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School History

Don Juan Avila 1821-1889

Rancho Niguel, which was owned by Mission San Juan Capistrano and covered the land north-west of San Juan Capistrano, was valued for its oak and alder trees, as well as its limestone which was used in the making of cement for the Mission.
Don Juan Avila was born in Los Angeles in 1821. He was one of the first private landowners in what was to become Orange County. For many years, Don Juan Avila had permission from Mission authorities to graze his cattle on Rancho Niguel property. After the Mission was taken from the Padres and fell into disrepair, he and his widowed sister applied to Governor Juan B. Alvarado for a grant to the land which he was given in 1842.
Juan Avila, also referred to as “El Rico,” and his wife, Soledad, were known for their hospitality, humor and generosity. Travelers on their way to Los Angeles or San Diego were often entertained at his home in San Juan Capistrano. It is said that Juan Avila kept a calf-skin “safe” filled with gold coins in his home, which likely earned him the name “El Rico” (the “Rich One”). When most of his adobe home burned to the ground in 1879, it took several strong men to remove the “safe” and then bury it. Since that time, people have searched for the lost coins, but no one claims to have found them. After the fire, all that remained of his home were three southern rooms.
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Juan Avila was an important historic person not only in the San Juan Capistrano area, but throughout California. He carried the official Flag of Truce (his own handkerchief tied to a stick) to Commodore Stockton after the Battle of Cahuenga Pass (near Hollywood Bowl).
When the United States acquired California in 1848, Juan Avila realized he would have to prove his claim to Rancho Niguel. By selling and trading meat, hides and fallow for gold coins, he was able to survive long legal battles in San Francisco and received clear title to the rancho. In 1865, he sold most of Rancho Niguel and retired to the remaining three rooms of the adobe in San Juan Capistrano. He died in 1889.
Due to his skillful political acumen, he succeeded in helping to obtain donated land for the first permanent school site in the area and was Grantee of Rancho Niguel in the 1850’s and 1860’s. Don Juan Avila served on the first Board of Education in San Juan Capistrano. Our school, Don Juan Avila Middle School, is located at 26278 Wood Canyon in Aliso Viejo, the northern part of the historic Don Juan Avila Rancho called “El Niguel.”
He was a prominent figure at Mission San Juan Capistrano and a pioneer in education in the Capistrano Valley area. The life of Don Juan Avila is so entwined with the historic beginnings of San Juan Capistrano as to render impossible a chronicle of one without the other.
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