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Delicate Balance

Why Monarcas return to Mexico

By Carmen Gray

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In most of the festive Día de los Muertos parades I’ve participated in, including the recent one in Austin, there are colorful skulls known as calaveras that most people identify with this holiday. But in addition, there are elaborate monarch butterfly costumes. Why is that?

I learned so much about this connection in 2018 while visiting the little town of Macheros (pop. 400), a bucolic farming community just two and a half hours outside of Mexico City. In this charming place, I was able to witness the overwintering grounds for monarch butterflies.

The monarch’s arrival in Mexico is simply breathtaking. I’ll never forget the feeling I experienced being surrounded by these ethereal creatures flittering upward into the skies above the forest. Not only do their stunning orange and black colors make them spectacular, they also carry a very strong cultural significance in Mexico. With precise consistency, migrating monarchs arrive in Mexico in the fall, every year. Their arrival coincides with Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), which is observed in Mexico as well as the US  between November 1st and 2nd. Día de los Muertos is a beautiful and poignant celebration of ancestors. Communities gather at gravesites and build altars (ofrendas) with candles, offerings of the favorite food/drink of their deceased loved ones, elaborately decorated sugar skulls, bright orange marigolds (cempasúchil), and photos. This cultural holiday is unique as it helps keep the dead alive. These precious days in November stand as a time when the veil between the living and the dead is lifted, bringing them together once a year, each year.

A special generation of  monarch butterflies manage to find their way over a distance of some 3000 miles each fall from Canada to Mexico (and vice-versa in the spring) without losing their way. Scientists still debate theories of how these special creatures achieve this incredible feat. The monarchs will cluster together, cloistering in oyamel fir (Abies religiosa) trees, drinking water, and occasionally nectaring on local flowers. They remain in Mexico from November to March, and then begin their journey back north. 

In the states of Michoacán and Mexico, these monarchs have a special place in their traditions. Monarchs personify the souls of their ancestors returning to visit them for Día de los Muertos. This belief comes from the Purépecha, as well as the Mazahua, two indigenous peoples of the area. The Purépecha have tracked the monarch’s return to Mexico for centuries. The arrival of the butterfly, known as parakata in Purépecha, meant that it was time for the corn harvest. The parakatas were also believed to be the souls of the dead visiting for the night of Día de los Muertos, according to Professor John Lewis. 

But the monarchs are now (since July 2022) considered an endangered species due to many reasons, including climate change, deforestation and pesticides. Conserving monarchs is vital not only for the preservation of their meaningful cultural ties in Mexico, but also because monarchs are pollinators, and need the same habitats as other pollinators and wildlife. If monarchs are in decline, it parallels trouble for many other pollinators and wildlife, making monarchs the proverbial 'canary in the coal mine’, as they are vibrant and easy to witness as they decline. Endangered monarchs and decreasing pollinators impact human food systems. Providing enough habitat, like milkweed (the only plant they consume as larva) for monarchs, is essential to maintain the delicately balanced food web within the ecosystems that also sustain us.  

What can we do to help conserve this special species? To help monarchs survive migration, we can help provide healthy sustenance along the way. During their migration, monarchs need significant consumption of milkweed nectar to maintain energy reserves that will last them through the overwintering period in the oyamel forest. Planting non-GMO, pesticide-free flowering plants and milkweed for them is a good start. In addition, in Macheros there is a special group of people working together with the goal of bettering their community by providing local citizens with full time employment as educated forest guardians and also reforesting and monitoring the natural reforestation of the oyamel. Visit here to find out more and donate:

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