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Pancho Claus: A Tex-Mex Santa from the South Pole
Associated Press
Rudy Martinez of San Antonio poses as Pancho Claus. Martinez stands in front of Guadalupe Church, an area that's been renovated in San Antonio, Nov. 28, 2008.  (AP Photo/Houston Chronicle, Nick de la Torre)
Rudy Martinez of San Antonio poses as Pancho Claus. Martinez stands in front of Guadalupe Church, an area that's been renovated in San Antonio, Nov. 28, 2008. (AP Photo/Houston Chronicle, Nick de la Torre)
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HOUSTON: 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. And he makes his grand entrance on Harleys or led by burros instead of reindeer. Meet Pancho Claus, the Tex-Mex Father Christmas.

Born from the Chicano civil rights movement, Pancho Claus is mostly a Texas thing, historians say.

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. 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 PLAINSIn the West Texas plains, Pancho Claus is 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. “Was he [Santa] 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 (a Latin American brightly colored wool blanket), and held a big party at a park, giving out candy and fruit to 3,000 children.

Today, Pancho visits supermarkets, schools and churches, but the biggest event 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 repairman, has been Lubbock’s Pancho for 30 years.

“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 beard, oversized sombrero and colorful poncho to become Pancho.

ZOOT SUIT PANCHO“Pancho Claus! Pancho Claus!” thousands of children chant excitedly, stomping their feet. As the shouting reaches fever pitch, Pancho arrives – 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. The 62-year-old 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, wearing a zoot suit – similar to those from the 1940s – and fedora, and put together a short show based 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,” Reyes says. “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 ... on Christmas Day itself we actually go to the barrios with lowrider cars with sirens blaring ... and give out toys there.”

SANTA AND HIS ... DONKEY?About 200 miles 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.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 24, 2013, on page 13.
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