In Chicago, hundreds of Mexican-American families are growing monarch butterflies, watching a caterpillar ball up into a green chrysalis, then morph into a flashy orange insect.
They know that, by September, monarchs will launch their 3,000-mile journey to Mexico.
“They feel they are sending gifts back home,” Mike Rizo says of the families.
In turn, he feels like he’s sending messages back to the people in Mexico like: “Don’t throw trash or motor oil in the waterways.”
“We’re concerned about the whole ecosystem, not just one butterfly,” says Rizo, a program officer with the U.S. Forest Service’s international programs in Chicago, ackowledging that Mexicans will listen to a relative far more readily than they would a government official.
In Mexico, many cultures see the critters’ return as the souls of their ancestors, arriving around late October for huge celebrations to mark Day of the Dead, when locals adorn graves and altars to welcome and nourish their relatives. Culturally, it goes deeper, with monarchs embedded in indigenous art and rituals in both countries.
Rizo was well aware of this. Born in Chicago to a Mexican father, he’d often traveled to Mexico to see his grandparents in the state of Michoacan, home to the high-mountain forest preserves where monarchs congregate by the millions for the winter, which his relatives would visit. In fact, Michoacan’s soccer team is the Monarcas (monarchs), and you’ll see the monarch’s image on ice cream shops, on taxis, on license plates and art.
So, about 15 years ago as the forest service expanded its urban programs, Rizo suggested an outreach that would link the monarchs’ journey, their declining numbers, the culture and the critical need for native milkweed, which is the only plant on which the monarchs will lay their eggs. After all, Chicago had the second largest population of Mexicans. And after all, a failure in ecosystems on one side of the border will affect the other side.
“If you invest in a forest, but the butterfly doesn’t return, you lose your investment,” he says, noting that Mexican and U.S. forestry services have cooperated over the decades in how they manage trees and fires.
Community centers, museums and schools “led the charge.” Now, he says more than 1,000 kids dress up each year as monarchs and caterpillars for Dia del Niño (Day of the Child) parades on April 30, launching a season of bilingual education about conservation for families. Similar programs have flourished in places such as Minneapolis, Dallas, San Antonio and Springdale, Ark.
Apart from that, monarchs appear in Chicago murals. They sometimes have cropped up in art exhibits for the University of Notre Dame’s annual Day of the Dead celebrations, too.
Maria Tomasula, a Notre Dame professor of art whose family is from Mexico but who grew up in East Chicago, Ind., can’t point to any childhood tale of the species.
“I think they were so pervasive that I learned their significance through a kind of cultural osmosis,” she says. “Somehow I knew they all flew to Mexico and were one of the elements associated with the Day of the Dead, as are marigolds, creating altars to one’s beloved dead and sugar skulls. It’s a wonderful tradition that allows for collective remembrance and creates a different relationship to the idea of death than the one we have in the US.”
More recently, the monarch has become a symbol of Latin American migrants, especially the “Dreamers” who are protected by DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
One of them, Jose Chiquito Galvan, moved with his family from the Mexican state of Aguascalientes to the U.S. when he was 3. Freshly graduated from Goshen College with a degree in sustainability, he now works a job coordinating interns at Notre Dame’s Center for Civic Innovation.
“We are trying to preserve human lives and livelihood,” he says of the butterfly’s symbolism, noting a push to allow people to freely cross borders so they can live with family and work. Like the monarch, he says, “We are from both here and there.”
Early on, Chiquito Galvan was like a lot of folks of Mexican descent who don’t have any connection to this insect. Granted, there are lots of cultures within Mexico, each with a different story and symbolism.
He says he didn’t learn about the cultural importance of monarchs when he was growing up and didn’t really dig into their ecological importance until he was in college. But the garden he started at his parents’ house in Goshen as a high school freshman, which he still tends, has since filled with milkweed, too. And his family’s awareness has grown. Now his dad knows he should avoid mowing the milkweed. His younger siblings share photos of the garden when their brother isn’t around. And the family suggests flowers “so the monarchs can grow.”
This time last year, Chiquito Galvan says, he found 30 caterpillars in his garden, 10 of which would form a chrysalis to become a monarch. This year, though, he’s seen a couple of monarchs but no caterpillars.
Doug Taron, who has coordinated a survey of butterflies in Illinois and northwest Indiana for more than 30 years, says he doesn’t have any data yet to say if the monarch populations are up or down. But, just from the monarchs he’s seen in Chicago, where he’s chief curator of the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, it seems a middle-of-the-road summer so far.
This isn’t the generation that will migrate south this September. It likely will be one or two generations from now as the butterflies mate and reproduce and live for 2-3 weeks, Taron says. As with birds, he says, shortened hours of daylight will send a signal to the monarchs, telling them to leave. That generation will live longer, making the flight to Mexico, where they’ll spend the winter, then reproduce, and a succession of generations will fly north, stop and reproduce until they land in the Midwest.
Before the local generation goes south, Rizo says, they’ll hunt for lots of nectar on wildflowers so they can “bulk up” for the journey. And since many of the milkweed blossoms will have petered out by then, the Chicago programs distribute milkweed seeds that are mixed with seeds of native wildflowers like blazing stars, a showy favorite. They feed other pollinating insects like bees that our crops need to grow.
“They’re conversation starters,” he says. “Everyone feels ownership of the monarchs.”