Discover a piece of false information about monarch butterflies and Mexico’s Indigenous Purépecha community, and why tourism may be partly to blame.
The Big Lie about Monarch Butterflies
Published: March 16, 2021
Arlo Pérez: The problem with misinformation is that you don't realize it's wrong until you've made a complete fool of yourself. That's what happened to me. I've been making a video about the monarch butterflies, the iconic insect that migrates from parts of Canada all the way to Michoacán in Western Mexico, where I grew up. To do so, I'm on my way to meet Teresa Madrigal, a prominent member of the Purépecha, an Indigenous community in the area.
(Translated from Spanish): Hello! Miss Teresa?
I'm interested in speaking with Teresa because I'd always heard that monarchs were incredibly important for the Purépecha.
Maria Teresa Madrigal Martínez: (Translated from Spanish) There are only a few Purépecha kitchens left.
And that the butterfly's yearly return to Michoacán signifies the reincarnation of the Purépechas' ancestors' souls. Unfortunately, Teresa is about to inform me that the story that I've been working on for four months is wrong.
Madrigal Martínez: (Translated from Spanish) I've never seen them. I don't even know them.
Pérez: (Translated from Spanish) And you haven't seen one?
Madrigal Martínez: (Translated from Spanish) No, I don't even know them. Maybe on a painting.
Carlos García Mora: (Translated from Spanish) No, no, no, no, no, no.
Pérez: And she is not the only one.
García Mora: (Translated from Spanish) No. Of course, it is not the monarchs.
Benjamín Lucas Juárez: (Translated from Spanish) The butterflies are not within the Purépecha territory.
García Mora: (Translated from Spanish) Eh, just no.
Pérez: Turns out, this belief belongs to completely different Indigenous communities, including at least two that are closer to the forest where the monarchs winter. But here's the thing: I remember learning about the Purépecha and the monarchs in school only 45 minutes away from here. And I have seen this incorrect piece of information pop up in a bunch of different publications, both from the U.S. and from Mexico.
And that got me thinking, how did this weirdly specific bit of misinformation get propagated?
Juárez: (Translated from Spanish) After the Revolution, Mexico had to rebuild itself as a country.
Pérez: This is Benjamin Lucas Juarez, historian of Purépecha descent, who dedicated his life to studying the Purépecha culture. And he's talking about the 1910 Mexican Revolution.
Juárez: (Translated from Spanish) While trying to build itself as a country, it was important to use symbols that unified the Mexican identity. I'm talking about the pyramids, the Aztecs, the Mayas, as a way to reclaim their past. But also to unify the country's cultural identity into one or two cultures. In other words, one where there are no differences, no Indigenous languages, no different clothing, no different celebrations/
Pérez: Just one unifying Mexican identity. But in a country with over 65 Indigenous communities, and more than 360 languages, this unification would come at the cost of placing few cultures center-stage while pushing everyone else into obscurity.
Madrigal Martínez: (Translated from Spanish) "Don't speak any Purépecha so you can speak Spanish." That's what our teachers would say.
Pérez: And as a result, those cultures become more difficult for historians to study.
David Carballo: We don't have the detail for Purépecha culture, that same level as, say, we do Mayans and the Aztecs.
Pérez: On top of the relative anonymity...
Madrigal Martínez: (Translated from Spanish) Look at my uncle's beautiful mask!
Pérez: and the sparse study of these Indigenous communities...
Madrigal Martínez: (Translated from Spanish) He would dance a lot.
Pérez: many of them pass down their ideas through symbols and unwritten traditions. The problem is, these can end up being misinterpreted by outsiders.
Archival footage #1: Lake Patzcuaro is about 250 miles west of Mexico City.
Pérez: More often than not...
Archival footage #1:The island fishermen live in primitive adobe buildings centuries old.
Pérez: people on the outside have failed to understand the complexity of these traditions, and how they might differ among multiple Indigenous cultures.
