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Celebrating community, culture on Day of the Dead

OCEANSIDE — Every culture has its own way of celebrating the life of a loved one. In traditional Mexican families, the tradition is known as Dia de los Muertos, or “Day of the Dead.”

The three-day celebration, where families pray for departed relatives and friends and lovingly build “ofrendas” or altars with items they loved in life, takes place from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2. But in Oceanside the celebration starts early, on Oct. 28, at Mission San Luis Rey.

The celebration is beloved in Oceanside, and this year organizers expect the six-hour celebration to host more than 15,000 people.

“This event … once you see it, you just love it,” said Cathy Nykiel, founder and president of the Friends of Oceanside Dia de Los Muertos nonprofit. “Even though you’re sad that (loved ones) are gone … they impacted your life in some way. Because of them we are who we are.”

Skull-face painting is among the many activities at area Day of the Dead events. Photo courtesy of City of Oceanside/U-T

Thousands of people from all over the county will fill the street in front of the mission’s museum, immersing themselves in a vibrant event showcasing more than 80 altars decorated with sweetly scented marigolds to help guide the spirits to the living, along with their favorite food and drink, to fill them up after the journey.

At least 50 of the altars you will see at the mission will be in classic cars. Something Nykiel and the Por Siempre Car Club are incredibly proud of. Picture it — the cars with their trunks propped open — filled with bright gold flowers, photos of loved ones and the food items or things they loved most when alive.

Two years ago the mission was unsure if the tradition would continue, because of the large attendance and costs associated with running the free festival.

That’s when Nykiel and other community members stepped in, starting the Friends of Oceanside Dia de Los Muertos nonprofit.

“I got a bunch of volunteers together and we worked with Dave Mears (of Legendary Events) to run the festival,” said Nykiel, who is also the Sunset Market Manager. “I started the nonprofit because (the festival) costs money … we bring in a big stage, parking, security … all that stuff adds up.”

The goal of the nonprofit is simple: pass on the tradition of life celebrating life.   

“It’s very interesting to see what everyone brings to their altars … favorite movies, favorite drinks and foods,” Nykiel said. “Everybody has a story. We’re all immigrants from all over the world so stories on how the family came here … that’s all fun.”

To sign up for altar space, or to register to volunteer, visit the Dia de Los Muertos website at

See more from local artist James Horvath:

18th annual Oceanside Dia de los Muertos

When: Oct. 28

Time: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Where: Mission San Luis Rey, 4050 Mission Avenue, Oceanside

Cost: Free

Dia de los Muertos around North County

Encinitas Friends of the Arts and the city of Encinitas host the 5th annual Encinitas Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead festival from noon to 4 p.m. Oct. 27 at the Encinitas Community Center. Festival activities include skull-face painting, tissue flowers and sugar skull workshops, artist demonstrations, vendors and food trucks.

Solana Beach will host its annual “Dia de los Muertos – Day of the Dead” event from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 28 at La Colonia Park, 715 Valley Ave., Solana Beach. There will be piñatas for the youngsters, a scavenger hunt, a Catrin/Catrina costume contest, commemorative T-shirts for sale and more.

The Dia de los Muertos Celebration in Carlsbad takes place at the well-known Leo Carrillo Historic Ranch Park, 6200 Flying Leo Carrillo Lane, off Melrose south of Palomar Airport Road on Oct. 28 and Oct. 29.

Vista’s inaugural Dia de los Muertos family festival from noon to 6 p.m. Oct. 29 at historic Rancho Guajome Adobe, 2210 N. Santa Fe. Ave., Vista.  Altars can be built by community members throughout the 22-room adobe ranch house. For more information, call (760) 724-4082 or visit