For 16 years, during every daylight hour of every Christmas Day, Richard Reyes, known as "Pancho Claus," would don a red-and-black zoot suit, shades and a fedora, stand in the bed of Sotero "Shorty" Villarreal's pickup truck and ride through the streets, dispensing gifts.
Flanked by a phalanx of eight lowriders from Villarreal's Latin Fantasy car club and accompanied by volunteer constables from Victor Trevino's Precinct 6, Pancho Claus and his eight hopping and dancing mechanical reindeer would cruise the most desperate barrios of the Bayou City from Magnolia Park to the northside and all points in between, handing out toys to the children of the deported, the incarcerated, the deceased. For many of these kids, it was all they would get every Christmas.
But in 2009, trouble arrived in the form of a lowrider painted red, white and green — the colors of both Mexico and Christmas. The car is more than Reyes's mode of transportation; he says he gets a $25,000 yearly salary to make appearances in it and promote the company, Taxis Fiesta.
He wanted to ride this sweet vintage convertible Cadillac in the front of Villarreal's annual Juguetes Para el Barrio cruise, but Shorty was having none of that.
"We've done the toy drive the same way for years, and he gets paid to make appearances in the cab," says Villarreal. "Then he wanted it to be in the front, and we told him no. We told him it could be anywhere but the front. We were the ones raisin' the money, we're the ones busting our ass, and if the cab is in the front, whose parade is it? It belongs to Taxis Fiesta; at least that's the way people would see it."
An argument followed. Nasty accusations were cast. And even today, three years later, the bad blood remains. To Villarreal, Pancho is no Santa, but instead a selfish Grinch del Barrio. As he puts it, "This is a Robin Hood story. Reyes is stealin' from the rich and robbin' from the 'hood."
Reyes's supporters, and they are many, see the fight in other terms. To them, it could be that it is a story as old as Christmas itself...
"It's like the elves saying, 'We built all the toys and Santa gets all the credit,'" says local community activist Bryan Parras.
"Or the sleigh maker complaining about not getting some limelight for making Santa's sleigh," adds KPFT-FM Nuestra Palabra co-host (and former Houston Press intern) Liana Lopez.
Richard Reyes is trim, 61 years old, goateed and wearing a tight black short-sleeve checkered shirt. He grew up in the Heights, a few streets away from teenage serial killer Elmer Wayne Henley, who he says once tried to lure him to a party where he would have been butchered. Back then, Reyes was a taxi driver for real, and Henley tried to persuade him to take another cabby's fare and drive him to Pasadena, where Dean Corll awaited with his drugs and torture boards. "It was my honesty that saved me," Reyes says. "Henley made the 'party' seem like fun, but I just would not take another driver's fare."
Along with his civic activism, Reyes has also acted, most frequently onstage at Talento Bilingüe de Houston and elsewhere, but also on the silver screen. Back in the 1990s, he had a knack for finding his way into some of the most critically acclaimed films of the Clinton era. He landed bit parts in John Sayles's Lone Star alongside Kris Kristofferson and Matthew McConaughey, and also in Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket. "I tell my kids — I mean, my students — I once broke Owen Wilson's nose," he says. "They say I am a liar, and then I show them the scene," he laughs. Reyes also appeared in RoboCop 2 and Bad Girls, a western about gun-toting prostitutes on the run that starred Mary Stuart Masterson, Andie MacDowell, Drew Barrymore and Madeleine Stowe. To know Richard Reyes is to bring yourself several degrees closer to Kevin Bacon without ever leaving Houston.
Back in 1981, Reyes created his own version of a borderlands barrio fusion of Santa with Mexican-American traditions. In other, less urban and sophisticated cities and towns, Pancho Claus appears in a poncho and sombrero, but Reyes's rendition was far more uptown, if only a little less old-school.
Carrying a long golden watch fob, Reyes's Pancho Claus sometimes fronts a horn-heavy big band, complete with hip-hop dancers, and they perform tropical-sounding Spanglish renditions of Yuletide classics such as "Pancho Claus Is Comin' to Town." The character was originated in the 1950s by East L.A. old-school zoot suit vato Eduardo "Lalo" Guerrero, a.k.a. "The Father of Chicano Music." His single "Pancho Claus" was a hit in the nation's barrios and inspired Reyes's version years later.
