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Pancho Claus: A Tex-Mex Santa from the South Pole

December 23, 2013

HOUSTON (AP) — 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 entrance on motorcycles 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 after a Fox News commentator’s remarks that both Santa and Jesus were white, there is a Hispanic version of Santa in Texas cities handing out gifts for low-income and at-risk children.

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, 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.

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PANCHO IN THE PLAINS

This city’s Pancho dates to 1971, when the local American GI Forum decided to infuse a little Hispanic culture into Santa.

Today, Pancho visits schools, churches and supermarkets, but the biggest event remains a party at Rogers Park. There, on the Sunday before Christmas, Pancho hands out gifts.

Julian Perez, a 71-year-old retired heating and air conditioning repairman, has been Lubbock’s Pancho for 30 years.

“It just makes me want to do something for the kids,” says Perez.

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ZOOT SUIT PANCHO

“Pancho Claus! Pancho Claus!” thousands of children chant excitedly, stomping their feet. He waves from the back of a lowrider car 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.

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.”

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SANTA AND HIS ... DONKEY?

He hangs out at San Antonio’s River Walk and poses in front of the Alamo. A head donkey named “Chuy” leads the way for this Claus.

Pancho visits schools and churches to hand out gifts 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.”

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Plushnick-Masti can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/RamitMastiAP

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