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Close-up of a monarch butterfly on fallen brown pine needles. Its wings are orange, outlined in black, with white spots.

Photo by Alejandro Ruiz

  • Winged Messengers: How Monarch Butterflies Connect Culture and Conservation in Mexico

    Every year at the beginning of November, Mexico is set alight with the sights, smells and sounds of its Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations. The holiday is one of remembrance and reunion: stories of loved ones are shared over pan de muertos (traditional sweet bread), and families gather by candlelight to arrange ofrendas (offerings) to the dead. Heavy fragrances of marigold and copal incense fill the air, coaxing the souls of ancestors back to the world of the living.

    This year, one of the holiday’s many symbolic faces will return with a new urgency: the monarch butterfly, whose lifespan expresses a different sort of tradition.

    Each fall, like clockwork, clouds of monarchs descend upon the highland forests of central Mexico. Their arrival marks the finish line of a 3,000-mile journey: once in a lifetime, the butterflies fly south from their summer breeding grounds in Canada and the United States and return to the same oyamel fir forests as generations before them.

    Millions of fluttering orange wings blanket the forest, enveloping the branches that will shelter them throughout the winter months to come. How the monarch’s internal compass navigates them, generation after generation, to the same overwintering site is not entirely understood. To add to the mystique, the annual migration coincides with the Day of the Dead celebrations.

    For all their intrigue, monarchs are now an endangered species. The butterfly was added to the IUCN’s Red List in July 2022 following an estimated population decline of nearly eighty percent since the mid-1990s. Monarchs face the same threats that endanger all biodiversity: a cumulative mix of climate change, environmental pollution, and habitat destruction. But for Mexico, conservation of the nationally iconic species has both cultural and environmental gravity.

    A single orange monarch drinking from a small yellow flowers on a leafy green bush.
    Photo by Alejandro Ruiz
    A tall tree, its branches covered in swarms of orange butterflies, appearing like leaves.
    Monarchs blanket the highland forests of Michoacán, Mexico.
    Photo by Alejandro Ruiz

    Indigenous forest communities of central Mexico—the Purépecha of Michoacán and the Mazahua of Estado de México—revere the monarchs. According to pre-Hispanic folklore, the migrating butterflies carried the souls of ancestors visiting from the afterlife. For centuries, Mexico’s monarchs have served as a powerful cultural symbol of connecting the living to the dead.

    “All of Mexico’s Indigenous people thought of the monarchs as sacred in some way,” artist and educator Noemi Hernandez-Balcazar explained over Zoom. “You can see them in Aztec paintings and stone carvings, represented in the way Egyptians would depict cats.”

    Day of the Dead traditions are today a syncretic blend of the celebration’s pre-Hispanic origins and Catholic elements. The monarch’s original spiritual symbolism, though, is still very much intact. Decorated ofrenda home altars to the dead often include monarch imagery nestled between candles, calaveras (sugar skulls), and cempasuchil (marigold flowers). Elsewhere, during the festivities, the butterfly’s presence is felt through the steps of dancers in monarch-inspired costumes that echo the insect’s delicate movements. Songs reference the monarch in their lyrics.

    “There was an understanding that you didn’t mistreat a monarch, because they contained a soul within them,” Hernandez-Balcazar told me, speaking from memory of her childhood in Mexico City. “You had to be extremely respectful.”

    Hernandez-Balcazar used the Spanish word arraigado (deep-rooted) to describe the beliefs woven in Mexico’s cultural imagination. “En México, somos muy arraigados,” she laughed, bouncing between Spanish and English. “We respect a higher power, whether you want to call it nature, God, or gods. So when it comes to animals that have a special meaning, we are very respectful.”

    *****

    In the highlands of Michoacán, a state along Mexico’s Pacific coast, the monarch’s symbolic resonance is especially deep-rooted. Home to one of the species’ most important pilgrimage sites—the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve—the region has become a focal point for conservation efforts. In 1997, nonprofit organization Forests for Monarchs was established with the goal of reforesting land in and around the reserve.

    “Michoacán is one of the places in the country that has the biggest Day of the Dead celebrations,” founder Jose Luis Alvarez Alcalá explained. “People come from all over the world to see them. The butterflies definitely play a big role. There’s a lot of mysticism around them, a lot of stories.”

    Local Purépecha legend teaches that the butterflies carry the spirits of warriors and that the flapping of their wings relays messages from the afterlife. “If you hear the noise they’re making with their wings, it’s beautiful,” Alvarez told me. “When you’re surrounded by millions of butterflies, and you’re looking at the spectacle of them hanging in the trees, or flying around you, it’s a very magical feeling. It’s like being in a holy place.”

    The rise of unsustainable logging in the region fractured locals’ relationship to surrounding forests and the biodiversity they once sustained. Monarch overwintering sites, which once encompassed over fifty acres in Michoacán, dwindled to as few as five. When Alvarez began the nonprofit with the help of renowned butterfly scientist Lincoln Brower, the surrounding landscape was hardly recognizable.

    “The mountains were completely clear cut,” he recalled. “There was nothing there, just little plots used to grow oats or corn.” Alvarez, who had run his own tree nursery elsewhere in Michoacán, near Pátzcuaro, resolved to help the community restore the degraded land back to forest habitat. “I convinced people to stop growing corn and oats, which did very badly, and to plant these trees instead. That was the start of it.”

