“Memory not only conserves the past but adjusts recall to current needs.” – Kenneth E. Foote, Shadowed Ground, 5.
Mission San Juan Capistrano prides itself on being the “Jewel of the Missions.” Both past and present administrators deserve credit for revitalizing the cultural, historical, and religious significance of the mission. Father John O’Sullivan, for instance, is hailed for reconstructing the mission both physically and spiritually in the early 20th century. Two of his most important ventures included the restoration of the Serra Chapel—the last standing chapel Fr. Serra practiced mass in—and the popularization of the Legend of the Swallows.
The Legend of the Swallows is celebrated with two annual community celebrations, St. Joseph’s Day and San Juan Capistrano’s Feast Day, which respectively commemorate the return and departure of the American Swallows. The swallows are introduced to mission visitors in a welcome video playing on loop inside the museum. In the video, the swallows are quickly deemed one of the mission’s main attractions. Everyday the mission offers the “Swallows Walk and Talk Tour” to draw in guests curious about the acclaimed history and celebrated tradition of swallow migration to the mission (https://www.missionsjc.com/tours/swallows). The legend was constructed by Fr. O’Sullivan, who published a series of articles and a book romanticizing the spectacle of swallow migration. By presenting the swallows as unique to the mission, Fr. O’Sullivan’s efforts helped raise money for the mission’s restoration and preservation. Inspired by Fr. O’Sullivan’s message, singer and songwriter Leon René—writer of the famous song “Rockin’ Robin—wrote his hit song “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano” in 1939. The song nearly topped the U.S. music charts and earned the mission national recognition. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that the Legend of the Swallows is one of the most advertised features of the mission. However, in promoting the swallow legend, Fr. O’Sullivan inadvertently veiled the mission’s more tragic history.
Having gone through several different eras throughout its life—the Mission Period (1769-1834), Secularization (1834-1844), U.S. Statehood and Decline (1865-1895), and Preservation (1895-1940)—the mission has developed a layered history only briefly covered at the mission today. During the Mission Period, thousands of Indians became baptized neophytes at the mission and radically changed their lives forever. While some good came out of missionizing the local Acjachemen people, the mission’s exhibits fail to recognize the more controversial aspects of the mission process. For instance, in the two rooms dedicated to the life and culture of the Acjachemen, only one museum label discusses native hardships. The label mentions how native food shortages and the spread of disease resulted from missionization, but in limited form and without mention of the complex relationship between Franciscan and neophyte residents of the mission. Once the Acjachemen entered the mission, they were dominated by Franciscan authority and had little control over their own lives. Neophytes were also strictly prohibited from ever leaving the mission.
The romanticized history of the swallow migration dominates the narrative at San Juan Capistrano. An annual parade, daily “Swallows Walk and Talk” tours, and various signs throughout the mission all commemorate the tradition. The mission also displays an overwhelmingly positive image of the Spanish Franciscans. At the same time, a mass Indian grave in the mission cemetery houses the bodies of approximately 3,000 mission Indians. The mission placed a cross statue overlooking the grave of Fr. O’Sullivan and a single plaque to honor the fallen neophytes. The little attention given to the massive burial in comparison to other features of the mission is representative of how the public memory of the mission has been perhaps undeservingly complementary of such a complex history.