EVENTS : Flock of Fun Ushers In Capistrano's Most Celebrated Affair

Patrick Mott is a frequent contributor to the Times Orange County Edition.

Q: Do the swallows really come back to Capistrano?

A: Yep. And to Dana Point and San Clemente and a few dozen other places around the Capistrano Valley.

Q: On March 19?

A: Absolutely. And maybe on March 16 or 17 or 21 or 25. Lots of them.

Q: Isn't that a little vague?

A: Who cares? It's a party.

Actually, it's three parties, on three separate dates. When you're talking about the numero uno legend in San Juan Capistrano, everybody wants to get into the act.

The entire celebration of the return of the swallows, known locally as the Fiesta de las Golondrinas, is a series of celebrations large and small, centering on St. Joseph's Day, this Sunday, when (according to tradition and myth) the swallows return en masse to the mission precincts at the end of their yearly 5,000-mile migration from Goya, Argentina.

The reality: Since San Juan Capistrano became urbanized, the swallows have tended to mostly skip the mission and nest in other mission-sized buildings in the area. Years ago, say locals, it used to be easier for the little birds to home in on the mission, since it was the largest set of structures in the area. Today, instead of great clouds of migrating split-tailed birds sweeping over town, expectant crowds on St. Joseph's Day are more likely to see only the occasional swallow flitting through the air near the mission.

But it you're in a festive mood, that's enough. And you can get started as early as this Saturday at the annual San Juan Capistrano Community Fair. Staged at C. Russell Cook Park (at Rancho Viejo Road and Calle Arroyo), the fair will feature food and game booths, exhibit booths manned by members of several local nonprofit organizations, children's rides, a petting zoo, pony rides, an arts and crafts fair and performances by the country band Darla Lee and Hearts A-Fire. Other children's activities include storytelling, mimes and a hat decorating contest. A women's self-defense demonstration and a country dance exhibition are also scheduled. The fair begins at 11 a.m. and ends at 5 p.m. For more information call (714) 493-5911.

On Sunday, the focal point of the celebration will be Mission San Juan Capistrano. The official announcement of the swallows' return--the pealing of the mission's bells-- will be made around 7:30 a.m. by Michael Gastelum, grandson of the mission's legendary bell-ringer Paul Arbiso, who died last November at age 99.

Mass in the new mission church will follow the bell ringing at 8:30, and activities will take place throughout the day until 4:30 p.m. primarily in the center courtyard of the mission. They will include the traditional singing of "When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano" by Raphael Rene, son of the song's composer, Leon Rene; mariachi music; song, dance and skits performed by area school children; traditional dances by Aztec and Juaneno dancers, and a performance by the South Coast Ballet about noon.

The regular mission admission prices include the day's activities: adults $4; children 3 to 12 and seniors 62 and over $3; children under 3 free.

The month's festivities will wind up with the 37th annual Swallow's Day Parade, scheduled for March 25. Billed as the nation's largest non-motorized parade, the procession will begin at the mission, continue up Ortega Highway to Del Obispo, around Del Obispo to El Camino Real and then back to the mission. The parade, scheduled from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., will feature 11 high school bands and several equestrian units and horse-drawn displays.

From 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., food will be available from vendors along the parade route. For parade information call (714) 493-1976.

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