In a county with more than a million Spanish speakers, one of Orange County’s premier shopping destinations offers visits with a multicultural St. Nick.
When Robert Torres of Lake Forest was growing up, his family didn’t have a lot of money. “When I was a kid, there was no Santa,” he said. “We were a poor family. So, sometimes I'd get a gift for Christmas but not every time. That was us,” he said, his voice almost breaking at the memory.
Today, Torres plays Santa at South Coast Plaza, one of Southern California’s poshest shopping centers with designer stores such as Tiffany and Cartier just steps away. His family may not have had a lot of money, but they did have a lot of love to go around. That’s how as a 10-year-old boy he learned some Spanish.
“I was born in Monterey (California) and I learned Spanish from my grandmother. My mom and Dad would take me to San Jose to spend a couple of weeks with her in the summer,” Torres said. “She didn't speak English. I didn't speak Spanish. But she taught me some words and that's when I learned what I know.”
Torres says his Spanish isn’t good enough to hold deep conversations with adults but it’s fine for conversing with kids. He asks them how they’re doing in school, how they’ve been behaving, what they want for Christmas and other friendly questions.
His snowy white beard is real. His voice is soft and soothing and his accent is excellent. He has four kids of his own and six grandchildren, and he’s proud to use his skills to help Spanish-speaking youngsters meet a Kris Kringle who sounds familiar.
Kids big and small visit this bi-lingual Santa at South Coast Plaza. Photos by Drew A. Kelley, Culture OC
He retired from the United States Marine Corps in 1980, then worked as an engineer for Boeing for about 23 years. At 82, he doesn’t need the job; he just does it because he likes kids.
For the last 10 years, he’s appeared on the first Saturday of December at Lake Mission Viejo, but South Coast Plaza is the only shopping center where you’ll find him and he’s been there for 23 years. Three or four days a week he sits on a special throne set into a Santa’s Village, an Alpine-themed winter display on level 1 in Carousel Court.
There’s a second visit-Santa spot, “The Cottage at the North Pole” on level 1 in the Crate and Barrel/Macy’s Home Store wing, with an enormous tree sculpture, a miniature train and figures of Santa from around the world. He works there too.
Torres is not alone in Orange County. Bilingual Santa Claus visits are also part of the Santa Ana Winter Village operated by the city’s parks and recreation department, which runs through Dec. 31 at the Santa Ana Civic Center Plaza. Those Santas speak Vietnamese and Spanish and fliers for the event have been translated into both languages and posted online.
Northgate Gonzalez markets, a popular grocery chain of about a dozen locations in OC that regularly hosts community events, has concluded its visits for the year but all of those Santas spoke Spanish.
Local websites such as gigsalad.com have also begun listing language skills as part of their Santa profiles.
At South Coast Plaza the Santa visits are all part of the lavish seasonal décor at the shopping center that’s always a draw. During the height of the holidays, lines to visit Santa can be as long as three hours.
So many kids want to see Santa and over the years, Orange County’s demographics have changed. By the U.S. Census Bureau’s count in 2022 there are more than 3 million local residents. According to ocgov.com, more than 1 million speak Spanish, the most widely spoken foreign language here.
According to South Coast Plaza officials, the shopping center has worked with journalists and influencers from south of the border as part of marketing and PR outreach in Mexico City, Guadalajara and other key regions.
It's a way to encourage shoppers from Mexico to make it a special destination – a bilingual Santa is an ideal fit for Southern California. Torres has found himself in demand at private parties too. He says he found his second calling in 1984.
“My first grandchild, Ashley, was born and my daughter and son-in-law invited me to play Santa at their home. So, I showed up and she was asleep. I picked her up, sat back down in my chair, and she opened her eyes and smiled at me.”
His son-in-law was astounded at how quickly Santa connected with his baby girl. “He said, ‘You're really good at this. You should do this for a living.’ And I said, ‘This is just my first time. How can you say that?’ So, that's how I got started.”
Torres envisions himself as an actor playing a role. But it’s one that comes naturally to him. The key, he says, is to have the right personality and a kindly attitude. “When the kids are approaching me, I try to act like we’ve known each other for a long time.”
He also tries to be really honest because he knows some children will have families like his. He doesn’t make promises about extravagant gifts but will use some encouraging words such as, “We’ll work on that,” in response to requests for specific presents.
He likes the challenge of knowing that every kid is different and during his tenure he has become particularly adept at handling all kinds of situations.
On the day Culture OC interviewed him, 11-year-old Emily Aguilar of Westminster visited Santa with the help of her mother, Carina Aguilar. Her mother is bilingual but she said that her daughter is non-verbal although she has made it clear that she wants balloons for Christmas.
Santa spoke to Emily in Spanish and that made her very happy, her mother said. “She loves Christmas and she loves him,” Carina Aguilar said.
But not all encounters are so joyous. “I’ve had a lot of criers. They act like they don't want to come up here and talk with me or sit with me. They're up there in line laughing and joking around with their mom or dad, and then they get up here and there’s tears. It can be very emotional for them.”
Torres recalled a visit with an 11-year-old some years ago. “We were talking about school and behavior. And he says, ‘You know what I really want for Christmas? I just want my grandma to be well.’ I had no comeback for that. I just held his shoulders and said, ‘Your grandmother is going to be all right.’
“The following month we had a Santa luncheon and who did I see? Him. He came up to me and said, ‘Santa! Santa! Grandma is OK.’”
So, the magic of bilingual Santa isn’t that he promises to bring lavish gifts or to work Christmas miracles. It’s that he genuinely loves meeting kids and that he will hear each and every one of them out.
“I talk to them, and that's all kids really want,” Torres said. “They just want somebody to listen to them, you know?”
IF YOU GO
Visit Santa: Children can see Santa at Santa’s Village, an Alpine winter wonderland on level 1 in Carousel Court, or at The Cottage at the North Pole on level 1 in the Crate and Barrel/Macy’s Home Store wing. Photo packages are $17-$53.
Rides: Children can ride the Reindeer Carousel and Santa’s Express Train, both available at South Coast Plaza only during the holiday season for $2. A train ride is complimentary with any Santa photo purchase.
Hours: Santa visits are available during South Coast Plaza shopping hours. The week before Christmas, the schedule will change to 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; 9 a.m.-9 p.m. on weekdays and Saturday; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday Dec. 17. Christmas Eve hours are 9 a.m.-6 p.m.