In Texas, Pancho Claus Steals Spotlight From Santa


There's been a big controversy this holiday season over the race of Santa Claus. It was sparked after a Fox News commentator said both Santa and Jesus were white. But in Texas there's a longstanding tradition of a Hispanic Santa Claus, and in Houston he's known as Pancho Claus.

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This holiday season, there has been some controversy over Santa Claus and race. But in Texas there's a long tradition of redefining St. Nick.

Laura Isensee from member station KUHF in Houston has more.


LAURA ISENSEE, BYLINE: About 200 children and their families are waiting for someone special at a multicultural center near downtown Houston. He wears a red suit and gives out toys. But his name is not Santa Claus.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I need you to help me get him out here. I need you saying Pancho Claus.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Pancho Claus. Pancho Claus. Pancho Claus. Pancho Claus...

ISENSEE: This is Pancho Claus, a Latino version of Santa Claus. Richard Reyes here in Houston has been playing him for more than 30 years. Reyes takes the stage in his red three-piece suit, black fedora, sunglasses and pointy black shoes.


RICHARD REYES: (Singing in foreign language)

ISENSEE: Reyes says he started as Pancho Claus in the early 1980s when he wrote a play. It was a Mexican-American twist on the classic poem "'Twas the Night Before Christmas."

REYES: (Reading) And what to my wondering eyes should appear but eight low-rider cars all jacked down in the rear.

ISENSEE: Since then, Reyes has evolved as Pancho Claus. Now he performs with a five-piece band and a backup singer. He distributes toys in low-income neighborhoods. He has financial support from corporate sponsors like Union Pacific and a taxi company. Reyes says one reason he does all this is his own sister was killed in a drive-by shooting when she was young. He wants to help other children.

REYES: Santa just can't be everywhere. And that's where Pancho Claus comes in. Pancho Claus is those people in your life - your aunt, your grandmother, your neighbors, those are your Pancho Clauses.

ISENSEE: There are other versions of Pancho Claus in other Texas cities like Laredo and Lubbock. Lorenzo Cano is associate director of the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Houston.

LORENZO CANO: Mexican-Americans have always been redefining their culture and reaffirming their culture. I think the role of Pancho Claus really falls in within that line.

ISENSEE: But this idea of an ethnic or cultural Santa Claus has stirred a lot of debate this holiday season. On December 11th, Fox News commentator Megyn Kelly discussed an article from Slate.


MEGYN KELLY: And by the way, for all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white. But this person is just arguing that maybe we should - we should also have a black Santa. But, you know, Santa is what he is. And just so you know, we're just debating this because someone wrote about it, kids.

ISENSEE: Here at the Pancho Claus party, some people say Santa Claus' race shouldn't matter. Temo Figueroa volunteers at the event.

TEMO FIGUEROA: No, I think what matters is the act of giving and kindness. I think that's what Christmas is all about. And I think this Pancho Claus is the embodiment of all of that.

ISENSEE: But others think it's important for Hispanic children to have a Santa Claus they can relate to. Alice Valdez directs the multicultural center, MECA, that hosts the party. She says many images of Hispanic culture in the media are very negative.

ALICE VALDEZ: And I think that Pancho Claus - the zoot-suited Pancho Claus is a beautiful hero for us.

ISENSEE: Valdez says one reason is this Pancho Claus helps at-risk children not just at Christmas but all year round.

REYES: Just want to say if you're out there in those inner-city streets, I want you to roll down the window and yell to the night: Feliz Navidad todos. If you have one, all right.


ISENSEE: For NPR News, I'm Laura Isensee in Houston.


GREENE: This is NPR News.


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