As Rebekah Sitty approached the corner of Harrison and 26th streets in the Mission, a 12-foot tall rainbow welcomed her into the Day of the Dead altar festival.
Sitty, who was joined by her partner and her two-year-old son on Wednesday night, has been coming to the celebration for 25 years. The first feelings that hit her were happiness and a sense of inclusion. Then she realized what the arch, constructed with PVC pipe and paper flowers, represented: the 49 lives taken, most of them Latino, most of them gay, at Pulse nightclub in Orlando.
“It makes me think about how I’ll have to explain that to our son someday,” Sitty said, referring to the June 12 shooting.
With her son by her side, Sitty lit a candle – decorated with a photo of one of the Pulse victims – and walked beneath the rainbow.
The altar was created by longtime San Francisco resident Carlos Wilson and designer Lanz Brooks. After Omar Mateen’s attack on the Orlando gay club, the LGBTQ community awoke to the remaining perils of simply being themselves, Wilson said.
“It really impacted me and activated me,” said Wilson, who is gay. “And I’m surprised it hasn’t activated more people.”
He was disappointed by how fast the wave of indignation deflated.
Wilson didn’t want the memories of those who died in Orlando to fade. So he decided to erect a bridge of brightly colored paper flowers, meant to mimic a rainbow, for the Day of the Dead festival year. The altar features one candle – a traditional veladora – for each of the Orlando shooting victims.
As Wilson placed candles on the altar that others had lit, he stopped to consider what the moment meant to him.
“I feel like catharsis is finally hitting me,” he said. “I don’t feel alone anymore.”
By nature, Dia de Los Muertos is an emotional holiday. But the rainbow moved those who came upon it, especially Latinos and the LGBTQ community.
For Wilson, an Ohio native of Guatemalan descent, the altar allowed him to unite the struggles of the two communities under one flag.
“These two communities have points of shared mourning around the Orlando losses,” he said. “Marginalized communities are not as divided as we think we are.”
Wilson’s empathy toward a community where “people are seen as targets” went as far as to advocate for a 50th candle for the altar: Omar Mateen’s. Information released by investigators has indicated that Mateen may have been gay.
“The shooting itself was a product of homophobia and religious culture,” Wilson said.
“He’s a victim as much as we are, if not more.”
Cari Lee of Alameda understands what it means to be a member of a targeted community. As she walked beneath the rainbow clutching her girlfriend’s hand, she was grateful that the victims were being honored, she said. But it was also a reminder of their vulnerability. That could have been them.
“We have a lot more work to do as a culture,” Lee said.
Jay Zaloum, an activist who helped create the altar, noted that the gay community began to feel more secure in recent years, especially with the approval of same-sex marriage.
“Not that long ago, security in gay clubs used to be tight, and you didn’t get in without a password, and we would have security in the parking lot,” he said. “We became too safe.”
The altar also impacted passerby concerned with gun control, and how the lack thereof could affect those they love.
After lighting his candle, Mission resident Berne Fitzpatrick stared at the photo pasted onto it. It was of Anthony Luis Laureano Disla, who moved to Orlando to pursue dancing and choreography three years ago. He was 25 when he was killed.
“Actually lighting a candle and just looking into the eyes of that person … “ Fitzpatrick trailed off, his eyes filled with tears.
“Growing up in the area, I had so many gay friends and family,” he went on, after taking a moment to collect his thoughts. “It’s personal wherever you are, but especially here. It could have happened here.”