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Richard Reyes, el Pancho Claus más famoso. Photo: Houston Chronicle.
Richard Reyes is the most-famous Pancho Claus. Photo: Houston Chronicle.

In a Cadillac and wearing sunglasses, meet the Chicano Santa Claus of Texas

Known as "Pancho," this 'cousin' of Santa carries the entire history of the Chicano Movement in his sack of gifts.

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In most homes in the United States, Santa arrives on the night of Christmas Eve, sneaking down the chimney with his huge belly jutting from his iconic red uniform, and his sleigh pulled by flying reindeer all the way from the North Pole. 

It happens everywhere, except in Texas, where the world's most generous and omnipotent grandfather does it in a 1972 Cadillac El Dorado, wearing a zoot suit and sunglasses. And you better leave your bathroom window open if you want to receive your gifts. 

This most-atypical Santa of all is called "Pancho" Claus, and his story is as old as the Chicano Movement. 

According to academics like University of Houston scholar Lorenzo Cano, the Mexican-American Santa Claus was born in the 1970s amid civil rights protests aimed at infusing more Latino heritage into the holiday season. Opposite of Santa, "Pancho" is always located in the South Pole (not in the North), and has been modernized from his traditional donkey cart and poncho to more current versions linked to Chicano culture.

Of course, Pancho Claus (or Clos) has always been linked to charity and these days, he visits schools, supermarkets, and gives gifts to underprivileged children. 

The most famous of the Chicano Santa Clauses emerged in 1981.

His name is Richard Reyes, and he is a native of Houston. Reyes' idea of "metamorphosing" into Santa came from a commissioned play he wrote based on the traditional tale of "Twas The Night Before Christmas," but in a more urban setting.

From then on, this southern Pancho, with his Cadillac and sunglasses who slips into houses through the bathroom window, became a legend.

But that's not all he does.

Reyes also manages to raise thousands of dollars annually from sponsors of his eccentric holiday cheer to spread the holiday spirit throughout Houston. Outside of the holiday season, Reyes also promotes year-round programs for the reintegration of juveniles and homeless people into society. 

Although the current pandemic and some health problems in the past have made it difficult for the most famous of the Pancho Clauses, Reyes continues to give out love and gifts without events or parties to mediate, and has created a GoFundMe asking for everyone's help. 

Many remember him fondly: 

"[Pancho] came and was the Santa Claus of that year," said a woman living in Houston. "The cafeteria was full of students. He came in, he sang, he danced, they gave us teddy bears. And for us as students, it meant the world because we felt that Santa was in the building, because he is the Santa."

Another person even remembered how Pancho giving her a tree one Christmas to have in the house. 

Of course, Reyes is not the only Pancho of Christmas; other areas of Texas have theirs as well.

In Lubbock he is called Pancho "Clos," and is Santa's cousin, started in 1971 by members of the American Forum GI Bidal Agüero, Gus Medina and Jesse Reyes. Also in San Antonio, Julian Perez was Pancho for decades, and prefers donkeys to reindeer or the Cadillacs. 

Pandemic or not, Christmas is still white. And the roar of an engine means to many Chicanos the same as bells that jingle.

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