For many children, Santa Claus is a red-suited, black-booted bringer of cheer—and material goods—with a white beard and cheeks the color of candy apples. But some people looking to spread seasonal spirit like to do things a little differently.
Like Pancho Claus.
A tradition in Houston, Texas since 1981, Pancho Claus opts for a zoot suit rather than a red coat and shades instead of white gloves. His “sleigh” is a 1972 Cadillac El Dorado lowrider. Instead of coming in through the chimney, he prefers to make his entrance through a bathroom window.
The details might not sound familiar, but to thousands of families in the Houston area, Pancho Claus is as much a part of the holiday season as his more corpulent colleague. The idea originated in 1981, when Houston native Richard Reyes was asked to write a play about Pancho, who had first appeared in urban folklore in the area in the 1970s following the Chicano civil rights movement. Reyes wrote a play based on "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," giving the story a more urban feel. A sample line:
“And what to my wondering eyes should appear but eight low-rider cars all jacked down in the rear.”
It was a marriage of Reyes’s interest working with at-risk youth and his passion for the arts. And while Santa is sometimes an ethereal presence, visible only in artwork, on television, or at retail stores, Pancho has been up close and personal for decades. He has become a familiar face around town during the holiday season, when he visits schools, hospitals, and lower-income neighborhoods to hand out gifts supplied by corporate sponsors.
“[Pancho] came in and he was the Santa Claus for that year,” Crystal Ramirez, a onetime Pancho gift recipient, told Houston Public Media in 2019. “The cafeteria was full of students. He came in, he sang, he danced, we got teddy bears. And for us as students, it meant the world because we felt like Santa was in the building, because he is the Santa.”
Reyes, a.k.a. Pancho Claus, spends the season handing out toys and gifts, many of which are donated locally. (One estimate puts his gift output at about 10,000 per year.) For some events, he has been accompanied by a 10-piece band and hip-hop dancers. On Christmas Day, he typically visits neighborhoods to hand out gifts at random, with a fleet of lowriders and police escorts in tow. One woman, Betsy Roman, even recalled Pancho giving her family a tree one year. For Latinx residents who might not necessarily see themselves in holiday iconography, Pancho provides a welcome alternative.
Outside of the season, Reyes visits summer camps and even organized gang prevention programs through the arts.
Reyes has maintained his Pancho schedule despite a number of obstacles. He has had three heart attacks in recent years. This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has severely curtailed his efforts to have enough gifts for his rounds. He has lost sponsors, including the Talento Bilingüe de Houston organization. Their parent company, Multicultural Education and Counseling Through the Arts (MECA), has lost funding, making it difficult for Reyes to have a place to store his gifts. Social distancing means Reyes will have to do drive-throughs rather than host parties or other events.
Reyes has also set up a GoFundMe to help with gift-giving this year.
While Reyes might be the most well-publicized Pancho, he’s not the only one. Other areas in Texas have had one to call their own. Pancho Clos in Lubbock is said to be Santa’s “cousin” and originated in 1971, with American GI Forum members Bidal Aguero, Gus Medina, and Jesse Reyes conceiving of the character. Julian Perez portrayed Pancho for decades. Another Pancho in San Antonio has also been spotted, with a new twist: He prefers burros over reindeer.