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By Jan Siegel
San Juan Capistrano is a very special place. It is special because of its history, its culture and its people. All of these elements come together in March.
The story of the swallows’ return to San Juan Capistrano was first recorded in the book Capistrano Nights by Father St. John O’Sullivan and Charles Saunders in 1930. The story relates how a padre angered by a hotel keeper destroying swallows nests welcomed the swallows to the Mission. In the book, the date for the return of the swallows was March 19, St. Joseph’s Day. Every year the story was picked up by the Los Angeles Times and Ed Ainsworth, the state editor, would call the Mission to verify if the swallows had returned, was told they had and printed the story. In 1936, a local broadcaster wanted to see firsthand this return, so he came to San Juan Capistrano with the governor to verify it. Ainsworth also came down for the first time to see for himself the swallows return. Arthur Hutchinson, the pastor of the Mission, was among the group of dignitaries who waited all day for them. Suddenly, at the end of the day, the broadcaster reported that the “skies were blackened with swallows.” March 19 was now in the history books for San Juan Capistrano.
The Rios family traces back its roots to 1794 when the first Rios built the Adobe that is still a Rios residence. In 1953, the family discovered a town banner and decided that it belonged to the Mission. The Businessman’s Association decided to hold a horseback procession to return the banner to the Mission as part of the Swallows Day tradition. Carriages carried Damian Rios and his wife, followed by a band and many informal riders. The community enjoyed this event so much that the following year, 1954, the Businessman’s Association announced the first official Swallows Day Parade. The Businessman’s Association did not last, and it would be 1960, when the newly formed Chamber of Commerce would revive the Swallows Day Parade as part of a two-day celebration called “Fiesta De Las Golondrinas.”
Although since 1960 the parade has been an annual event, this year is not the 58th anniversary—it is the 60th. The first Swallows Day Parade was in 1953, the second in 1954 and the annual events started in 1960. Therefore, this year celebrates the 60th anniversary of the Swallows Day Parade.
The parade has grown from a handful of participants to more than 3,000, celebrating the community equestrian heritage as well. Horses account for making the Swallows Day Parade one of the largest non-motorized parades in the country, including walkers, carriages, carts and marching bands.
Volunteers—people of this community— make this whole event happen. There are many organizations in town that contribute to this event, including the Rotary Club and Historical Society. The Blas Aguilar Adobe Museum, which focuses on the history of the Acjachemen/Juaneño people, is always open on Parade Day.
All of these events center around the return of the swallows. But none of these events could take place without the hundreds of volunteers who work thousands of hours all year round to ensure that March continues to be that very special time in San Juan Capistrano.
Jan Siegel is a 28-year resident of San Juan Capistrano. She served on the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission for 13 years and has been a volunteer guide for the San Juan Capistrano Friends of the Library’s architectural walking tour for 18 years. She was named Woman of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce in 2005, Volunteer of the Year in 2011 and was inducted into the city’s Wall of Recognition in 2007.