After years of planning and delay after delay, a cultural park off Camino Capistrano built on a portion of an original tribal village inhabited by San Juan Capistrano’s first residents, the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, opened its gates Friday with a ceremony led by Acjachemen descendants.
The 1.5-acre Putuidem Village, nestled in what is known as the city’s Northwest Open Space, is a “little chunk of what was a massive, huge village” where tribal members lived before being driven out as the Spanish arrived in the 1700s, Jerry Nieblas, who can trace his lineage back to the original Putuidem, said during Friday’s opening.
Visitors will be able to explore kiichas, the original dwellings, and the park has ramadas and an amphitheater fit with massive tree-trunk benches and signs that display the history of the village.
It is all “a long time coming,” Nieblas said.
A descendant of the Acjachemen Nation, as well as the Yorba and Rios ranch families, Nieblas said stories of Putuidem were a fixture of his childhood.
About five years ago, he was asked to be on the city committee to help plan the new park. In the following years, delays would push back start and finish dates several times. Construction finally got the green light in 2020.
Then the project was stymied by the pandemic. Before that, it had been put on hold twice: first in 2017, when officials worried the city lacked the money to maintain the park in the future; and again in 2019, amid questions over the land’s zoning.
“We had our challenges,” Nieblas said of the planning process. “We would go back and forth. We would achieve what we thought were final goals in getting Putuidem open and up and running, and then we would have setbacks.”
The park’s opening is like getting “a clean bill of health” after living with an illness, he said, like someone saying, “Everything’s gonna be OK and you take this breath of fresh air.”
Mayor John Taylor said the park is a “testament” to what make San Juan Capistrano special – with its rich history the city is like no other in Orange County.
The cultural village cost $1.3 million to design and build.
Pearson Tahuka Nuñez, a member of the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians who sang during Friday’s ceremony, said the park’s opening is significant for the Acjachemen descendants because “people can see the culture, that we’re still here, that our people are still there.”
His mother, Jacque Nuñez, called the site and its fixtures “glorious.”
“I’m so thrilled because never again do I have to say to the children, ‘Close your eyes and imagine that there are dwellings that look like igloos and they’re made with grasses.’ Because when they come here, they will see it,” she said. “I don’t have to say, ‘Be still, imagine that you’re on the city that my ancestors walked on.’ … They come here, they will know that they are stepping on the land that our ancestors stepped on.”
Before the ceremony, Nieblas stopped in front of an oak tree that stands tall in the park and presented a tobacco offering, something he said he does frequently with his cousin to honor their ancestors.
The tree, which was around when his grandmother was a child, is special, Nieblas said. He considers it a representation of the Juaneño people.
“She’s there and she’s flourishing. She’s strong,” he said of the tree. “She very much represents our people, their endurance and their strength, and that we’re still here. We’re still surviving.”