Richard Reyes, executive director of Talento Bilingue de Houston, first donned his Pancho Claus zoot suit 20 years ago for the cultural center's Christmas show. Today, the Latino Santa is a local icon, but in the beginning, getting gigs for old Pancho wasn't easy.
"I'd go to elementary schools," remembers Reyes, "where they didn't know me from Adam. I'd walk in in a zoot suit looking like a gangster, and I'd do 30 classrooms in a couple of hours." The kids got a kick out of his Pancho Claus poem, a modern version of The Night Before Christmas that uses a catchy mix of slang in both English and Spanish.
"It was the night before Christmas and all through the casa, not a creature was stirring, hey, vato, que pasa?" Reyes would recite, later continuing: " 'Hey, man, there's no chimney up here. What will we do?' Then Pancho Claus said: 'Hang loose, bro. I'll go downstairs and break a bathroom window.' "
Most of the teachers enjoyed Pancho Claus as much as the kids did, but every now and then Reyes felt he wasn't wanted. "It used to mess me up," he says. "But now I know you're not gonna please everyone."
Here and there over the years, parents or community members have complained about Pancho Claus, saying that he makes light of gangs. Reyes thinks that kids, especially some of the more troubled ones he works with who may be gang members themselves, can relate better to a zoot-suited Pancho Claus than to a more archetypal Latino character. "Who's gonna come for Pancho Claus in a sombrero?" he asks. "The point of Pancho Claus is to draw teenagers in."
The Pancho Claus production has grown into a full-blown play, complete with Talento Bilingue hip-hop dancers, an eight-piece band and low-rider cars. The message, Reyes says, is to stay in school, respect your elders and not get caught up in the materialism of Christmas.
For many years, Reyes has appeared as Pancho Claus in the Thanksgiving Day Parade, but he opted out this time because he was tired of being put at the end of the lineup and not getting television coverage. "Why are we forcing ourselves into their parade?" he asked himself.
Susan Moriarti, the parade's director, says she wasn't aware of Pancho's problem with the parade. "The whole Santa segment is the last segment of the parade, which is why he was there, too," she says. With regard to Reyes's other complaint, she says, "We don't promise televised coverage to anyone in the parade."
Pancho Claus still will be making plenty of other appearances around town, though. In the weeks before Christmas, Reyes teams with charitable organizations and travels around underprivileged neighborhoods in the back of a honking truck filled with toys. "The kids come running," he says.
Now 51, Reyes says he's giving his ten years' notice for leaving the Pancho Claus role. But his supporters won't hear of it. He says they plan to put him "in a rocking chair in the back of the truck" and go on with the show.