HOUSTON, TEXAS – He usually has black hair and a black beard, sometimes just a mustache. Like Santa, he wears a hat — though often it’s a sombrero. He dons a serape or a poncho and, in one case, a red-and-black zoot suit. And he makes his grand entrance on lowriders or Harleys or led by a pack of burros instead of eight reindeer.
Meet Pancho Claus, the Tex-Mex Santa.
Amid all the talk about Santa Claus’ race, spawned by a Fox News commentator’s remarks that both Santa and Jesus were white, there is, in the Lone Star state of Texas, a Hispanic version of Santa in cities from the border to the plains — handing out gifts for low-income and at-risk children.
Born from the Chicano civil-rights movement, Pancho Claus is a mostly Texas thing, historians say, though there may be one somewhere in California. Lorenzo Cano, a Mexican-American studies scholar at the University of Houston, says Pancho was apparently conceived north of the border as Mexican-Americans looked to “build a place and a space for themselves” in the 1970s. His rise coincided with a growing interest in Mexican art, Cinco de Mayo, Mexican Independence Day and other cultural events.
Now, Pancho is an adored Christmas fixture in many Texas cities.
“We have kids that we ask, ‘Did Santa Claus come to see you?’ and they say, ‘No he didn’t. But Pancho Claus did,’ ” says Robert Narvaiz, vice commander for the Lubbock, Texas, American GI Forum and coordinator of that city’s Pancho project.
Each city’s Pancho has a unique local flavor, but all share roots that set Pancho apart from Santa.
Here’s a look at just a few. Oh, and Feliz Navidad, amigos.
Pancho in the plains
In the West Texas plains, Pancho Claus is spelled Pancho Clos, so as not to be confused with that other Mr. C.
“Pancho Claus comes from the South Pole, and Santa Claus comes from the North Pole, and every year they get together here in Lubbock,” says Narvaiz. “Santa … was he Anglo? Was he black? Was he Hispanic? I guess everybody is trying to do the same thing: Add a little of their own culture.”
This city’s Pancho dates to 1971, when the local American GI Forum decided to infuse a little Hispanic culture into Santa. They gave him a sombrero and serape, and held a big party at a park, giving out candy and fruit to 3,000 children.
Today, Pancho visits schools, churches and supermarkets, but the biggest event — now supported by three different car clubs and dozens of bikers — remains the party at Rogers Park. There, on the Sunday before Christmas, Pancho hands out gifts.
“We’re just trying to reach those kids that might get left out somewhere along the line,” Narvaiz says.
Julian Perez, a 71-year-old retired heating and air-conditioning repairman, has been Lubbock’s Pancho for 30 years and remembers when three men, all of whom have since died, first came up with the idea.
“I wanted to quit, but I just can’t. It just makes me want to do something for the kids,” says Perez, who wears a long salt-and-pepper beard, oversized sombrero and colorful poncho when he assumes the role of Pancho.
“Pancho Claus! Pancho Claus!” thousands of children chant excitedly, stomping their feet. Just as the shouting reaches fever pitch, Pancho arrives — this one dressed in his signature red-and-black zoot suit, fedora perched on head, waving from the back of a lowrider as he throws stuffed animals into the crowd. This is Houston’s Pancho, aka Richard Reyes.
Reyes, 62, transformed into Pancho in the early 1980s, blending his interests in theater with his Hispanic heritage and a desire to work with at-risk, low-income children — a mission he took on after his teenage sister was killed in a drive-by shooting.
Reyes put his own spin on Pancho, adopting the zoot suit and fedora, and started producing a short show that was a takeoff on the poem “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” That eventually grew into a play with a 10-piece band and hip-hop dancers, many of whom Reyes met while working in detention centers and community centers. His nonprofit endeavor now has a $40,000 budget with three corporate sponsors.
“It’s grown amazingly,” says Reyes. “Now we give out hundreds of toys, if not thousands, with other agencies and we also have a big Christmas Eve party for about 300 families … and then on Christmas Day itself we actually go to the barrios with lowrider cars with sirens blaring … and give out toys there.”
This year, due to what Reyes called a technical glitch, one sponsor dropped out, forcing Reyes to cut back on the number of shows. Still, he says: “Not one child will get less of a toy, which means not one family that calls us and finds us this year is going to be told no.”
Santa and his … donkey?
About 320 km away is another Pancho. This one wears a sombrero and serape. He hangs out at San Antonio’s River Walk, and poses in front of the Alamo. And, according to fliers that make the rounds, his gifts are carried in a cart pulled by trusty “burritos” — as in, well, burros. Forget Rudolph’s red nose. A head donkey named “Chuy” leads the way for this Claus.
In San Antonio, Pancho visits schools and churches to hand out gifts and turkeys with all the trimmings to 50 low-income families. And Pancho, portrayed by Rudy Martinez, has grown so popular he even has a public information officer.
“The end result,” says spokesman Patrick Resendez, “is putting that smile on their face.”