San Juan Bautista resident Max Martinez started looking like Santa Claus in his 30s when his hair turned gray.
“I was at a Gathering of the Tribes,” he said, “and a young girl brought me a plate of food. I asked her, ‘why’ and she said ‘we always serve the elders first.’”
Four decades after those first gray hairs, Martinez has become a year-round Santa Claus for San Juan Bautista and neighboring communities, a role he loves to take on.
Martinez, 78, was born in Garcia, Colorado, a town even smaller than San Juan Bautista. He moved to California at a young age when his father came to work as a railroad man and his mother worked at a cannery in West Oakland.
After high school, Martinez joined the Army as a mechanic and got shipped to Germany (shortly after Elvis Presley finished his tour of duty there). In his rotations to Berlin, he watched the famous wall being built.
“It was a very tense time with constant alerts,” he recalled.
After returning home from the military, Martinez drifted from job to job. He worked in electronics at first, then with an international roller derby league before going back to school on the GI Bill to study economics and business at UC-Santa Cruz. He became a community organizer, bringing students to Delano to help migrants during the farmworker strikes, and went to work for a career training company in San Jose in a program that instructed low-income and disadvantaged community members.
“We did a heck of a lot with migrant seasonal farmworkers,” Martinez said. “We trained them with an eye towards getting them out of the fields and into full-time jobs with benefits. The big money was in electronics so we worked with people all over the country to get them good jobs there.” He stayed with that until 2013 when illness forced him to retire.
He had been to San Juan Bautista before to attend tribal gatherings and for his children’s fourth grade Mission projects. Coming from a small town, the size and atmosphere of the place appealed to him. Though retired, he still wanted to contribute to the community.
One of his hobbies over the years had been volunteering as a clown, performing for youth groups, charities, and senior homes, through a club he founded. He thought that might be a fun way to get to know people in town and mentioned this to Patricia Bains, owner of Mrs. B’s Z Place who Martinez described as “the first lady I met in town.”
“As a clown, I can still do magic shows and balloons and puppet shows for the kids,” he told her. “I don’t need to make money. I just want to serve the community. I showed her a picture of me as Santa and she said ‘Wonderful!’” And with that, San Juan got a new Santa Claus.
Santa keeps a busy schedule, performing at preschools, libraries and events for the homeless, as well as special appearances sponsored by local businesses and charities.
“The other day when I was dressed up as Santa for the community center here in San Juan, the fire truck brought me there with their sirens and lights going,” Martinez said, referring to the annual town bonfire. “We drove all over town.”
Martinez said that he told the firefighters about when he was young and growing up in Oakland.
“My dad was poor and for as long as I can remember people helped us,” he said. “On Christmas the firefighters would come to the houses of poor kids and bring us toys. I am forever indebted to them for what they did for us, and I think that inspired me to work to help people all my life. It is a delight to be able to do this in San Juan. Half of what I do as Santa is for preschoolers and I love bringing him to life for them.”
Though the end of the Christmas season will see Martinez hang up his Santa suit, his generosity will continue into 2020.
“I am a member of the Service Club and the San Juan Businessman’s Association,” he said. “I’m trying to promote better communications between the merchants to help everyone work closer. There is too much distance between some people and I intend to build the trust back again.”
One of his efforts has already given the town a boost. Having heard stories of the San Juan Bautista Chicken Festival, Martinez decided it was time for it to be reborn.
In 2018 he brought it up to Naomi Medina and discovered “she had a knowledge from before of who did what. Then her daughter, Margot Tankersley, owner of Margot’s Ice Cream, stepped in with a thick binder of contacts. We pulled it together. I did all the ads and outreach. And we got people involved.”
It paid off. This year’s Chicken Festival more than tripled the size of the event.
People in town constantly suggest that Martinez run for office such as City Council or mayor. “That’s not my bag,” he said. “I don’t want to be locked into something like that. I want the freedom to do something independently. I am more of an ambassador than a politician.”
He is also not sure where he would find the time. He plays in a local ukulele band, The Ukulele Jammers, and performs karaoke locally. He is also part of a local discussion group that meets outside at Windmill Market.
“We have coffee and chit chat,” he said. “We spend the first half-hour solving the world’s problems and the next half-hour complaining about our aches and pains. And then we talk about cars and our kids.” He still is involved in outreach to migrant families, visiting the camps and bringing donations.
At 78, Santa Claus has found a home in San Juan Bautista.
“I love being here and I love that we all can pull together,” Martinez said. “We have great people in this town. I’m always saying something nice about San Juan.”