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.