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Monarchs and Día de Muertos in Mexico

Nov 02, 2020


  • Migration

After having the pleasure of witnessing the eastern population of monarchs migrating south over the past few months, you may be asking what’s next for these enchanting butterflies? The short answer is that monarchs are arriving at their overwintering grounds in the mountains of central Mexico. While in their overwintering colonies, they will cluster together, coating oyamel fir (Abies religiosa) trees, drinking water, and occasionally nectaring on local flowers. They will remain in Mexico from November to March, and then begin their journey north. 

The monarch’s arrival in Mexico is a breathtaking phenomenon that also carries strong cultural significance. Like clockwork, migrating monarchs arrive in Mexico the same time of year, every year. Their arrival coincides with Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead), which is observed in Mexican culture between November 1st and 2nd (Fernandez, 2017). Día de Muertos is a celebration of the deceased. Families and friends gather at gravesites of their ancestors and loved ones. There, they build them altars with photos, offerings, ornate sugar skulls, bright orange marigolds, and candles. The living then share refreshments and stories to celebrate the lives of their friends and ancestors that have passed. This holiday serves as a way to keep the dead alive in the hearts and memories of the living (Chavez, 2019).  

For people in the state of Michoacán and the State of Mexico, monarchs hold a special place in their traditions. Monarchs represent the souls of their ancestors returning to visit them for Día de Muertos. This belief comes from the Purépecha, as well as the Mazahua, two indigenous peoples of the area (Fernandez, 2017; National Geographic en Español, 2018). The Purépecha have tracked the monarch’s return to Mexico for centuries. The arrival of the butterfly, known as la parakata in Purépecha, meant that it was time for the corn harvest. The parakatas were also believed to be the souls of the dead visiting for the night of Día de Muertos (Lewis, 2019). The swaths of captivating monarchs flying overhead have continued to be an important connection between the living and the dead. 

Conserving monarchs is important for the preservation of their meaningful cultural ties in Mexico. To help monarchs survive the migration to the overwintering grounds in Mexico, it is extremely important to provide habitat along the way. During their migration, monarchs require significant consumption of nectar to build lipid (energy) reserves that will need to last them through the overwintering period in the oyamel forest. To support migrating monarchs, please plant flowering plants for them to nectar from as they fly south. This will help sustain the monarch migration into perpetuity and ensure that people in Michoacán and the State of Mexico can continue to celebrate the return of their deceased loved ones through the annual arrival of monarch butterflies.

To learn more about monarch conservation in Mexico, check out the recording of our October 27, 2020 webinar, “Monarch Conservation in Mexico." In this webinar, presenters Eligio García Serrano from Fondo Monarca and Eduardo Rendón Salinas from World Wildlife Fund México share about the work being done to protect and conserve monarchs and their overwintering sites within the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve (MBBR). You can find archived webinars on MJV’s website, located here.

To find a list of monarch-friendly flowering plants native to your area, please visit the Xerces Society’s Monarch Nectar Plant Guides webpage.


The Monarch Joint Venture is a national partnership of federal and state agencies, non-governmental organizations, businesses and academic programs working together to conserve the monarch butterfly migration. The content in this article does not necessarily reflect the positions of all Monarch Joint Venture partners. Article written by Rita Morris. Header photo by Wendy Caldwell.



Chavez, N. (2019, November 1). Day of the Dead has everything to do with the afterlife, love and those colorful skulls you've seen around. CNN.

Derby Lewis, A. (2019, April 8). Following the monarch butterflies to Mexico. Field Museum.

Fernandez, A. (2017, November 4). Monarch butterflies and Day of the Dead. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

National Geographic en Español. (2018). La leyenda sobre el regreso de la mariposa monarca.