Chasing Butterflies in Michoacan

Each Wednesday, I will bring you a post chronicling my experiences as a gringo in Mexico. Last weekend, Venezia and I headed out to the El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary in Michoacan, and while we are working on producing a video to cover the experience in full, here are a few of my personal observations.


My first thought as we set out for Michoacan was that I honestly had no idea what to expect. Even as a gringo, I have a vague idea of what many of the states are known for. Mexico City is one of the largest metropolitan centers on Earth. Oaxaca is a lush rain forest. The Yucatan is known for its beach resorts. Guadalajara is where the Virgin Mary keeps her summer home. But Michoacan? I checked with Venezia and several others and discovered that not even most Mexicans know what the deal is with Michoacan.

I did some research and I discovered that this might not be an accident. It turns out Michoacan is one of the most naturally beautiful states in all of Mexico, yet its people have actively resisted becoming a developed tourist destination like Cancun and other resorts. This attitude means that in addition to its rolling hills and ancient forests, Michoacan also retains a rich cultural diversity and traditions that go back thousands of years.

Michoacan was the ancient seat of the Purepecha Empire, which rivaled the Aztec Empire at the time of the Spanish conquest. The state’s name means “Place of the Fishermen” in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs and other ancient civilizations. the name is as apt today as ever, as most of Michoacan’s population still engage in traditional industries such as fishing and agriculture. There is still a significant native population within the state as well, including Purepecha, Otomi, and Nahua peoples. There is also a sizable Afro-Mexican population.

Knowing all this, I wish that we had been able to spend more time in Michoacan, discovering the ancient cultures and traditions that live on to this day. Still, seeing the butterflies at El Rosario was and experience all its own. After climbing a steep trail to the observation point which stands at 10,000 feet above sea level, we were treated to the sight of tens of millions of butterflies wintering in the alpine forest.

I have a personal connection to the monarch butterfly which made this experience all the more valuable to me. I spent the first half of my childhood in Santa Cruz, California, where many monarchs lay their eggs during the summer months before migrating to Canada. Incidentally, Canada is where I spent the second half of my childhood, although I grew up in Western Canada while the butterflies prefer the Eastern side.

Now, having followed the butterflies across the continent, making a journey in a fraction of a lifetime that takes five generations of butterflies to complete, I find myself reflecting on what it means to be a visitor in this country. In the current political climate, immigration and international travel are rather heated topics. As an American, I am fortunate to be able to enter Mexico far more easily than a Mexican could enter America, but even so I am learning how difficult it can be to adapt to a new culture and it will be years before I can even begin the process of requesting a citizenship.

And so it was with some jealousy in my heart that I watched the butterflies, who know no borders, who are citizens of a nation far older than the young lands of America, Canada, or Mexico, older even than the ancient empires of the Purepecha and the Aztecs. I find myself thinking about so many people I have met in my life who have never ventured beyond the borders of their home country, never even lived outside the city of their birth. I can’t help but wonder: if more people followed the path of the butterfly, how might the world be different? How would we feel about notions such as borders and citizenship if more of us knew what it is to live in a place 3,000 miles from where we were born, and to call that place home?

Then I remember that the peoples of two of the nations I have lived in have no idea what miles even are, and I feel very American indeed.



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