Pancho Claus has spread holiday cheer to at-risk families in Houston for 40 years: 'If Santa can do it, we can do it'

Nope, he doesn’t need a sleigh. He doesn’t even need reindeer. Instead, he parades along the streets of Houston with a fleet of low-riders, and if the locals are lucky, a festive jazz band leading the procession.

Since 1981, Richard Reyes — in the role of Pancho Claus (or the "Tex-Mex Santa") — has been an iconic holiday figure in Texas, especially for Houston’s Latino community. Each year, Reyes and his helpers, dressed up in zoot suits — along with the help of hundreds of volunteers, many of whom have been devotees of Pancho Claus since they were kids themselves — deliver upwards of 15,000 presents to families in need.

While the tradition of Pancho Claus has had several incarnations across the country, having been borne out of the Chicano civil-rights movement in the 1970s, it’s particularly popular in Texas cities thanks to Houston's Reyes, 70, the region's most well-known embodiment.

Reyes’s version of the character burst onto the scene 40 years ago, when he wrote a short play, Pancho Claus, for a local theater group, loosely based on ’Twas the Night Before Christmas. The play became an instant fan favorite as Reyes also began dressing up as the beloved character, doling out presents to folks at detention and community centers; over the years he's continued presenting the play, too, which has grown into a production with a 10-piece band featuring hip-hop dancers, several of whom Reyes met in his early years as Pancho.

“People in my community started believing that I was Pancho Claus, the real one,” Reyes tells Yahoo Life, explaining that what began as an effort to bring people together for Christmas has turned into his life’s work — through the establishment of a nonprofit — of helping at-risk children and families. “It started off with me and my friends sponsoring five families, and the next year, maybe 20," he says. "Then, before you know it, we gave 15,000 presents last year. It's really grown.”

Courtesy Reynoldo Reyez
Richard Reyes has been a Houston staple for 40 years, thanks to his larger-than-life character, Pancho Claus. (Photo courtesy of Richard Reyez; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

In response to Pancho’s popularity, Reyes and a number of volunteers created a youth program as part of their nonprofit, and, for the last few decades, they've been working at schools and youth detention centers, year-round, to give underprivileged teens opportunities to flourish through arts education — something he says has had an even bigger impact than the tangible gifts he doles out.

“We do artistic programs with them — art, dance, sing,” he says. “When a principal calls and asks me to go to school and work with their kids, they’ll say, ‘OK, what kids do you want? Do you want the art kids, the drama kids?’ I’ll say, ‘I want you to get me 10 of your worst students that are disciplinary, or bullies. That's where I want to start.’”

Then, he explains, “When we get them together and make a really cool club, it attracts other students. They go to movies, they go to game rooms, whatever is popular in that decade. And then [more kids] join, and you have bad kids mixing with the good kids. And they’re friends."

Most importantly, Reyes says, "They’ve learned from each other: The so-called ‘troubled kids’ learn that you don’t have to fight every day. And the kids that achieve learn to appreciate what they have, and that it’s usually not their fault that these kids are in their situation. Maybe people are not working in their house. Maybe there’s an abusive situation. So they compliment each other, and they learn from each other.”

Reyes has battled his own obstacles in life as well, having been raised by a single mom who always worked several jobs and never put the Christmas spirit “high on her list of priorities.”

And that's not to even mention his most recent struggles: Reyes has recently survived three heart attacks, and he lost a home due to flooding.

But he's nothing if not resilient.

“I never saw myself doing this,” he shares. “I had an abusive stepfather. I left at 15, so I always worked while my other friends were busy being an activist — with the Vietnam War or Chicano power or Brown Berets. I never did that. I had to work till midnight and go to school in the morning, but I never was an activist until I joined the arts.”

Last year, due to the loss of major sponsors over financial difficulties due to the pandemic, Reyes's tradition of bringing joy to families was nearly ended by the impacts of COVID. That could have had a disastrous effect on families he and his crew have helped to make ends meet for years.

Thankfully, the community stepped in, and it's doing the same again now. “Last year, we did a GoFundMe and raised about $90,000" between the crowdsourcing effort and other donations, he explains, adding that this season, because the effort has no sponsors, it’s more important than ever to meet their fundraising goals.

As of publication date, the Pancho Claus Project’s GoFundMe has raised nearly $37,000. And his aim is for it to go way up from there, because while Pancho's tradition of making kids' Christmas wishes come true will always be alive in Houston, his hope is to expand the joys of Pancho nationwide.

"It's a movement now," he says. "I'm part of LULAC [League of United Latin American Citizens] and I'm going to some national conferences soon to start encouraging people to do this. I told them about toy collection boxes and volunteers and the process, so I'm hoping we have time to do all that. That's the plan."

The bigger vision, Reyes points out, is for a company of players to carry on the festive tradition long after he decides to hang up his red coat. His team is already in the process of casting several Panchos to make appearances around the city this year.

"If Santa can do it," he says, "we can do it."

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