The plump, rosy-cheeked and typically white Santa Claus is a mainstay in American culture, but he is replaced each year at one South Los Angeles mall with a more diverse pair portraying Father Christmas.
Langston Peterson and Mario Vazquez have been staples at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza for more than a decade. Together, they offer children and families the opportunity to take Christmas photos with an African American Santa, Peterson, and a Latino Santa, Vazquez.
The diversified Santa program was launched after listening to requests from the community, said mall marketing director Rachel Erickson.
“This is a longstanding tradition for a lot of folks over here,” Erickson said. “Our programming is so engrained into our community.”
Sheba Lo, an assistant professor of Pan African Studies at California State University Northridge, says the idea of different races of Santa should be the norm .
“I think we should be encouraging diversity,” Lo said. “I don’t think it could be in the least bit harmful.”
Vazquez, the Latino Santa, works in the mornings and early afternoon. When he leaves, African American Santa Peterson takes the chair for photos.
“They’re both great people and they have great personality,” said Mack Siu, owner of Rudolph Holiday Photography, the company that contracts for the Santa photos at the mall.
The reach of the Santas extends far. Erickson said many families visit every year, driving from as far out as Palmdale and Thousand Oaks.
The Santas first appeared at the mall on Black Friday, and they’ll be available for photos all the way up until Christmas Eve this year.
Erickson said the program has full support from the mall, and that Latino and African American Santas are a fixture that won’t be going anywhere soon.
“We’ve just received such a tremendous response,” Erickson said. “We think it’s really important to reflect the culture of our community.”