I love the story of Pancho Claus.
Santa has a cousin named Pancho.
He loves kids. He passes out gifts.
And he's a barrio folk hero with as many faces as there are guys across Texas willing to pull on a red suit and get into the act.
In Houston, Richard Reyes' version of Pancho Claus wears a red zoot suit, fronts a swing band, and keeps an entourage of "elves" and lowrider cars. His Pancho, designed to appeal to at-risk kids, grew out of his Chicano version of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, which he wrote and turned into a play in 1981: "When what to my wondering eye should appear, but eight lowrider cars all jacked down in the rear!"
In San Antonio, Rudy Martinez dons a red sombrero, a Christmas poncho and a jet-black beard to play Pancho Claus. When children ask, he explains that Pancho drives a team of burros led by a special burro named Chuy. If pressed, Martinez might tell them the legend of Pancho Claus: Two children were standing in a field in Mexico. A fairy godmother appeared and granted them one wish for Christmas. The children said they wished to make all the children in the world happy. Impressed, the fairy godmother created Pancho Claus, Santa's cousin from the South Pole.
Despite the inconsistencies of origin, Pancho Claus is every bit as dear to some kids as Santa.
Rudy Martinez says most of the children he visits want electronic games for Christmas. More poignant is when one sits on his lap and asks if he can get his dad out of jail or another asks him to heal an ailing abuelita, or grandmother.
All the Panchos agree that whatever the costume, dressing up like the barrio hero is utterly transformative.
"You're a totally different person," Reyes says. "You're like Batman."