Lowriders continue gift-giving Christmas tradition
The convoy of gift-filled lowrider cars wandered up and down Cloverleaf’s rundown streets on Christmas morning, drawing residents to their mobile toy drive with hip hop music and a raucous air horn.
The tradition of Juguetes Para el Barrio, or “Toys for the Neighborhood,” has played out this way for 27 years: Sotero “Shorty” Villarreal and members of his Latin Fantasy Lowrider Club load their cars with thousands of gifts and meander through east Houston neighborhoods distributing toy cars, dolls, basketballs and other presents to kids.
On Tuesday, the lowriders rolled through several neighborhoods in east Harris County, including Monroe Place and parts of Channelview. Each year they target areas with high poverty rates, where parents might struggle to afford gifts for their children.
When the procession of cars stopped periodically in the middle of the street, children spilled out of nearby houses, racing to the cars in their pajamas to snag gifts. They often screamed and laughed in excitement, wide grins plastered onto their faces.
In Cloverleaf, 4-year-old Julissa Rocha was delighted to receive a toy doll from the lowriders. She has epilepsy and visual problems, and in previous years wasn’t able to come outside when the cars passed through.
“Now that she’s able to get around in her wheelchair, I bring her out every time I hear them come,” said Elidia Rocha, Julissa’s mother. “As a parent, it really means a lot. The kids, they look forward to seeing Santa Claus and to receiving little gifts. It really makes their day.”
Leading the drivers, as usual, was Ruben Sorola, a deputy with the Harris County Precinct 3 constable’s office. Villarreal lets Sorola lead the charge because he patrols the area and is familiar with its ins and outs.
The toy drive has become a familiar routine for Villarreal, 55, who has attended all but one of them since he started the tradition 27 years ago. Nearly a decade ago, kidney failure kept Villarreal in the hospital on Christmas — and a kidney-related illness nearly kept him bed-ridden for a second time this year, until he received a chance kidney transplant in November.
“Right now I’m supposed to be at home relaxing. But I feel good,” said Villarreal, wearing a red and green cap that read, “I believe in Santa Claus.”
During the year, the Latin Fantasy club’s 25 or so active members hold lowrider car shows and sell food to raise money, which they use to buy gifts. Then, on Christmas morning, they drive some 4,000 toys and goodie bags — filled with assorted food items and snacks — to the neighborhoods in a box truck, divide the gifts into about a dozen lowrider cars and trucks, and for the next several hours drive slowly around passing out the presents.
The lowriders are hard to avoid. One car blasted what sounded like a train horn, and several cars played a loud assortment of rap and hip hop music.
At one point, the cavalcade stopped under the I-10 overpass at Sheldon Road and distributed the food-filled goodie bags to people who were camped under the freeway.
About three years ago, Villarreal moved the operation from the East End to Cloverleaf and the surrounding areas. Part of the motivation was Sorola’s shift from the Precinct 6 to Precinct 3 constable’s office. But condos and other signs of wealth had begun to sprout up around the East End areas; Villarreal sensed it was time to switch things up.
For now, Villarreal’s sons — children themselves when the toy drive began — continue to help him run the program, and they covered for him when he was out with kidney problems.
“Our kids were little and they’re adults now,” Villarreal said. “The tradition continues.”