We are peppered with questions. "Why did you come to Goya?" asks Firpo. I stumble over my words: "I grew up in Capistrano. . . . Whenever the swallows are mentioned, no details are given about Goya. . . . It's a mystery."
Balestra waves his arm and speaks. "He has invited you to be our guests for Swallows Day in two weeks," says Firpo. I lock eyes with Sylvia. Our flight back is in 10 days. I imagine what we'll miss at what I later learn is called Llegada de Las Golondrinas (Return of the Swallows) on Nov. 24. Rounds of carne de parrillada, hearty Italian gnocchi, wedges of pizza, fillets of succulent lemon-fried Surubi, the salmon of river fish in Argentina. Kegs and litros of the ubiquitous national futbol beer, Quilmes, to fuel the pageant (just say, "Too much won't hurt me, it will Quilmes" with each glass you down). Oh, the chilled Chilean wine. And everything relatively cheap.
The rest of the day moves lightning-fast. A plaque of the city tossed at us like a Frisbee—photos, please! Firpo privately insists on Rotarian contacts with San Juan Capistrano. Later, at a meeting with community organizers, we learn why we've been given hero treatment: rocky economics—the river washed out scores of homes, trade and tourism are down, and the tobacco factory is sending people packing.
They plan to build a huge plaza dedicated to the swallows and Capistrano, remarks organizer Bruce Avenando. A meaningful global exchange is sought. "We want artists, poets, craftsmen and students to be traded with Capistrano. . . . We'll greet whoever comes here with a parade and festival," says local author Maria de Duarte de Gamboa. She gives me a thin book in Spanish about Goya's connection with Capistrano. They wrote a letter in October 1999 to officials in Capistrano outlining their plan. Why hasn't San Juan Capistrano replied?
Firpo's husband, Nestor Pasceata, gives us a whirlwind tour. The town's symbol: a church with Spanish colonial towers. Founded in 1807, notes a plaque on an obelisk. Pronounced Go-jah(like ambrosia). Nicknamed after a woman, he thinks.
The river is both provider and destroyer. No swimming, the current will pull you to the bottom. A boy fishes on the banks. His burro and cart are parked up on the road. A young couple frantically French kiss in the Villa Italia park overlooking the placid Parana. No wonder the swallows come back here. Why haven't we?
Raised in San Juan Capistrano, Christopher Cottrell is a freelance journalist in the Bay Area. He's finishing a book of essays on the swallow myth.