    A forested hillside, with a clearing and a road cutting through the middle.
    Ongoing reforestation in the Highland Lakes watershed area in Michoacán, Mexico
    Photo by Alejandro Ruiz
    A young girl holds plant saplings in both hands.
    Surrounding communities assist in planting tree seedlings with Forests for Monarchs.
    Photo by Alejandro Ruiz
    Two men, one with a machete, appear to clear debris in a forest.
    Surrounding communities assist in planting tree seedlings with Forests for Monarchs.
    Photo by Alejandro Ruiz
    An older man in jeans and red button-down shirt, with graying crew cut and mustache, kneels on the ground, patting down a patch of freshly turned earth.
    Founder Jose Luis Alvarez Alcalá plants a seedling.
    Photo by Alejandro Ruiz

    Michoacán’s restored forest buffers have helped secure safe overwintering sites for the monarchs, but they have also created alternative revenues for neighboring communities through the sustainable tourism they attract. As communities return to responsible forest stewardship, a new kind of harmony has blossomed.

    “I’ve noticed communities are taking very good care of the forest. They’re realizing the economic benefits that monarchs can bring.” Today, locals have become more interested and involved in Alvarez’s tree nursery, and demand for seedlings is high. “If I produce 1 million, I’ll have people who want 2 million,” he laughed.

    The program’s education initiatives earned Alvarez the Smithsonian Magazine and U.S. Tour Operators Association Conservation Award in 2002. Through the nonprofit’s ecotours, visitors have the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the monarchs’ story and its place in Mexico’s cultural imagination.

    With donations from supporters across North America and the help of local farmers, Forests for Monarchs has been able to plant over 10 million trees. “It’s been a great ride,” Alvarez said.

    *****

    Mexico’s forest conservation efforts are encouraging, but more is needed to protect the monarchs’ long-term survival. Along their migratory route to Mexico, the butterflies rely on milkweed—where they lay their eggs—and nectar plants across Canada and the United States. But with herbicide use and habitat destruction, milkweed is on the decline.

    Hernandez-Balcazar uses her platform as an educator in Salt Lake City to share her first-hand knowledge of monarch butterflies’ place in Day of the Dead traditions and advocate for their protection. Through her collaboration with West Valley Arts, she designs arts-integrated curricula and training workshops for educators across the United States that tie together strands of cultural and environmental activism in conversations surrounding Day of the Dead.

    “We need to educate our young people,” she urged. “People usually think someone else will take care of the problem. The same goes for our cultures, our languages, our traditions. If you expect someone else to be protecting them, nobody is going to do it.”

    Her efforts are indicative of a wider revival. Pop culture has embraced Day of the Dead, with movies like Disney’s Coco attracting international attention. The celebrations once reserved for rural towns have spread to Mexico's urban centers and beyond. But while this rise in recognition could be a step toward reconnecting with ancestral traditions as a means of realigning with the natural world, there is a delicate balance between celebration and commercialization. For Hernandez-Balcazar and educators like her, sharing the tradition’s rich history and keeping integrity at the heart of celebrations is a continued mission.

    *****

    Two adults and a child work outdoors, planting or digging up young trees.
    Photo by Alejandro Ruiz
    A man in a blue and red Rakuten jersey, the collar cut to reveal his chest, walks along a hillside, walking stick in hand.
    Photo by Alejandro Ruiz
    A man with green shirt and pink overshirt, wide-brimmed hat in hand, throws one up toward the gray sky.
    Photo by Alejandro Ruiz
    Several people fill the back of a flatbed truck with tree saplings, their roots wrapped in plastic.
    Seedlings are transported for reforestation.
    Photo by Alejandro Ruiz

    Revisiting the beliefs that ground us to the natural world emboldens our connections to keystone species like the monarch. The butterfly’s symbolic resonance has helped to mobilize local and international communities alike in doing their part for nature.

    “People are motivated by them,” Alvarez said. “They make this huge trip, traveling thousands of miles just to ensure their species. That’s part of the magic. It’s what makes people fall in love with them. They fight to continue. And I think they will continue.”

    Considering his twenty-four years of working closely with the monarchs and their neighboring communities, Alvarez’s outlook is reassuring. When I asked what the future might hold, his response was calm.

    “The monarchs have been making this trip from Canada to Mexico since the last ice age. The species is so intelligent. They will adapt. I don’t think they will ever just disappear.”

    After all, Alvarez reflected, “It was them that chose me. It seemed like they were looking for someone to do this.”

    Conversations surrounding monarch protection unite systems of knowledge. They remind us of the rootedness between who we are and what we are a part of, and reveal how the rippling loss of a species can reverberate through the stories that underpin our cultural identities. Inversely, reconnecting with these stories opens us up to the wisdom of the natural world.

    “The monarchs teach us to respect nature, to respect the forest, and to respect biodiversity,” Alvarez reflected, as our conversation drew to a close. “Everyone has a right to live on this planet.”

    About ten orange monarchs on the yellow flowers of a bush, in front of a brilliant clear blue sky.
    Photo by Alejandro Ruiz

    Tia Merotto is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She graduated from the University of St Andrews with a degree in art history and English.

    Alejandro Ruiz is a freelance street and documentary photographer based in Mexico whose work explores the differences that bring us together. Find him on Instagram @ruizalejandrox.


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