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WHAT A COMEBACK! : Even If You Don't Swallow the Legend, You Gotta Love Capistrano's Fiesta

March 04, 1993|FRANK MESSINA | Frank Messina is a free-lance writer who regularly contributes to The Times Orange County Edition.

The tall tale wasn't invented in San Juan Capistrano, but it sure does thrive there in the form of the city's annual Fiesta de las Golondrinas--the return of the swallows.

No, Virginia--these tiny migratory birds do not darken the skies above the Mission San Juan like clockwork every Swallows Day, regardless of the expectations of hundreds of tourists who show up at the crack of dawn every year.

But, as with Santa Claus, it's the spirit of the thing that's important. A two-month-long community celebration that goes into full swing this weekend, the fiesta embodies all the energy and swagger of the legendary Old West.

A community since the 18th Century, San Juan Capistrano prides itself in holding onto Old West traditions, and most fiesta events pay homage to the city's cowboy-ranch heritage.

Many events occur during Swallows Week, which is highlighted on March 19 and 20 by Swallows Day (officially known as the St. Joseph's Day celebration) and the Fiesta de las Golondrinas Parade, billed as the nation's largest non-motorized parade.

March 19 is filled with carnivals, historic re-enactments and many other activities, including Hoosgow Day, where tourists and office workers are plucked off the streets and businesses of San Juan by Fiesta Assn. "deputies" and thrown into a makeshift jail, where they must beg passersby to bail them out. The March 20 parade features more than 650 horses and riders, some re-creating Old West icons such as the Hole in the Wall Gang and the Wells Fargo stagecoach.

The weekend also includes a pancake breakfast, carnival, professional rodeo competition and an old-fashioned "boo the villain, cheer the hero" melodrama.

Surrounding the weekend are also a number of lesser-known, Western-style fiesta events and celebrations, including:

* The Community Fair on Saturday, March 6, features country-Western dance contests and exhibitions, food, booths and entertainers such as the Ballet Folklorico Mexico Magico de San Juan.

* The 11th annual San Juan Capistrano Championship Team Penning on March 13 is a competition that gives horse riders 90 seconds to identify and cut three assigned cattle from a herd of 30 and drive them into a pen. The event is sanctioned by the World Championship Team Penning Assn. and draws contestants from throughout the state.

* The Hat and Boot competition on March 16 and the Hairiest Man contest on March 17 provide what can kindly be called local color. Anyone can enter, and winners are chosen in such categories as grubbiest beard, best Western hat--both straw and felt--and best Western boots.

* The annual Follow the Swallow 5K and 10K Run/Stride on April 3 got its name because, well, it follows the events of Swallows Week, say event organizers. Western dress is optional.

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