Oceanside car club celebrates annual Dia de los Muertos festival

Manuel Navarro points out details of an ofrenda in the trunk of his 1954 Bel Air
Manuel Navarro, president of Por Siempre Car Club, points out details of an ofrenda honoring his late father-in-law, Ysidoro Robles, in the trunk of his 1954 Bel Air outside his home on Thursday October 20, 2022 in Oceanside.
(Haley Nelson/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Manuel Navarro is president of Por Siempre Car Club, which hosts the car show at the Oceanside Dia de los Muertos Festival, where cars will display an ofrenda (altar) in the trunks


Ofrendas, cempachusil and images of La Catrina abound as part of Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations throughout the county, and at the annual Oceanside festival, people can also see the altars, marigolds and likeness of the skeletal figure in the trunks of the cars from the Por Siempre Car Club. Manuel Navarro, club president, always looks forward to the ways club members choose to honor their loved ones.

“The ofrendas in the car are basically the same as a table altar (and) include everything a loved one enjoyed eating, a glass of water for their long trip, a blanket (or “petate”) to rest, candy, a bottle of liquor, incense and plenty of “cempachusil” (marigolds). There is a traditional way to make it, or just make it and decorate it as you feel your loved one would enjoy,” he says. “I’m always surprised at the beauty and individuality of each trunk. To me, they’re all beautiful and made from the heart.”

The Oceanside festival marks its 21st year from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday in downtown Oceanside (on Pier View Way between North Cleveland and North Nevada streets). The festival features live entertainment, food, shopping, a Catrina contest, chalk cemetery, activities for kids and lots of altars.

Navarro, 58, has been president of Por Siempre for 15 years and also serves as a director-at-large with Friends of Oceanside Día de los Muertos, the nonprofit that organizes the festival each year. He lives in Oceanside with his wife, Cedma, and has two children, Mariana and Manuel Jr. He took some time to talk about the club’s involvement in the festival and in the community.

Manuel Navarro in his 1965 Ford Thunderbird outside his home on Thursday October 20, 2022 in Oceanside, CA.
Manuel Navarro in his 1965 Ford Thunderbird outside his home on Thursday October 20, 2022, in Oceanside.
(Haley Nelson/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Q: Tell us about Por Siempre Car Club.

Established in 2007, it is simply a social car club dedicated to assisting the city, military and community of Oceanside, including neighboring cities and various charities. We have always assisted Camp Pendleton for Easter and Christmas events, when in need. We are also USO volunteers; we support Wounded Warriors; we volunteer every year with the chamber of commerce’s yearly “Operation Appreciation” event; we assist the mayor with the Noche Mexicana community event in the city, promoting the independence of Mexico and bringing in authors, speakers, traditional dancing and children’s activities; we are on the board of the Friends of Oceanside Día de los Muertos nonprofit; and we’ve hosted yearly shows to raise money for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital; we support fundraisers through donations and/or raffle prizes.

We meet once a month and discuss all future events and functions. For new members, there is a trial period to see if this club is the right fit for that person. That way, they can decide if this is the right element for them. We see how the club’s current members fit with each other and let them know that the most important rule to the club during events is always that family and faith are first, and being an example to the community by staying alcohol- and drug-free. We have nine members, and we teach attendees the history and purpose of Día de los Muertos.

Q: How long has the club been involved with this festival, and what led you to first become involved?

A: We’ve been involved for 13 years. We were actively fundraising for St. Jude’s and were asked if we could bring a few cars to the event to give it a bit of variety.

Q: What was your introduction to car clubs and this aspect of car culture?

A: One day, we thought, “Why just show cars? Let’s merge our altars into the trunks or outside and inside of them to integrate the festival and our car culture.” It created an unusual, but striking look to these unique and custom cars, planting a seed for other cities to create Día de los Muertos events with car shows that include decorated trunks, which has now spread all over California and neighboring states.

What I love about Oceanside...

We have amazing artists; great people; a fantastic magazine (The Osider); cool, trendy and unique businesses; lots of events, concerts, plays and music. The weather is great, and the mornings are peaceful and quiet. I can walk less than a mile to go to the beach!

Q: As a member of Por Siempre, what kind of car(s) do you have?

A: We have several unique cars, which include a 1939 Oldsmobile, a 1948 Dodge sedan, a 1954 Chevy Bel Air, a 1957 Lincoln Premiere, a 1965 Thunderbird, a 1967 Cadillac, and a 1967 GMC truck. They’re unique, and you don’t really see them anymore, except for the Chevy. Most of them are stock, and only one of them has a custom paint job; the others have air bags.

Q: Will you be participating in the show at the festival with one of your own cars?

A: Yes, we will be bringing three cars to the show with displays: the ’65 Thunderbird, the ’54 Chevy and the ’48 Dodge. They will honor my grandmother, Maria de Jesus Almanza; my father-in-law, Ysidoro Robles; and the Navarro family.

Q: What kind of importance does Día de los Muertos hold in your own family? And what are your memories of Día de los Muertos, growing up?

A: My mother-in-law, Lilia Hernandez Robles, has been celebrating Día de los Muertos since she was a child, and she’s in her 80s now. I just remember to keep the memories, hardships and struggles of their survival during the wars and poverty, alive.

Q: I understand that there’s also a blessing of the cars?

A: Yes, a priest or friar will come by each car or bike and bless the deceased’s picture with holy water. Then, an Aztec Sahumadora will bring the copal and assist the priest or friar with the copal burning. Each vehicle has a deceased loved one they honor, and the blessing helps them. It’s a beautiful seal of faith and love to bring comfort to the family.

Q: Can you talk a bit about the connection between this kind of work and artistry with cars and Chicano culture?

A: To me, Chicano culture is religion, lowrider cars, art, a style of dressing, music and tradition.

Q: What do you hope people understand and experience as a result of seeing the cars in this year’s show? And from this year’s Día de los Muertos Festival?

A: We hope to educate and spread this beautiful, cultural tradition with new twists and ideas, to bring people of all backgrounds, religions and races together in unity and friendship.

Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.

A: Doing some sort of volunteering through the city or Camp Pendleton.