Reyes's Pancho Claus debuted in a play of his own composition at Talento Bilingüe, the East End arts venue Reyes directed for decades. In the play, since there are so few chimneys in this subtropical clime, Pancho Claus delivered toys by sneaking in through the windows of homes in Houston's barrios. And since Reyes's play featured lines like "When what to my wondering eye should appear, but eight lowrider cars all jacked down in the rear!" it seemed a natural for him and Villarreal to team up on Christmas Day.
In 1991, over lunch at Spanish Flowers, around the corner from where both Reyes and Villarreal grew up, the two men agreed to do just that. Starting in 1992, Pancho Claus would stand in the back of Villarreal's pickup lowriders from Latin Fantasy (eight, because that was the number of Santa's reindeer) on the toy run. Precinct 6 Constable Trevino provided volunteer constables to escort the caravans. The elves and reindeer had their Santa Claus, at least for the next 16 years.
MECA in Old Sixth Ward is one of the places where Reyes mentors youths, and a young man appears by his side seemingly from nowhere as Reyes walks up the stairs clutching a sack of barbecue and fixings from Dickey's, a strip-mall joint near the Heights Target. After we walk in the converted 1912 school that houses MECA and pass a dozen or so Day of the Dead altars on our way downstairs, Reyes has an appointment with some of "his kids."
The veteran of decades of grassroots activism and work with at-risk Hispanic youths stops in the hall and talks about some of the boys. One is the teenage father of a premature baby who was small enough to hold in the palm of your hand when the child was born, and now is thriving, as is his father. Another, "a Puerto Rican-looking kid," punches himself in the face in self-directed rage deriving from his reading disability. A third is a hip-hop dancer in a world-famous Houston troupe. All came from at-risk backgrounds, and Reyes helped them all.
In a downstairs room, the three young men are preparing Pancho Claus gift receptacles for the upcoming holiday season. Reyes instructs them on the best way to fold some of his posters, on which he is prominently displayed in character. While the boys work, Reyes fields a couple of phone calls and offers the young men barbecue and soft drinks.
"Now, y'all be honest," he addresses the room. "Have any of you heard of any trouble between me and Shorty Villarreal from Latin Fantasy car club?"
Two of the boys shake their heads, but the hip-hop dancer, a tall kid who looks taller thanks to the fact that his dreadlocked tresses are tied in a knot atop his head, does know the story.
"Yeah, I heard y'all had a beef because you wanted to drive your taxi on his toy drive," he says.
Reyes looks a little nonplussed.
"Well, yeah, that is the story," he says. "I guess you heard that one when you were driving in the parade?"
The kid nods, and Villarreal and I adjourn upstairs to MECA's library. On the way there, he tells me that he was abruptly fired in 2003 from his job as director of Talento Bilingüe, where he had staged plays and concerts and many other events, most starring barrio youths. Over the next hour or so, he would return again and again to the subject; it appears to be the one great disappointment in his life. "After 22 years, they just told me my services were no longer needed," he says, still stinging, visibly and audibly. One old associate says that some within the organization believed that Reyes had gotten too autocratic. "They got tired of it being 'The Richard Show' over there," the man says. In the Fall 2011 issue of Houston History magazine, Reyes wrote a history of TBH. In his telling, TBH no longer had a youth-oriented mission, and so his services were no longer required.
In any event, the dismissal from TBH led him eventually to the position with Taxis Fiesta and so brought an end to his involvement with Latin Fantasy's toy drive, Reyes says. Villarreal says the two men argued when Reyes announced his plan to front the drive in the Taxis Fiesta car, and then, according to Villarreal, Reyes uttered a shocking statement.
"He was telling me how much money he gets from Taxis Fiesta, and I said, 'That ain't got nothin' to do with us,'" Villarreal says. "And then he said, 'I'm doing this as a business. I've got bigger fish to fry before I do these kids.' That was the last straw. We're not doing this for ourselves. We're doing it for the kids."
Reyes vigorously denies the accusation. "I didn't say that. Maybe I said, 'I've got bigger fish to fry,' but more in general. I just didn't need that fight. In December I do 40 events in 25 days. That little eight-hour period is not my biggest problem. As for working with kids, nobody pays me to do that. I don't have a 501(c)(3). I just do it because it's what I want to do."
