Belly hanging over thick belt, bedecked in red suit and boots, he looked like the average Santa Claus. He wasn't.
"I'm a gang member," 43-year-old Alex Lujan said.
He wasn't alone. According to Lujan, many of the thousands of kids flowing through the Cleland House Community Center in East Los Angeles came from families involved with gangs.
"People forget that gang members are also parents," he said.
On Saturday afternoon Latino gangs sought to stress familial ties and down play enmity as they fed and gave presents to thousands of barrio residents at their 16th annual Christmas party.
Indeed, all across Los Angeles, Christmas spirit was in no short supply. A few examples:
Gang members in Watts called a truce to the bloody feuds that routinely claim innocents and helped disburse food at a housing project.
Downtown about 20,000 people queued up for blocks at a mission to receive donations.
And in Hollywood, Santa discovered a new conveyance: a police helicopter, which delivered him to a throng of needy children at a high school.
But for apparent incongruity it was hard to beat the Lopez Maravilla Christmas party, named for the gang and neighborhood with which it is affiliated. After all, gangs in Los Angeles make headlines for carnage, not hosting parties and giving away toys.
Leo Cortez, a county Probation Department gang worker and \o7 veterano \f7 of Lopez Maravilla, said he started the tradition in the early 1970s. Cortez said it began as a "thank you" to the older gang members and an atonement to the community for the "headaches" they caused.
Longtime participants fondly recalled the early days when streets were blocked off and Styrofoam covered the ground to simulate snow. Over the years, the party moved to the community center, traded carne asada tacos for hot dogs and grew to the point where Cortez expected 4,000 people by Saturday evening.
Now the event is a mainstay of the community, Lujan said. "Some of these kids wouldn't have no Christmas (without the party)."
At noon, a half-block-long line of people streamed into the center. Mostly they were parents and young children. Many of the fathers had gang tattoos and called each other "hommie."
A few teen-agers and young adults sat nearby in cars or on the curb drinking beer and talking. About half a dozen gang members helped direct the lines.
Inside, Lujan played a particularly streetwise Santa. "Been ditching school again?" he asked one boy, who smiled sheepishly.
Only once in the party's history did violence erupt, organizers recalled, and then it ended in "black eyes."
The gangs, Lujan said, police their own.
To the west, another manifestation of the seasonal spirit was under way.
Nearly 20,000 children and their parents stood in a line three blocks long at the Fred Jordan Mission on Skid Road.
Downtown's poor and homeless were given toys, blankets and clothing. In addition, each family was given four grocery sacks of food, including a roasting hen and all the trimmings.
'Hustle All Year'
"We hustle all year to make sure everyone gets something," said Willie Jordan, president of the mission that was founded by her late husband.
Among the donors are mission volunteers Paul and Mary Ann Milhous of Glendora. Each year they host a Christmas party at their home and ask guests to give donations by pinning money on a Christmas tree. This year they raised $8,500.
To the south, food was handed out at the Nickerson Gardens housing project gymnasium in Compton.
Gang members who had declared a "holiday truce" helped church and business leaders pass out beans, rice, flour, butter and fresh produce to needy South-Central Los Angeles residents. Free clothing and toys were also distributed during the four-hour program.
"Our objective is to see that no one in South-Central Los Angeles has a hungry Christmas and to create a new awareness between the community and gang members," said one of the organizers, the Rev. Charles Mims Jr., pastor of Tabernacle of Faith Baptist Church. Mims has spearheaded summit meetings between warring gangs.
Meanwhile, 200 children who had the best attendance records in the East Los Angeles County Sheriff's Youth Athletic League attended a party at the substation. They were entertained by deputies and Sassy the Skunk, mascot for the Substance Abuse Narcotics Education program who reminded the kids that "drugs stink."
Los Angeles Police Department officers staged several Christmas events for children. Santa arrived in a police helicopter at Hollywood High School for the LAPD Hollywood Division's annual party. Officers provided gifts and food for about 450 underprivileged children and their families.
Gift-giving was also in abundance at the Santana Chirino Amaya Refugee Center at the Angelica Lutheran Church in Los Angeles, where 800 Central American refugee children were treated to a party.
"For the children separated form homeland and family, the holiday brings loneliness. And because of the desperate economic situation, families cannot afford to celebrate. We are providing a carefree afternoon filled with the magic of Christmas," said Susan Kandel, a spokeswoman for El Rescate refugee center.
In addition to the party, a 15-truck caravan will depart in January to deliver tons of food, medical supplies, work tools and school supplies to communities in El Salvador.
Mike Farrell, Sally Kellerman and other celebrities chatted with patients and distributed gifts at the annual Academy of Television Arts & Sciences party at Rancho Los Amigos Medical Center. Celebrity-patient wheelchair races were held.
"The patients always win, by the way," said academy official Jim Malinda. "The patients are a little bit better in the wheelchairs."