Every year as November nears, a transformation of sorts takes place in San Francisco’s Latino Cultural District. 

All along 24th Street, window displays are adorned with ofrendas, street vendors peddle bright orange bouquets of cempasúchil, and panaderias add Pan de Muerto to their roster of baked treats. 

All of this — leading up to this year’s 42nd annual San Francisco Día de los Muertos procession on Nov. 2 in the Mission District — is done in the resilient spirit of celebrating our dead. 

It’s an act of defiance. How else could an indigenous Mesoamerican holiday survive Spanish invasion, conquest, forced religious conversion and genocide?

But in the Mission, commemorating nuestros muertos is more than just a day to cosplay. It’s an act of political solidarity. And we can’t talk about political solidarity without making space for Palestine. 

As this year’s Día de Muertos coincides with the mass killing of Palestinians at the hand of the state of Israel, community organizers in the Mission are holding space for Palestinians to honor their deceased loved one. Photos: Pablo Unzueta

More than 8,000 Palestinians have been killed since Oct. 7, the day Hamas militants attacked and killed 1,400 Israelis. The images of entire neighborhoods devastated by bombs and rockets, and the lifeless bodies of Palestinian children pulled from rubble have caused international outrage. Protests have erupted in numerous cities across the globe, demanding a ceasefire on Gaza, which Israel has bombarded with daily airstrikes for nearly three weeks, killing innocent men, women and children. 

And while world leaders and elected officials cheered and justified the death of thousands of Palestinians — our own president has not only vowed unconditional military and moral support for Israel but has doubted the accuracy of Palestinian casualties and has dismissed the deaths of civilians as “the price of waging a war” — ordinary people in San Francisco are tapping into the solidarity which for decades has defined Día de Muertos. 

Lucía Ippolito, a born-and-raised Mission District artist, muralist, teacher and community organizer, took to social media on Oct. 18, posting an open call to artists and community members to participate in a Vigil for Gaza and to create altars specifically honoring Palestinians who have been killed. Those altars are planned to be showcased in the Mission sacred space that is Balmy Alley on Nov. 2. 

“Balmy Alley, historically, since the 70s has been a location where artists can stand up against oppression and speak out against U.S. involvement in wars in Central America,” Ippolito said, referring to the alley’s sprawling murals commemorating the Salvadoran Civil War, the Women’s Liberation Movement, neighborhood gentrification and more. The alley is one of the many in the Mission that gets activated for Day of the Dead, and the political roots of the Day of the Dead precession run deep. 

When Ronald Reagan ignored the AIDS epidemic, Mission activists and artists such as Juan Pablo Gutierrez and René Yañez created and showcased altars for gay Latinos who died of AIDS. When police killed unarmed Black and Brown folks with impunity, their photos were featured on altars. When local politicians enacted policies that accelerated gentrification in San Francisco, Día de los Muertos was a place to mourn the exodus of thousands of working-class families. 

“Since the 70s and 80s in the United States, Día de los Muertos has changed. It’s not just honoring our ancestors, it’s also a very politicized event,” Ippolito said. “We’ve included many different communities. I think that was really my inspiration for wanting to include this particular Día de los Muertos focusing on Gaza victims in Palestine. And what is happening, while no, it’s not new, we have seen it in the past. And Palestinians have been experiencing this occupation for 75 years and Gaza has been under siege for 16 years.”

Ippolito’s open spontaneous and grassroots call has caught the attention of locals who will create altars on Nov. 2. 

“I want my son to be proud of who he is,” said Yenia Jimenez, a poet, community advocate, and author, who will be building an altar in Balmy Alley with her son, who is half Latino, and half Palestinian. “Even my own family went through colonization. I think about all of that. That’s basically what is happening to our Palestinian folks right now.”

Jimenez with her son have begun collecting Palestinian flowers, olive branches, and treats like Kunafa to include on their altar, as well as her original art. For Jimenez, the altar isn’t just a celebration of cultures, but an opportunity to continue her son’s education in activism and solidarity. 

“It starts now, you have to plant those seeds early, letting them understand what everything means. I remember as a kid going to George Washington Carver in Hunters Point, I remember going to the marches, I remember going to protests, I remember when we went and stood on the Naval shipyard with our masks on, ” Jimenez said. “I want to pass the baton. Now it’s your generation.” 

Seham Steyteyieh, a 20-year-old full-time student at USF who is the American-born daughter of displaced Palestinians, will also build an altar in Balmy Alley, honoring her grandparents, aunt and uncle who were killed in a 1978 Israeli bombing in Lebanon after they were displaced from Palestine. Her mother was the family’s sole survivor after being buried under rubble for three days.

“It’s just in me, it’s my duty. I have to do this. I have a privilege. I have to speak out. They didn’t have this opportunity to come speak about this. So I have to be their voice,” Steyteyieh said. “I’m so powered by my ancestors and I know the power it is to connect with them … I’ll never not speak out about Palestine. You know that that’s common between all Palestinians.”

Living with her two Latina roommates, Steyteyieh has been diligently making paper marigolds, collecting family photos and making original art for her altar on Nov. 2. 

“I’m really excited because that’s the thing, we lead our trail to our ancestors, so they can come and we can be closer to them than we’ve ever been on that day,” Steyteyieh said.

But while folks in the community support the event, there has been backlash. 

Since posting the callout, Ippolito has received messages from Zionists unhappy with the event, and from gentrifying neighbors. But she’s also received messages from people who argue that Día de Muertos should be “traditional,” and not include altars for Palestinians. 

To that, Ippolito has a simple response. 

“This is a very indigenous holiday in Mexico and it changed with the arrival of the Spanish and then changed with the forcing of religion right, but still remained traditional to celebrating our ancestors. Which is very indigenous. In my opinion, Palestinians are also indigenous and also honor their ancestors.”

More than 20,000 people marched in solidarity with Palestine throughout San Francisco on Saturday, Oct. 28, according to Wassim Hage, an outreach coordinator for the Arab Resource & Organizing Center, amid the escalating violence that Israel is inflicting on Palestinians. Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s far-right Prime Minister, called Israel’s aggression “the second stage of the war.” Between October 7 and Nov. 1, more than 8,000 Palestinians have been killed from Israel’s relentless bombardment on Gaza, and more casualties are expected to rise. Millions of demonstrators have held rallies across the world calling for a ceasefire to prevent further atrocities, in what many are calling a genocide against Palestinians. Photos: Pablo Unzueta for El Tecolote/CatchLight Local