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'Pancho Claus' Spreads the Christmas Spirit to Latino Children in Texas and California

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First Posted: Dec 24, 2013 01:16 PM EST
Pancho Claus
A Latin version of Santa Claus, Pancho Claus, is a “Tex-Mex” version of Santa who hands out gifts to low-income and at-risk children in Texas - from the border to the plains. (Photo : Flickr)
Houston's Pancho Claus
Houston's 'Pancho Claus' is Richard Reyes. He's a 62-year-old Latino Pancho Claus 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. (Photo : Flickr/Ed Uthman)

Santa Claus's race has been a hot topic this Christmas season, sparking a heated debate in the media as well as opening a dialogue about how we view Santa Claus in America.

But it's really not about Fox News Reporter Megyn Kelly's remarks that both Santa Claus and Jesus were white -- a reaction to an article published by Slate's Aisha Harris about her experience growing up black and seeing a white Santa Claus. Instead it's about the meaning behind Santa Claus -- and I am not talking about a marketing ploy. It's about spreading Christmas cheer, kindness, giving to those in need, and bringing smiles to children's faces, regardless of race. Santa Claus and the rest of the world should all be colorblind.

Enter 'Pancho Claus' in Texas and California.

He's not your typical Santa Claus with white hair and a white beard, Pancho Claus usually has black hair and a black beard, or just a mustache. Similar to Santa Claus, he dons a hat, which is more than likely to be a sombrero, a serape or a poncho. In Houston, he even rocks a red and black zoot suit, making "his grand entrance on low-riders or Harleys or led by a pack of burros instead of eight reindeer," The Associated Press reports.

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A Latin version of Santa Claus, Pancho Claus is a "Tex-Mex" Santa that hands out gifts to low-income and at-risk children in Texas -- from the border to the plains.

"Born from the Chicano civil rights movement, Pancho Claus is a mostly Texas thing, historians say, though there may be one somewhere in California," the AP adds.

According to 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."

"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 Lubbock's American GI Forum and coordinator of that city's Pancho project.

So who are these Pacho Clauses bringing joy to Latino chidlren?

In the West Texas plains, Pancho Claus is "Pancho Clos," to differentiate from Santa 'Claus.'

"Pancho Claus comes from the South Pole, and Santa Claus comes from the North Pole, and every year they get together here in Lubbock," Narvaiz told the AP. "'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."

For three decades, Julian Perez, a 71-year-old retired heating and air conditioning repairman, has been Lubbock's 'Pancho Clos.'

Houston's Pancho Clausis Richard Reyes, who dons a red and black zoot suit and fedora, waves from the back of a low-rider and throws stuffed animals to children in the crowd.

"The 62-year-old Latino Pancho Claus 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," the AP reports.

"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," Reyes told the AP. "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 low-rider cars with sirens blaring ... and give out toys there."

Lastly, San Antonio's Pacho Claus, Rudy Martinez, who dons a sombrero and serape, spreads Christmas cheer at the city's River Walk and poses in front of the Alamo, the AP adds. Unconventionally, Pancho Claus' gifts are carried in a cart pulled not by reindeer, but by burros and a head donkey named "Chuy" takes the lead -- a Latin Rudolph at its best.

This Pancho Claus also visits schools and churches in the area where he hands out gifts and turkeys with all the trimmings to 50 low-income families. He's such a hit that he even has a public information officer as well.

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