For nearly 40 years, Richard Reyes — known to Houstonians as Pancho Claus — has been bringing holiday cheer and donated toys to local children in need. But with the pandemic leaving his usual sponsors financially strapped this Christmas, Reyes is relying on community support and a GoFundMe fundraiser to help him play Santa and meet the growing demand for donations in a year overwhelmed by hardship.
“Figuring it out’s going to be hard this year, and there’s a lot of need,” he tells Yahoo Life. “It’s no secret about unemployment, but even if someone has found a job this Christmas season, they’ve still lost their house, lost their car, they’re trying to catch up. Toys are the back of the list. So we have a big, big need.”
Reyes isn’t the only Pancho Claus — which he describes as an “urban Latino-Chicano Christmas character” who is also sometimes broadly referred to as “Tex-Mex Santa” — but he’s arguably the most famous one thanks to his red zoot suit accessorized with a black fedora and gold watch chain hanging from his belt. And rather than a sleigh pulled by Rudolph and company, he’s accompanied by custom lowriders.
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The cars are referenced in one of the lines Reyes, who first heard about the Pancho Claus character as a 10-year-old in Mexico, wrote for a poem riffing on ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas for a local theater production in 1981: “When what to my wondering eyes did appear but eight lowrider cars all jacked out in the rear.” The play’s success cemented his newfound Pancho Claus reputation, and before long he was performing at various venues and forming a nine-piece show band backed by hip-hop dancers. But many saw him as more than just an entertainer.
“And then my community just started believing that I really was Pancho Claus,” Reyes says. “There wasn’t the internet in the early ‘80s, so I started getting phone calls and letters, or people would see me and come up to me and tell me about hardships in our neighborhood and our community. Grandmothers who were raising kids by themselves, bad stories ...”
Reyes and his lowriders started dispensing toys to disadvantaged families as a way of helping out.
“We did five or 10 families the first year, 10 or 20 the second year, and now it’s grown to where we give out thousands of presents every year,” he says. Each child is typically given seven toys, which are handed out at various seasonal appearances and “toy cruises” — in which a handful of lowriders laden with gifts parade through disadvantaged neighborhoods — through Jan. 6, which is also Three Kings’ Day, or Día de Los Reyes. Gifts are also distributed at a Christmas in July event.
But this year will be dramatically different for many reasons, most of them tied to the pandemic. There’s more need, fewer resources and greater challenges in terms of safely distributing gifts to community members.
“Dec. 1, we had as many requests for help as we did Dec. 25 of the other years, so we’re expecting 10 times the people, but we’ve lost all our major sponsors,” Reyes says, adding that he also recently lost his longtime base and storage space, Talento Bilingue de Houston, and has had to move to the Latino Learning Center, where he is temporarily housing his supplies, which he calls a “hoarder’s paradise of toys.”
“It’s nobody’s fault,” he is quick to add, noting the economic upheaval the pandemic has put on businesses. “It’s just things change. Happened to be this year, all at the same time.”
Now, instead of having a local cab company or restaurant chain as Pancho Claus’s “major underwriter,” his community has stepped in. Indeed, as of Thursday morning, his GoFundMe has raised $57,000 of its $75,000 goal, while some locals are helping out as volunteers.
“I said, I know our community’s going to be our sponsors this year, that’s all there is to it,” Reyes says. “And they sure did. They’ve been coming out in droves — as much as droves can be calculated for a pandemic [as] a lot of people are still cared to go out. And yes, it is a little bit harder to find drivers to deliver these toy boxes and pick them up and find volunteers to support us. So we have less people, but for pandemic reasons, we have enough.”
Funds will be used to support the Christmas season as well as “help us re-establish ourselves through the year.” Reyes notes that, in addition to donating toys, his group provides support to local artists and performers as well as young adult students who might need help paying for class or making rent.
As it stands now, around 200 families have sent requests to be included in this year’s Christmas toy donations. Despite the outpouring of support, Reyes worries about being able to meet demand as more requests flood in — especially given the pandemic. While his group continues to make appearances to hand out toys and collect donations, Reyes has scaled back his musical performances.
“I say, ‘Look, I’m 70 years old, I’ve had three heart attacks, I have diabetes, blood pressure, cholesterol, all of that, and I’ve got to be very, very careful,’” he says of the requests he gets to play a party right now. “The only way I’m going to your place is if you’re going to donate $200 worth of toys. And then I’ll go.’
“In other words, I’m putting my life in jeopardy to get these toys.”
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