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Not Just for the Birds

Follow the Flock to San Juan Capistrano for Parade, but Be Wary of Hoos'gow Posse


Wearing buckskins, hoop skirts or strumming banjos, entertainers and visitors to downtown San Juan Capistrano will help salute the town's Western heritage at the 43rd annual Swallows Day Parade on Saturday.

Sheriff's deputies, cowboys and cowgirls will join marching bands, color guards, equestrian riders and the U.S. Marines in a two-hour procession of 200 non-motorized units. The mile-long parade starts at Ortega Highway and El Camino Real.

"It's an old-fashioned, down-home community parade," said Sheree Ito, publicity chairwoman for the San Juan Capistrano Fiesta Assn., a volunteer group of 175 active members that organizes and raises funds for the event.

The parade, street fair and related events follow the annual Return of the Swallows festival held last weekend at Mission San Juan Capistrano.

The city has been aflutter with events timed to the arrival of migratory swallows that swarm to the area to build their fragile mud nests in the warm climate.

For centuries, the small birds have nestled under the eaves of the mission's Great Stone Church for shelter.

About 1910, St. John O' Sullivan, mission pastor, recorded the legend of the swallows, and during the 1930s, the birds drew national media attention and became the town darlings.

"Those little birds are the symbol that unites our diverse community regardless of ethnicity or income," said Ito, who owns a nursery where the swallows flock to feed on ladybugs and green lace bugs.

The parade theme is the "Long Journey Home," a reference to the birds' 7,500-mile migration from Goya, Argentina, to San Juan Capistrano.

Swallow celebrations aren't just about the birds anymore. Crowds of 25,000 come to watch the parade, rain or shine, organizers said. The procession is tinged with nostalgia for the rural days when acres of orange groves, farmland and horse ranches were abundant.

The fiesta's sheriff and deputies will monitor the streets, dressed in black-and-white Western attire with silver-star badges. Fans are garbed as "wannabe sheriffs."

"It's such a different, alternative part to our daily lives," Ito said. "I get tourists stopping me to take pictures of me. Sometimes it's embarrassing, but it brings fun to our lives and the lives of the fiesta-goers."


Residents who are descendants of families that settled in the area take a prominent place in the parade. Melvin Rosenbaum is one.

As parade grand marshal, he will ride the leading horse and buggy with his wife, Hazel.

"I'm proud to be representing the old-timers of San Juan Capistrano," said Rosenbaum, 76, who will don a black cowboy vest, jacket, boots and a Stetson hat. He owns a local firewood business. His ancestors rode in the expedition of Gaspar de Portola in 1769. Rosenbaum's family once owned 600 acres where they farmed hay, grains, beans and tomatoes.

"We used to go downtown and participate in the parade, then have family gatherings," Rosenbaum said. "It's a lot like celebrating St. Patrick's Day. It's an excuse to have a family get-together."

Native American performers, bagpipers and Shriners will parade by, and a street fair, the Mercado, will add to the festivities. The Mercado is held from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Historic Town Center Park, with 50 food and craft booths. Two stages feature bands and dancing.

A free shuttle service will be offered throughout the day, with stops a Junipero Serra and Rancho Viejo roads.

The city's parade is separate from the mission's week-earlier celebration.

"People just assume it's all one big event that is put on by the city," Ito said. But the mission's event marks St. Joseph's Day, when tradition has it the first swallow scouts arrive.

"Then we take it further and we do the parade that fills the streets of downtown," Ito said. The mission celebration is usually contained within the mission walls.

"The mission has people coming for the Return of the Swallows celebration, but people know the larger flock of swallows comes later," Ito said. "Most people just like to stay or come back the week after to band together and have an old-fashioned parade."

* 43rd annual Swallows Day Parade, Ortega Highway and El Camino Real, San Juan Capistrano. Parade starts at 11 a.m.

Celebration Highlights

Hoos'gow Day

Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Downtown San Juan Capistrano

Fiesta Assn. organizers have a "sheriff" and "deputies" who roam the town with their portable jails and will arrest anyone not dressed in Western attire or any man who is cleanshaven. The penalty for noncompliance is being thrown into the "hoos'gow," or jail. Sentences are short for those who can make bail by buying a garter, "Smooth Puss" button or other novelties.

Annual Swallows Day Pancake Breakfast

Saturday, 6 a.m. to

10:30 a.m.

Women's Club, 31442

El Horno St.

The Rotary Club and Women's Club of San Juan will offer a breakfast of ham, eggs, coffee and pancakes at $5.50 per plate to benefit local children's organizations.


Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Historic Town Center Park (El Camino Real at Yorba Street)

The Mercado is a street fair and marketplace where you can eat, drink and shop before, during and after the parade. Food, crafts, music by Fit-2-Be-Tied, information booths and a beer-and-wine garden are highlights.

Information: (949) 493-1976 or visit the Fiesta Assn. Web site at

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