According to Reyes, his wish to get out of the truck and into the cab was more about safety than money. He says that years before the end came, he told Villarreal he was getting too old to stand in the back of a pickup truck all day, that it was too dangerous. Reyes says the Cadillac is much safer and more comfortable.
And so, after 16 years Reyes was out. Reyes says again and again that Villarreal made a "business decision," albeit one he still can't understand. He says Taxis Fiesta frequently helped Latin Fantasy over the years, got them floor space at the George R. Brown Convention Center for a car show, bought and donated the trophies to others for years and years. Villarreal says he has no problems with them; it's just that he doesn't want his toy drive becoming "their" event.
Reyes says that Villarreal suspects him of raking in "beaucoups" of money, and Villarreal backs up Reyes's claim. "He's gotten grants, he's gotten all kinds of stuff, but where is it all going? When he got sick" — Reyes survived a heart attack a few years back — "he went on the news and was saying he was in a bad spot. Somebody cut him a check. Where does it go? When he was with us, he never bought a single toy."
That bit about the toys is true, even if Reyes denies everything else. "He never asked me to buy toys," he says. "My job was to hand them out." As for the money, he says that in addition to the $25,000 he gets yearly from Taxis Fiesta, he also gets $10,000 apiece from Mambo Seafood and Union Pacific. Reyes says the railroad believes that bringing him aboard brings them goodwill in the train-track-streaked East End. (Reyes also makes some of his living from Pancho Claus, and according to his Web site, his band gets paid $1,000 to appear at corporate gigs and clubs; nonprofits get a 20 percent discount.)
Still, those who would claim that Reyes is a barrio Trump have the wrong idea entirely, Reyes says. "I never owned a house until Taxis Fiesta hired me," he says. "And when I had my heart attack a couple of years ago, I might have died without the insurance they gave me." He adds that he still has no office or staff for any of his charitable endeavors.
"Vato Richard Reyes from the 'hood would not take kindly to this kind of talk, but a man in my position cannot talk or speak irresponsibly," he continues, and sighs. "You can do good things for years and years, and all it takes is one person to start badmouthing you."
Indeed, other than Villarreal, it's hard to find Richard Reyes haters in Houston. Frank "Mr. Telephone Road" Motley has known and worked alongside him at various events for decades and says he's always been a straight shooter. In a statement that would make Villarreal seethe with rage, Macario Ramirez, owner of West 19th Street Mexican folk art gallery Casa Ramirez, says that Richard Reyes is the embodiment of Christmas in the barrio.
Filmmaker, writer and activist (and former Pancho Claus manager) Carlos Calbillo baldly states that he would take a bullet for Reyes. "He is honest to a fault, has great personal integrity, is one of the most respected persons in this city and he has always been straight up not only with me but with everyone I know," Calbillo adds via e-mail. Calbillo questions why the Houston Press would even deign to write a story that could possibly reflect negatively on Reyes.
Which brings us to Villarreal, the lowrider genius whom some see as Pancho Claus's most resentful elf.
Shorty's Hydraulics is 49-year-old Villarreal's lowrider shop. It's tucked away on a side street off Crosstimbers a little east of Northline Commons. Villarreal is a master of his craft. The vintage cars and trucks he and his son John Villarreal have made to dance and hop have won whole cases full of trophies, and not just in Houston and elsewhere in Texas, but also in Las Vegas and California — wherever the lowrider competitive circuit took them, even all the way to a win on TLC's Junkyard Wars.
The last few years have not been easy for him. Lowrider culture is ebbing these days, merging with hip-hop car culture; it might make yet another comeback, and it might not, but for now, gone are the days when Lowrider magazine could be found next to every taqueria cash register from Little York to Harrisburg, and past are the times when every vato on every corner could afford to tank up their rides and jet to California, Arizona or Nevada for big national car shows. Even within the lowrider world, the art of hydraulics — Shorty's specialty — is no longer as important as it once was. Some riders are now using air bags to drop their cars.
While those plaudits and awards, and the knowledge that he is one of the top hydraulics men this side of East L.A., have nourished his ego, since 1992 the five-foot-three, heavily inked Villarreal has fed his soul with the annual toy drive. A native of a small town near Monterrey who became a child worker in the California fruit orchards and vineyards, Villarreal is an exemplar of old-school barrio style. Villarreal's eyes light up above his bushy, Pancho Villa-style mustache as he talks about the joy he has delivered to the neediest kids in Houston's barrios.