Archival footage #1: Most primitive people all over the world stopped using the throwing stick when the bow and arrow was discovered. But here on this beautiful lake in Mexico, it is still used every day.
Pérez: And it is from this outside and uninformed perspective that the misinformation about monarch butterflies might have originated.
Archival footage #2: And so, these are the creations of the magic hands of Mexico.
Carballo: I mean, I think it starts with tourism.
Juárez: (Translated from Spanish) These are the types of mistakes that are made in promoting tourism.
Archival footage #2: These hands are not limited by age or gender. They know only one thing: how to create beauty.
Carlos García Mora: (Translated from Spanish) Often the people who create tourist information are not familiar with the regions they write about. And their touristic propaganda spreads misinformation.
Archival footage #2: Centuries ago, the ancient Maya realized the mesmerizing power of silver.
Carballo: A tourist-focused process, it doesn't care so much about authenticity. It cares about just aggregating imagined realities of those people.
Juárez: (Translated from Spanish) The institutions in charge of promoting tourism take the elements as something they can sell, something that can be exploited.
Archival footage #2: The magic hands of Mexico find beauty in everything. Most of all, in sharing that beauty with you.
Juárez: (Translated from Spanish) And that is what they have promoted. "Come and see the spectacle."
Madrigal Martínez: (Translated from Spanish) Over here, look. My sister, the oldest. She is the one that passed away.
Pérez: This is still happening today. Take the Day of the Dead, "el Dia de los Muertos," as an example. Traditionally, it's a day when family and friends gather to remember those who have died. But over time, it's become a huge spectacle.
And in 2016, Mexico City adopted a yearly Day of the Dead parade, copying a fictitious parade featured in the James Bond film "Spectre". A completely new tradition created by the imagination of foreigners.
Juárez: (Translated from Spanish) This phenomenon of "touristification" is risky because it brings an economic activity that is more profitable than their own tradition, eroding their own cultural elements.
Pérez: Which is why understanding, and ultimately respecting, unique traditions is so important.
So let's get the facts right. The Purépecha do use butterflies as a way to think about the afterlife. But not the monarchs. Theirs are butterflies that are small and white.
Madrigal Martínez: (Translated from Spanish) What I would play with when I was a little girl were little white butterflies. And that they would say was the soul of the children.
Pérez: But it's not just swapping monarchs for white butterflies. It is a completely different and more nuanced way of viewing the dead.
Juárez: (Translated from Spanish) The view the Purépecha have is that people die. But they also believe that their soul, their essence, keeps on living. But not like an abstract entity. But rather their presence can be felt within the fire, within the air...
Pérez: or as butterflies.
Juárez: (Translated from Spanish) These butterflies flutter near where the kids play. The grandparents tell them not to scare them away because they are souls. But this is a communication, a very didactic way of familiarizing children with taking care of nature. For them to understand that souls can be understood this way, as subtle, but as present as though they were butterflies.
Pérez: For the Purépecha, the dead remain constantly present, encountered in nature all around us. To explain this belief, the Purépecha turn to these small white butterflies and other natural phenomena.
Now, misunderstandings aren't exclusive to Mexico. Many would argue that lots of modern communities all around the world have their own misconceptions about Indigenous cultures. But that in itself just raises the question. How many more of these cultural misconceptions are out there and what can we do to prevent them?
Carballo: By including indigenous voices today in understanding the deep history of the Americas, we get not only a more accurate understanding but one that reflects all of the diversity and the different perspectives of native peoples who've inhabited this hemisphere for thousands of years.
Madrigal Martínez: (Translated from Spanish) Without our customs, our community would be dead. We have many beautiful things in our little communities. Many, many beautiful things. It's an honor being Purépecha.
Digital Producer: Arlo Pérez Esquivel
Production Assistance: Hannah Gotwals, Robin Kazmier, Christina Monnen, Amanda Willis
Timothy James Buckley
Academic Film Archive of North America
Archival: Shutterstock, Storyblocks
© WGBH Educational Foundation 2021