Paula Valenzuela, left, and daughters Elizabeth, middle, and Mariana… (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)
They once were hawked on street corners, displayed like the finest artwork with their images of Aztec warriors, Virgin Marys, lions, pandas and unicorns.
Laura Genao saw them growing up but never pictured herself owning one.
"Too tacky," she thought.
Years later, her mother slyly left one on her couch: a blanket with a giant tiger woven in shades of gray, black and white.
It was then Genao learned what most Latinos in Los Angeles come to understand as children: Love it or hate it, chances are you're going to forge a bond with a San Marcos.
The thick, plush Mexican blankets with designs of everything under the sun, including the San Francisco 49ers logo, Strawberry Shortcake, peacocks and geishas, have kept Latinos warm for nearly 40 years.
They're so popular they double as bedspreads, sofa slipcovers, car seat covers, wall art, curtains, rugs and even ponchos. They're a gift often given for Christmas, birthdays and baby showers. When a grown child is ready to leave home, a San Marcos usually goes along.
Genao got her tiger soon after she graduated from law school. Her mother considered it an upgrade from thick, plaid Mexican blankets and something more suitable for a professional.
The attorney resisted for a few weeks, but then decided to give the blanket a try.
"It was the warmest, most comforting thing in the world," Genao, 42, said. "It reminded me of family and of my mom."
When she wrote about the experience on her blog, responses flooded in. People across the country — in Texas, Illinois, Missouri — wrote in to boast and reminisce about their own San Marcoses.
In my family it's a must that we all have our own cobija San Marcos. When I moved to the US, that was the first thing I packed.
My old wolf San Marcos is threadbare after 30 years. ...
That blanket has gone everywhere with me in life. If it could talk!
The famous Mexican cobija, or blanket, is often a running joke among the thousands who own them, a likely contender for any list of Top 10 Things Latinos Love.
"It's like a black velvet Elvis," said Rafael Cardenas of East L.A., who's accumulated four blankets of his own. "It's so cheesy, but you're proud of it, you're nostalgic over it because it's your culture.
"If you sit at a table with any Mexican anywhere and say, 'Hey, remember the San Marcos blankets?,' they'll know exactly what you're talking about."
Tributes to what's been called the original Snuggie abound online: on Facebook, YouTube, blogs and forums.
In 2003, urbandictionary.com added the San Marcos to its list of streetwise lingo. Definition: Pimpin' warm blankets from Mexico. As in: "Hey vato, bring the San Marcos to the carne asada in Delano mañana."
Onantzin, a Latino website, recently poked fun at the blanket's notorious warmth, posting this bogus alert:
A warning has gone out to Hispanic parents cautioning them not to excessively layer their kids with thick San Marcos blankets after a teen that was covered with four such blankets suffocated to death this weekend.... Hispanic families nationwide are shocked by the news.
First produced in 1976, the San Marcos ceased production in 2004. That only made Latinos want them more.
Paula Valenzuela remembers seeing the vivid designs as a young girl in Florida. Fieldworkers toiling in her grandfather's fruit groves brought them in from Mexico.
"I remember asking my mom over and over for one, but she had no clue where to find them," said Valenzuela, who is white and now married to a Mexican.
When she moved to the border town of El Centro five years ago, her Mexican neighbors helped her find several blankets for her family. They taught her how to spot the real ones: They were sturdier, didn't shed and came with a San Marcos tag.
"I wanted more and more," the 46-year-old said. "Every available minute I had, I spent looking for blankets, begging people to sell me theirs."
She went to swap meets and yard sales across Southern California and Arizona. Other people searched on her behalf too.
By 2010, Valenzuela had collected almost 400 San Marcoses — designed with horses, kittens, cheetahs and all kinds of flowers.
She kept them stored in a trailer until her husband threatened to call the "Hoarders" television show.
She turned to the Internet and saw scores of requests from Latinos:
Seriously inquirer, please, I've been looking for San Marcos blankets forever.
Anyone know where I can buy one in metro Atlanta or on the web?
If you should get your hands on one, then cherish it because once they're gone, they're gone.
Today, Valenzuela has only about a dozen left. She sold the rest, new and used, through Facebook, collecting $40 to $120 each.
Francisco Rivera let out a hearty laugh when he recently heard about Valenzuela. He wasn't at all surprised.
His brother, Jesus Rivera Franco, created the San Marcos 36 years ago. The son of a sombrero-maker was a tiny man with snow-white hair and a large belly by the time he died in 2009 at age 91.