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Swallows Duck Out of Capistrano Bash

Times Staff Writer

The swallows took a rain check for the annual Return of the Swallows celebration at Mission San Juan Capistrano Saturday. Despite a steady downpour, however, just about everyone else showed up, including mariachis, Aztec dancers, dignitaries and spectators.

“The birds have more sense than the rest of us to stay out of the rain,” explained Jerry Miller, the mission’s administrator.

It was the first time since 1992 that rain collided with opening day of the weeklong celebration meant to mark the return of the swallows from their annual migration to Goya, Argentina, and the arrival of spring, Miller said.

And it was the first time the rain fell so long and hard, he said. The birds aren’t traditionally due until St. Joseph’s Day, on Wednesday.

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Yet about 2,000 spectators -- about a third the usual number -- turned out anyway, and the show went on.

“The swallows have been coming back from time immemorial,” Miller said. “If we don’t see them today, we’ll see them another day.”

Still, the rainfall could put a crimp in the mission’s budget.

The event is a major source of revenue, Miller said, and helps fund the $10-million restoration of its historic Great Stone Church.

The work is expected to be completed by June or July.

Saturday’s lower-than-usual turnout, however, “will have a negative impact on our efforts,” the administrator said.

“It’s not a major blow, but we were counting on that money to finish the church’s preservation. Now we’ll have to get it from somewhere else, or [suffer a] delay.”

Instead of summer, the church may not be finished until fall.

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“We’re doing the last major part of the stabilization,” Miller said. “Once we’ve done that, we will breathe easily and not worry about a major seismic event.”

Little of this seemed to matter to spectators carrying umbrellas and watching dancers, singers and storytellers under a tent.

“We came to see the Native American dancers,” said Lydia Chavez-Garcia, a resident of Camp Pendleton who brought her four young children. Their baseball game was rained out, so we came here; the swallows are all over Camp Pendleton.”

Jo Hall, of Santa Monica, said she didn’t miss the birds at all.

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“I’m enjoying the other things,” she said. “It would be beautiful if the sun were out, but we need the rain. You can’t have it both ways.”

And George Hunter, 74, of Whittier, who said he had come by bus and train, was not disappointed. “There was a swallow at the depot welcoming us, and it was fun taking the train in the rain.”

Miller says he’s not surprised by such reactions.

“People have come to expect this annual event,” he said.

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“It’s sort of like Christmas -- you still have it, even if you don’t have snow. The season is really here and the swallows are too; this is a rite of spring for all of Southern California.”


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