By Brian Park
In a city that’s steeped in as extensive and rich a history as San Juan Capistrano, a tradition and spectacle the magnitude of the Swallows Day Parade can hold a very special meaning for many families.
Even for those living outside the city in the greater south Orange County area, March is a time to come together. Much like the Mission is to the famed cliff swallows, the parade is a homing beacon of sorts for many local families.
The Leone family understands the allure of the Swallows Day Parade very well.
For more than 30 years now, two—and eventually, three—generations of Leones have come together to not only share in the experience of the parade, but to help make it so for other families as well.
“This town is such a nice place, and we’ve always wanted visitors to have the same experience,” Jim Leone said. “We want them to come back. We’ve always wanted to give them something to marvel at and to give them that hometown feeling.”
Hometown for the Leones is actually a small town of 5,139 residents, Hampden, Mass., located 82.5 miles southeast of Boston and just above the Connecticut state line.
The Leones’ San Juan story begins in 1982, when Jim, who was stationed at U.S. Naval base Port Hueneme, took a trip down to visit family in the area. It was the Friday of Hoos’Gow Day, and volunteers with the Fiesta Association, the group that organizes the Swallows Day Parade, were locking up unsuspecting city slickers caught wearing anything but Western gear, in addition to clean-shaven men.
“At that point, I said, ‘I like this town,’ and I decided to move to San Juan Capistrano,” Jim said.
A year later, Jim’s father and family patriarch, Boots, visited from Massachusetts.
Back in Hampden, Boots and his wife were serial volunteers, helping out with as many town fairs, parades and sports teams as they could. They also recruited their children, Jim and two daughters, Nina and Shannon, to help organize a local bicentennial celebration and participating in the town’s Civil War reenactments.
Boots’ brother, who was living in the area, knew of the Fiesta Association, and given his brother’s penchant for history and dressing up, suggested Boots get involved with the organization.
His daughters eventually made their way out west—Nina in 1984 and Shannon in 2003, first in Palo Alto before moving down south to San Juan. To their friends, Nina and Shannon are known as “D.O.B,” or “Daughters of Boots,” while Jim is sometimes playfully referred to as “S.O.B.” or “Son of Boots.”
For a few years, before actually settling in the city, Boots, and sometimes his daughters, flew in from Massachusetts, several times in a year, to help with the Fiesta Association. That led many volunteers and people around town to believe Boots is a resident.
“A lot of people thought I’d been here for years,” Boots said. “I would just show up, spend two weeks here, go to meetings and then be gone.”
Since the mid 1980s, the Leones have dedicated much of their time to the Fiesta Association, either as a helping hand on parade day or in more active roles. Jim served on the association’s board for three years, and Nina is a current board member, who’s helped to organize newsletters, the popular Kids Pet Parade and other events in the Fiesta de las Golondrinas season.
Along the way, there have been plenty of memories created.
In 2001, Jim met his wife Leslie, who at the time was a new volunteer. On Hoos’Gow Day, the two shared a ride and an intrepid Jim asked for a kiss. Six years later, Jim proposed to Leslie in front of the entire Fiesta Association.
“He got me good,” Leslie said.
The two were married a year later, and during the 50th Swallows Day Parade, the newlyweds walked the parade route in their wedding attire. The couple remains active with the Fiesta Association as world champion gun spinners in their Wild West entertainment outfit.
This year, the Leones are expecting another brother, Tony, to fly in from Massachusetts for the parade. If history repeats itself, the Fiesta Association will have another Leone to deal with.