For hundreds of years, as Day of the Dead celebrations begin, the blue skies of the State of Michoacán and the State of México are painted with bright orange, black and white kaleidoscopes. This change in colors signals the arrival of the beloved monarchs after a long journey south from their summer breeding areas in the U.S. and Canada.
Call it coincidence, fate, or just nature and species survival traits, but the arrival of these high-spirited insects to their overwintering sites has miraculously connected them with one of the most important celebrations of contemporary Mexican culture: The Day of the Dead.
According to contemporary Mexican traditions, every year the gates of the “afterlife” open at midnight on October 31st, and the souls of beloved departed children arrive to visit their families on November 1st. Then, on November 2nd, it is the turn for the souls of adult relatives to visit.
The native communities within and nearby the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve include the monarchs in their Day of the Dead celebrations. To many of them, the monarchs are the souls of the beloved, deceased family members who returned home from the spiritual world, in time to participate in the earthly celebration.
Families prepare a great event to honor and welcome their beloved departed: It is a coming together of everyone, the dead and the living relatives. This connection shows the powerful impact that monarchs can have to shape our identities, traditions, and culture.
The link between butterflies and the Day of the Dead
Butterflies have symbolized and shaped diverse beliefs among many indigenous groups in México and other ancient cultures in the world. Archeological records indicate that Aztecs venerated butterflies and considered them the souls of warriors who perished battling. Butterflies were represented in their codices and engraved work.
Members of the Purépecha, an indigenous group from Michoacán, and the Mazahuas, from the State of México, believed that butterflies were “the spirit of the forest and the souls of the departed.” But it seems that initially, this belief was linked to little, white butterflies. And some archeologists assume that these beliefs have pre-Hispanic roots.
A mix of cultures reshapes the Day of the Dead
European and pre-Columbian cultural traditions like the Aztecs gave birth to contemporary Mexican Culture and the diversity of celebrations around the Day of the Dead. Throughout a whole summer month, Aztecs held festivities and rituals to honor death which was considered a natural part of the cycle of life. The rituals included making offerings to their deceased ancestors and burning incense. After the Aztec-Spanish war (1519-1521), the Spaniards moved this Aztec celebration to November to match it with the All Hallows and All the Faithful Departed commemoration dates, a Catholic and other Christian denominations’ day of observance. Around the world, this celebration takes different shapes and includes elements rooted in each culture and family.
Today, most Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations include an offering, also called an altar, placed within the premises of the family home. Businesses, communities, and associations may also set up offerings to mark the festivity. In general, offerings include a picture of the deceased relatives and friends, candles to offer light to the visiting souls, and marigold flowers, also called the “flower of the dead”, to guide them back to their earth home with their bright color and pleasant smell, water to quench their thirst, colorful sugar skulls as a playful reminder that death is always present, traditional foods including “bread of the dead” as well as other items the dead enjoyed while living. And lately, monarchs are more present than ever in many offerings and Day of the Dead decorations.
Butterflies loomed large in the Mesoamerican imagination, but no direct evidence yet exists that the event of the monarch migration itself was significant to ancient central Mexicans […] After the Spanish conquest, the idea of a link between the souls of the dead and butterflies in Indigenous cultures of central México faded. But in the past decade, monarch butterfly imagery has resurfaced in celebrations of the Day of the Dead.
Eric A. Powell, editor of Archaeology (2022)
Traditions reshape but are still rooted in our care for Nature
We live in a multicultural, diverse world. More than ever people have countless opportunities to share their traditions and thus constantly reshape them. In the case of the Day of the Dead, however, the fundamental concept remains. It is a celebration of life and manifests in different ways depending on the community, the family, and the culture that performs the festivities. Day of the Dead in México City, where there has been a great parade since 2016 may be very different than in a community in Michoacán where people spend the night at the cemetery visiting the graves of their family members.
Through this evolution of cultures and newer influences like the mass media, social media, and globalization, monarchs have intertwined themselves in aspects of our society, economy, and most importantly, in the conservation of all pollinators and the preservation of the land.
The inexplicable power of monarchs has inspired many of us in various ways, making them an iconic symbol of strength, resilience, transformation, preservation, and hope. Understanding our roots and the transformation of our cultures is key to our identities. Thus, we continue to reflect on the deep connection that monarchs have with humans, culture, and traditions.
Monarch conservation through our traditions
Like many other pollinator species, the monarch is facing a dire situation, and its migratory population has drastically declined in the last two decades—with some mild recoveries in the last two years—causing great concern among monarch conservation experts. Just as the monarch transforms through its metamorphosis, communities around the monarch sanctuaries in México and across the United States and Canada are transforming their lifestyle and practices to preserve the species and its native habitats.
Nowadays, in México, the Day of the Dead celebration and the arrival of the monarch butterfly translate into conservation projects for the region. The monarchs shared the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve forest with indigenous communities whose only source of income, before the declaration of the Reserve, were the fir trees, pines, and oyamel trees used to create commercial wood. The locals—who are communal land owners—experience the emotive presence of the monarch every year and are now dedicated to protecting and preserving the forest where the monarchs arrive to spend the winter. Also, many visitors from all over the world visit the Reserve to watch the magnificence of the monarchs overwintering, and can as well enjoy the festivities of the Day of the Dead.
As we continue to implement monarch conservation strategies in the U.S. and Canada, the monarch overwintering grounds must also be protected and sustainably managed. The “Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve Management Program” seeks to conserve the pine-mixed oyamel forest, and also incorporates community development and cultural elements.
The connection between our traditions, culture, and the monarch butterfly is a great opportunity to uplift our efforts to conserve and protect the butterfly. Now deeply rooted in our traditions, the monarch deserves that we take care of its habitats, that we advocate and speak for it, and that we ask others to help us conserve this amazing creature that has contributed to our lives in so many ways. The deep, emotional connection that many of us have with the monarch might be beyond words, and it makes us care for its survival as a species. During these days of celebration, let’s inspire others too to care for the monarch.