Original URL: http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/local/articles/1222ruelas22.html

Language gap 'no problema' for Santa, neighborhood kids
Arizona Republic
Dec. 22, 2003

Justa Lopez is 4 years old and still believes. She rounded a corner near the northwest entrance at Desert Sky Mall, saw the man in the red suit and flowing white beard, and stopped in her tracks. She pointed and told her mother to look at Santa Claus. She did so by saying this: "Mira. Santa."

She doesn't speak English, but that didn't seem to matter much. Santa Claus waved her over, and she ran up to him. There was no one in line at the photo station, so no one minded that she went through the exit -- the most direct route to Santa's knee.

"What's your name?" Santa asked her. Justa looked up at him in awe. "I think she speaks only Spanish," Santa said. By this time, her mother, Gabriela, had come over. "Tell him what you want," she told her daughter. Justa told Santa in Spanish that she wanted a bicycle and a play kitchen set. Her mother translated. Santa said he would see what he could do. About one in 10 of the children who come to visit Santa at this west Phoenix mall speak only Spanish. Somehow, Santa manages.

"You don't have to understand," he says, during a break. "It's a matter of the heart."

Santa, whose business card provides the false identify "Duane Jones," said that if there is no one around to provide English translation, he still nods his head. "Oh, OK. I'll see if I can find one of those." It's the same technique he uses on English-speaking toddlers who have a tough time enunciating.

Santa has yet another technique for dealing with crying babies.

"I think I cried my first time, too," said Andy Flores, 41, of Phoenix. His 1-year-old son, Alejandro, was having his first visit with Santa and wasn't enjoying it too much. He squirmed, fussed and cried, his body straining against Santa's white-gloved hands. His 7-year-old sister, Micaella, meanwhile, was cementing her name on the "Good" list, smiling for the camera. She asked for a bike and a Barbie cruise ship. In English.

According to mall managers, 70 percent of the customers at Desert Sky Mall are Hispanic. Spanish signs in certain stores are testament that some business gets done in Spanish. But what's not known is how many of those Hispanic customers are recent immigrants who speak Spanish, and how many, like Flores and his family, are U.S.-born and speak English. "I don't think I've ever seen a Mexican Santa," Flores said.

I told him that I saw one as a kid. He was at the Food City, on 16th Street and Mohave in Phoenix. He was dark. He was thin. He had a white beard and a black mustache. I knew it wasn't Santa.

A few years ago - either two or four, depending on who you ask - the management at Desert Sky Mall decided to hire a bilingual Santa. They meant well. They put a man of Mexican descent into a Santa suit, gave him a fake beard and sat him in the chair.

He lasted one day.

"Worst mistake we ever made," said Nolberto Machiche, marketing manager for the mall.

Complaints came not only from kids, but also from parents. Everyone wanted the Santa they had seen on television and in ads and storybooks.

That Santa is the Santa Claus of Danish, German and English tradition, remolded by U.S. pop culture. He's the guy in the bright red and white suit, preferably with a gut that's not a pillow and a natural, long, white beard that won't come off when a child tugs it.

Back in line, Patricia Barcelo gave Santa a quick evaluation. She was waiting to get a photo of him holding her 2-month-old daughter, Camila. She said the Santa she saw growing up in Sonora, Mexico, looked like this one. "Maybe a little fatter," she said. The Santas in department stores in Mexico, she said, will go so far as to put on makeup to make their skin look lighter. "And it's all like this," she said, pointing to the winter village behind Santa Claus. Reindeers and snow-covered pine trees are just as out-of-place in Sonora as they are in Phoenix. "It's all imaginary," she said.

Well, except for the Santa part.

Reach Ruelas at (602) 444-8473 or richard.ruelas@arizonarepublic.com.