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'Radio Ambulante': An Immigrant's Hollywood Story Takes A Turn

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Next, we bring you an immigration story with a surprise ending. When Mauricio Hernandez first crossed into the U.S. from Mexico more than 30 years ago, he headed straight to Los Angeles. He just knew he had the makings of a TV star. His is a tale of a dream fulfilled but at such a high cost that Mauricio now spends his time trying to persuade fellow Mexicans not to bother with the trip north. Daniel Alarcon is the host of Radio Ambulante, NPR's Spanish-language podcast. And he told us Mauricio's story.

DANIEL ALARCON, BYLINE: So Mauricio Hernandez grows up in Mexico City. He's a middle class kid. He dreams of being a Hollywood star - movies, TV. And when he's 15, he and his brother go north. They cross the border. And he arrives in LA as a teenager. And this is where his sort of American dream begins. He is undocumented. He meets another undocumented woman. They fall in love. They get married. They have three kids. He works everything. He does all kinds of jobs, you know, anything he can do to make ends meet.

MARTIN: So in the end, did Mauricio succeed in LA? Did he build the life he wanted to there?

ALARCON: He did. He finally gets a job sweeping floors in a auto shop. And he loves it. He learns a ton. He moves sort of like from auto shop to auto shop learning more and more skills. And he ends up at a place called West Coast Customs. And when he arrives at West Coast Customs, someone else has also arrived there, and that's MTV. This is a show that a lot of people might remember from the '90s, a show called "Pimp My Ride."

MARTIN: Yeah. So MTV came to the garage to film a show?

ALARCON: Yeah. And suddenly, he's face to face with the possibility of, you know, fulfilling those Hollywood dreams. He has the opportunity to be part of the show, to become a character on the show.

MARTIN: Wow.

ALARCON: All this time, he's undocumented. There's a scene in "Pimp My Ride," where he is the one who gives Arnold Schwarzenegger the keys to Schwarzenegger's car that had been customized.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "RADIO AMBULANTE")

MAURICIO HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

ALARCON: And here comes this guy handing over the keys to the governor.

MARTIN: I mean, on the one hand, his American dream has partially come true. He's got this great job. He's even become a character on a TV show. But I imagine there's some kind of lurking anxiety.

ALARCON: Yeah. And I think that that's absolutely part of his story. There's another part of this story that's just much more common and much more in a way just ordinary and human, which is, you know, he had that stress that millions of Americans have between balancing life and work.

You know, he was working too much. His marriage was suffering. He was at a difficult point in his life. He felt that there were some opportunities that weren't open to him because of his status. And that's when the next big change in his life happens, where the opportunity to create West Coast Customs Mexico City opens up.

MARTIN: So he moves back to Mexico City?

ALARCON: He moves back to Mexico City. His marriage has fallen apart at this point. And he moves back to Mexico City and starts "Tuneame la Nave," which becomes the - basically the "Pimp My Ride" of Mexico.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TUNEAME LA NAVE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).

ALARCON: And he's a TV star, recognized and stopped on the streets. You know, people were like, hey, Mauricio, "Tuneame la Nave," you know, like all over Mexico City. And he's realized his dreams, except now he's doing it in - where he got his start.

MARTIN: Is that the end of it for him? I mean, he just decides to make a life in Mexico?

ALARCON: Well, yes and no. I mean, he still has three kids living in LA, three American citizen kids. And of course like any father, he wants to see them. He promises them he's going to visit them for Christmas. He's going to be there. And he gets denied his visa. And he decides to make the same journey that he made 20 years before as an adolescent and tries to cross the border by foot.

And this time, he just doesn't make it. This time, he winds back in Mexicali in a hospital nearly dying of hypothermia. And I think that's a turning point. That's when he realizes, hey, you know, maybe my life is not going to be in LA, in Hollywood. My life is going to be here in Mexico City.

MARTIN: So how does he think about all of that at this moment? I mean, did he achieve his dream? Maybe it wasn't an American dream, but did he get to where he wanted to go in his life?

ALARCON: Well, I mean, life takes you in odd directions, doesn't it? I mean, I think that he did achieve a version of his dream, you know. And, you know, he's not a perfect man. He's - none of us are. He's made mistakes. I think he's, you know, taken a lot of tangential routes to get to where he wanted to go. But he's a guy who's really super creative, very driven, hard working. He's a guy who's, you know, become a star in Mexico and done all these things there.

And part of it, as an American, me, it makes me sad that he's not doing that stuff here. You know, he is someone who made an impact on American television in the '90s and, you know, could be making a bigger impact if he'd been able to stay.

MARTIN: Daniel Alarcon is the host of NPR's Spanish-language podcast Radio Ambulante. Daniel, thanks so much.

ALARCON: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.