Tourists who flock to San Juan Capistrano from around the world to explore the town’s historic Spanish mission hardly give a second glance to a hill behind the mission and its big white C.
A wet winter so drenched San Juan that, in the spring, an overgrowth of weeds rendered the 26-foot-tall C invisible. Trying to find it was sort of like, “O Say Can You C?”
In April, some members of the Capistrano Eagles motorcycle club decided it was time to show some local pride.
Louie Hernandez, Joe Lopez and Dee Nieblas approached the hill from behind the summit, in Laguna Niguel, hiking down to the C on a recon mission. When they returned a week later, they wielded machetes and small tools and began hacking away at the thick brush.
“You’ve got to kind of know where you are going to find the top of the C,” Lopez said.
He actually had a pretty good idea, since he and Nieblas grew up in San Juan and have explored the area. They are descendants of San Juan’s first people, the Acjachemen.
Although neither Lopez nor Nieblas is old enough to have attended Capistrano Union High School – the school for which the C stands – they knew the heritage of the C.
The history behind the landmark
The original C, made of wood and painted white, was placed on the hill “by the boys of the high school and Mr. Scheive in 1921,” according to Capo High’s first yearbook, The Chimes, published in 1924. That original C was replaced with one made of cement.
As a rite of initiation, freshmen at Capo High were ordered year after year by the senior class to hike up and clean the C. Pat Forster, Class of 1962, says the current C was placed there around 1950.
Cleaning the C meant clearing away weeds and repainting the C white. There were stories, too, about how seniors would hike the hill and guard the C the night before a football game against arch-rival Laguna Beach, to avoid waking up the next morning to maybe find the C painted maroon, Laguna’s school color.