"There's guys in my car club who would probably rather just kick back on Christmas day, but a lot of them have found handing out toys is a better way to spend Christmas," Villarreal says. Even with that sort of spiritual gratification, Reyes believes that Villarreal wants more, that he craves worldly media attention. He claims that Villarreal resented the accolades Pancho Claus attracted, how both the kids and the media would flock to the man in the shiny red suit, often marginalizing Villarreal's own hard work.
"Shorty's problem is that he does not get publicity," he says. Reyes says he tries to share the limelight, but the media is drawn to the Pancho Claus character like ants to sugar. "Lowriders get to events early," he says. "They will be out there for hours, and then I will show up, and the reporters run to me. I can't help that. I try to get Shorty face time; I always say thanks to Shorty, thanks to Latin Fantasy."
But once the media has an irresistible, talkative character like Pancho Claus in its sights, what chance does a gruff, heavily inked, somewhat menacing mechanic like Shorty Villarreal have?
Villarreal laughs when he hears that some have compared him to an angry elf, but partially admits that there may be something to it. "Even when we initially started the toy drive, it was all about 'Pancho Claus,' or 'Pancho Claus and his helpers.' We were the ones doing all the legwork, and we invited him in because he was a role model." But Villarreal claims not to be bothered by the media's focus on the man in the sparkly red suit.
"If we get media, that's fine," he says. "If we don't, that's fine, too. We're not doing it for the media. We're doing it for the kids."
In the end, that's what troubles Villarreal, more than a case of angry Santa elf syndrome. He believes that Reyes is in it for the wrong reasons.
"Over the years, we've learned that he's not doing it because he's got a good heart," Villarreal opines. "He's doing it because it's a business for him."
Perhaps the kids win in all this squabbling, as there are now two Christmas toy runs cruising through the barrios. Reyes now stands in the back of the tricolored Fiesta Caddy, accompanied by a phalanx of volunteer cops in siren-blaring Precinct 6 Constable office patrol cars. And in some neighborhoods that abut train tracks, Reyes arrives to dispense goodies and cheer in a railcar provided by Union Pacific. None of what he does comes from public money, he says. "I have never taken a dime from the city, state or federal government," Reyes says. "I should be a Republican poster boy."
Meanwhile, Villarreal and the rest of his buddies in Latin Fantasy continue their philanthropy, handing out about 10,000 combined toys and goodie bags, far from the TV cameras, scribbling reporters, radio microphones and big donors.
Reyes says he has tried to patch things up with Villarreal many times over the last few years. He still speaks highly of his achievements. "I admire Shorty for what he has done. There are thousands of kids who got toys who would not have if he didn't do what he does," he says. He says he has sent Villarreal "olive branch after olive branch." For example, Reyes points out, he included a picture of Villarreal in the article he wrote about the history of TBH. He has let it be known that he would be glad to ride with Latin Fantasy again, but only on the stipulation that he get to ride in the Caddy at the front of the parade.
Being in front is a point of pride for Reyes. Eleven years ago, the Houston Press's Cathy Matusow reported that Reyes opted out of appearing as Pancho Claus in the Thanksgiving Day parade because he was tired of being at the end of the procession and not making it on TV. "Why should we force ourselves in their parade?" he said at the time. The parade's director said that all variants of Mr. Claus, Pancho or otherwise, always brought up the rear, and added that TV coverage was not guaranteed to anyone. (Reyes has since returned to the parade.)
Some, like Helen Carmona of the Los Magníficos car show family, hope that Reyes and Villarreal can patch things up "for the kids."
Villarreal says it won't be happening on his watch. "After I learned what kind of person he is, I can't do that," he says. "He left, and that's that. He left after 16 years, and for him to do that to us, it was like, 'Whatever, do your own thing, dude'"
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Both Reyes and Villarreal are proud men, and both are at an age when people start to ponder their legacy. Reyes's seems secure. He might not be a household name citywide, but the barrio knows and adores Pancho Claus, and Richard Reyes is also a known entity in his own right.
The same cannot be said for Shorty Villarreal.
So the toy runs are ever more important to him. Villarreal wants his good works remembered, and who can fault him for that? But the sad fact is, everybody knows Santa Claus, and most people also know the names of at least a few of his reindeer. But nobody can name even one of his elves.