Meet Pancho Claus, Santa of the Borderland Barrios

In 1956, Lalo Guerrero – otherwise known as “the father of Chicano music” – released ‘Pancho Claus,’ a funny little song parody of the classic ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.

Filled with playful lyrics like “Twas the Night before Christmas and all through the casa/ Mamá she was busy preparing the masa,” ‘Pancho Claus’ tells the story of Santa’s south of the border cousin, who wears a sombrero, and shows up to hand out gifts in a carreta pulled by donkeys instead of reindeer.

The song eventually became a cult Chicano Christmas classic, (one that was pretty hard to track down until it finally became available digitally in 2009), but it also left a more enduring legacy. Guerrero couldn’t have known it then, but his ‘Pancho Claus’ character would go on to inspire a real-life Tex-Mex Santa, one that has evolved into a uniquely Tejano Christmas staple more than 50 years after the song was released.

To the uninitiated, a man dressed like a zoot-suit pimp, calling himself “Pancho Claus” and dispensing presents from a Christmas/Mexican-flag themed lowrider might sound like something out of a Dave Chappelle skit. But in Houston, it’s a standard annual event.

As part of the Latin Fantasy car club’s Juguetes Para El Barrio event, and in more recent years, in a separate Christmas toy run, Richard Reyes’ Pancho Claus has been the public face of a community initiative that hands out thousands of toys to inner city kids each December. These are the children of the unemployed, the jailed, the deported – and they pour into the streets each year to watch the lowriders bounce and jolt, their own downhome Texas brand of holiday cheer.

Houston’s Richard Reyes as ‘Pancho Claus’

Reyes is not Texas’ first Pancho Claus, but he is probably its most well-known. The 63-year old got his start playing the character at Houston’s East end arts space Talento Bilingüe back in ’81, where he performed his own updated rendition of Guerrero’s Christmas parody. In Reyes’ version, Pancho Claus’ sombrero is upgraded to a fedora and red-and-black zoot suit, and instead of getting towed by burros, rolls up to houses pulled by a phalanx of eight lowrider cars. Reyes’ Pancho Claus even has an amped up soundtrack: classic Christmas songs as reinterpreted by a tropical 10-piece swing band and troupe of hip hop dancers.

While Reyes may be the trillest of all the Pancho Clauses, other parts of Texas have their own versions — most of them pretty faithful to Guerrero’s original. Lubbock’s variant, spelled Pancho Clos, originated in ’71, when local Latino veterans group American GI Forum decided Santa needed some sarape flavor.

Photo: Nick de la Torre/Chronicle

In San Antonio, Pancho Claus wears a black beard and Christmas poncho, and can be seen visiting elementary schools and churches, where he brings gifts in a cart towed by donkeys and encourages children to leave him tamales and enchiladas instead of milk and cookies.

Photo: Nick de la Torre/Chronicle

And in Odessa, Pancho Claus has been played by the same man since 1976, Pete Martinez. Seen posing below with a lowrider from car club Taste of Latin, Martinez echoes the statements of several local historians, who place the the origins of the Texas Pancho Claus within the narrative of the Chicano civil rights movement.

Photo: Nick de la Torre/Chronicle

Regardless of the form he takes, Pancho Claus is like the chimichanga – a fascinating blend of two cultures that could only be born in the borderlands.

If we had to pick someone’s lap to sit on this Christmas, our money would be on this guy.