Our beautiful Day of the Dead ofrenda is up at UMB and you may have noticed that this year it is full of not only skulls, bright colors, and marigold flowers, but also monarch butterflies. Even the masks we decorated at last Friday’s craft and movie night have monarchs on them. So you may be wondering about the connection between Day of the Dead and monarch butterflies.
Each year between October and November some 300 million monarch butterflies leave their homes in the Midwest and the northern United States and Canada to travel nearly 3,000 miles to winter in the pine forests of Michoacán, a state in west-central Mexico. These forests contain everything the butterflies need to survive the winter and to reproduce—a warmer climate, plenty of water sources, and quiet.
Because the monarchs’ arrival in Michoacán coincides with the ancient celebration of the Days of the Dead, the indigenous Mesoamerican cultures came to believe that the monarchs embodied the souls of their loved ones who had come back to visit their families during this time. This is why monarch butterflies can be found in so much of the folk art of Día de Muertos, making it even more vibrant, beautiful, and compelling.
I find a deep symbolism in the fact that the monarch butterflies have been migrating from Canada and the United States to Mexico for thousands of years, long before these regions were divided into countries and nationalities. Scientists cannot explain how the butterflies know where to go or how to get there, but they do. It’s part of the beautiful mystery of nature and of life. But these monarchs migrate each year because it is what they must do—in order to be safe, to reproduce, and to ensure future generations. The monarchs do not know of national borders or of immigration policies. They just go where they have always gone because it is what they need to do to survive.
The migration of the monarchs can serve as a striking metaphor to awaken us to the fact that our Earth truly has no borders, that all of life is inextricably linked, and that all of us—Americans, Canadians, Mexicans, pine trees, and monarchs are deeply connected, all part of the beautiful and mysterious web of life.
If you’d like to see a short video (4 min) by National Geographic about monarchs and Day of the Dead, you can find it here: https://youtu.be/sMs-lCaTKoE. If you’d like to learn more about the migration of the monarch butterflies to Mexico, check out this 7-min video: https://youtu.be/mXc1ZeRlOe0.