (Photo courtesy Mauricio Hernández) (Courtesy of Mauricio Hernández)

But despite the fame he acquired from Tunéame La Nave, Hernández didn’t want to stay in Mexico.

“I had a promise to my kids in the States,” Hernández said, “that I was gonna come back on Christmas Eve so I could be with them.”

The Crossing

Hernández traveled to Tecate, a Mexican town on the border with California, and hired a coyote 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.

“It was hard to cross at that moment, Hernández said. “They had like so much security around the border.”

Hernández 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.

“I don’t remember sleeping for a long time. But I do remember when I woke up. There was nobody at the cave,” Hernández said.

Hernández started walking through the darkness trying to find his way back to civilization. Soon, it started to rain. Hernández 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,” Hernández said. “I remember I told God ‘I don’t want to die like this, please.’”

Hernández 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 Hernández directions back to Tecate based on landmarks he saw. A group of paramedics met Hernández at the edge of the city. Later, they told him that he nearly died from hypothermia.

Hernández never tried crossing the U.S. border again. Although his show, Tunéame La Nave, was eventually canceled, Hernández 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 Hernández 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.

“I tell them not to go, it’s not worth it,” Hernández said.

It’s hard to say whether things would have worked out so well for Hernández if he’d stayed in Mexico — 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 — and losing his connection to his children in California — also caused him a lot of pain. And Hernández wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

A version of this episode originally aired on the podcast UnFictional by KCRW.

Copyright 2021 KQED