He kept a pulse on American pop culture, dreaming up products that reflected the times or season. At one point, he employed eight people who manufactured plastic figures of popular icons. "Michael Jordan made me a lot of money," Mauricio recalled.
Mauricio opens the creaky metal gate to his house in Tijuana's El Soler neighborhood, 10 miles from the border. The cracked driveway is flanked by two stucco cottages. In the back, past the rows of multi-colored clotheslines, sits a two-story brick home with fading paint and a peeling front door.
In the early 1980s, when the peso suffered a devaluation, Mauricio emptied his savings account of dollars and traveled to Querétaro, where he bought as many factory-made blankets as he could and shipped them to Baja California.
Hundreds of sales later, Mauricio counted out a small fortune: $20,000. He had tripled his money and earned enough to build a larger home for his growing family. The house lacks heat, but Mauricio says the bricks keep it well insulated. In the living room, there's an old television set, a first-place running trophy on a shelf, and a picture of Mauricio's first wife hanging on a wall. She died of leukemia in 2003.
"There's nothing like a first wife," said Mauricio, who remarried and has since divorced.
The home remains a work in progress. The staircase lacks rails, and he never finished the upstairs bathroom. Mauricio would like to replace the frayed carpets and clean out the piles of scraps from the rear yard, but money ran short, he said, when the border started changing.
The once mighty iron river of cars that funneled through the San Ysidro Port of Entry has receded sharply. America went to war in the Middle East in the 1990s, suffered a terrorist attack a few years later and grew uneasy with rising levels of illegal immigration. Another war came. With each passing year, security at the border has grown tighter.
More rigorous inspection procedures increased wait times, discouraging Southern Californians from taking short trips to Mexico. Military restrictions curbed visits by sailors and Marines. Then came the drug war and the swine flu. The crowds of American tourists thinned. At the same time, fewer Mexicans were going into San Diego to work or shop.
The number of people crossing from Tijuana into San Diego dropped from 47.4 million in 2003 to 34.7 million last year, according to Customs and Border Protection. Vehicle crossings declined from 17.5 million to 14.2 million.
The customers that sustained Mauricio for decades were dwindling.
Mauricio arrives at his friend's churro stand every morning by 10. Shielded from the sun by a canopy, it sits on the median strip dividing the 24 lanes of traffic, a perfectly-situated home base.
Mauricio turns the jury-rigged steering wheel, and the attached metal rod spins, pushing the dough through a tube. Out drop the sticks of dough into a boiling pot of oil. Mauricio fishes them out, sprinkles on cinnamon-sugar and bags them.
He sets out into the crush of traffic.
His fellow vendors peddle products that fit every taste. Food carts are gorged with lollipops, sodas, peanuts, candied apples and potato chips. There are newspaper hawkers, flower girls, window wipers and a man who sells calling cards and car insurance.
Mauricio makes change for a young man who sells coffee, yells to a frozen yogurt runner that he's got a customer, and greets his paralyzed friend, Antonio, who tucks his disabled legs on a scooter, a box of Chiclets in his lap. Eliseo Hernandez, a mango ice cream vendor, said he's worked with Mauricio since the 1970s, when the then-asphalt roadway left shoes ragged after two weeks. "Mauricio has never lost his focus," said Hernandez, 59.
Many vendors, Mauricio included, don't offer much in the way of souvenirs anymore. Everyday goods are what sell these days to primarily Mexican customers. The sombreros atop Mauricio's head are for the gardeners and others who work outdoors. He sells sleeves to women so their arms, resting on windowsills, don't get sunburned while they wait in traffic. But churros are his main product.
"Churros calientitos" -- hot churros -- yells Mauricio, as he walks through the cars jockeying for position. The air is foul. Spanish-language talk radio, Ranchera music, hip-hop and hard rock filter out from the vehicles. Mauricio keeps an ear on the grunts and starts of vehicle engines behind him. "You have to be like the bullfighter; ready to move away."
It's 2 p.m., three hours since he started walking. Mauricio hasn't made a single sale.
He keeps walking. A friend sees him: "Hola, Churrero."
An hour later, a woman honks. Mauricio hustles over. She gives him $2. Mauricio notices two children sitting in the van. Instead of giving 50 cents change, he gives her another bag. "You're lucky. There's a sale today," Mauricio says.
Hour after hour, Mauricio keeps walking, up one lane and down the next. Up another and down again. He ascends a winding overpass, and descends a ramp. He passes by several vendors resting under palm trees. They are the sons and grandsons of original union members, men as well as boys half his age. They look exhausted.
Mauricio walks right by. "In this life, you have to keep moving. . . . How are you going to sell if you don't work?"
Now, on a good day, Mauricio earns $15. (He sells each bag for $1.50: His profit is $1; his partner who helps make the churros gets 50 cents.) Today it is unlikely he will make that much. After five hours, he has sold only three bags.
Worrying is pointless, Mauricio says. "There are hungry people out there. I just have to find them."
The Churro Man plunges into the traffic again. There are 12 more lanes before him, and the cars keep coming. "You have to go round and round and round," Mauricio says. "That's life."