Oct 16

Latinx Heritage Month: Monarchs and the Mazahua

In the midst of Latinx Heritage Month (September 15 – October 15), the US Fish and Wildlife Service is deliberating whether or not to list the monarch butterfly under the Endangered Species Act. Monarchs have declined by over 80% in the last 20 years. Due to a court order, the Service is required to make a decision about the listing by December, but in this administration, we’re worried it won’t be a happy one for the monarch. 

Monarchs face numerous threats, from extreme weather due to climate change to the liberal use of pesticides, like Monsanto’s RoundUp, to habitat loss and fragmentation. And without intervention, they are at risk of going extinct. 

Monarch butterflies are vitally important as pollinators and to the biodiversity of ecosystems. In addition to their ecological value, their cultural importance is equally as significant. Historical record shows that the monarch played a huge role in ancient civilizations, such as the Toltec, Mayan, Teotihuacan, and Aztec. 

In July of this year, the Endangered Species Coalition teamed up with the Sierra Club, Green Latinos, Ecosistemica, and Mi Universo Mazahua to host a webinar entitled, “Migration is Natural.” View the webinar in its entirety here. 

During that webinar, José Ramos Mateo, educator and creator of Mi Universo Mazahua, spoke about his people, the Mazahua, and the importance of the monarch butterfly to their culture. 

“The Mazahua, we are indigenous people coming from far away, we are the spirit of this land, the sun, the wind, and the fire. We are children born of the love between Jocotitlán and Xinantecátl. We sow word, we cultivate thoughts, we have the privilege of communicating with our people and with non-indigenous society.”- Fausto Guadarrama Lopez, 2019

Monarchs migrate from the US and Canada to the Mazahua territory each year. José explains that in the Mazahua culture, oftentimes “the monarch butterflies are the souls of children who have died and returned. It is very interesting to see that the butterflies start arriving at the sanctuary on the 2nd of November. This is the day that we celebrate the Day of the Dead.”

He continues to tell us how monarchs are the souls of the Mazahua’s ancestors. “The monarchs carry the souls of a relative or a friend for one night and return to the world of the living. They visit us to celebrate the day of the dead,” José says. During the festivities, the Mazahua eat traditional corn foods and set up altars in honor of their ancestors. An orange flower, the cempasúchil, is set out to guide the ancestors and give them a secure path to the alters. And church bells are rung to announce the coming of the dead. 

The Mazahua also welcome the monarchs, their ancestors, with a tray of water, because the monarchs are tired and thirsty from their travels. “They stop, drink water, and continue on with their journey,” says José. 

All this ceremony happens coincidentally on the same day the monarchs arrive. As night falls, candles are lit, small ones for children and large ones for adults, to light a path for the monarchs as they leave and go back to the land of the dead.

The monarch butterflies also have a strong connection to the Mazahua’s agricultural cycle. Many of the Mazahua people work in agriculture, producing maize, beans, chilis, broad beans, and cereals. The arrival of the monarchs coincides with the end of the season. José explains: “The Sun is the creator and giver of life” and the monarchs are the daughters of the Sun. While the Sun is in retreat during the winter months, the butterflies pollinate flowers, fertilize the soil, and decorate the earth. And just as the monarch’s arrival signals the end of the agricultural season, their departure coincides with the preparation of soil and the beginning of Spring- the start of the next agricultural cycle.

José shares many more beautiful stories about monarchs and their importance to the ancient civilizations of Mexico in his presentation during “Migration is Natural”.  We encourage you to check it out!

It is the Mazahua’s way of life to protect the monarch butterflies, their habitats, and even the individual trees that the monarchs call home. To ensure that the butterflies continue to carry the souls of Mazahua ancestors, the US Fish and Wildlife Service must award the monarchs full protections under the Endangered Species Act.

To learn more about the Mazahua, because their story is best heard in their own words, please visit Mi Universo Mazahua and support their efforts to protect their culture and the monarch butterfly, which is one and the same. 

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