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Monarch Butterfly Honoring Passed Loved Ones

The Monarch Butterfly & Pollinator Festival, which highlights the butterfly's annual fall migration, will be honoring loved ones who have passed away this year, especially since it's been such a trying year for so many. This year, organizers also see it as an opportunity to showcase the rich symbolism of the Monarch, often seen in Día de los Muertos altars. 

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When John Maeckle died in 2015 at age 93, his daughter Monika Maeckle and his family honored him by releasing 93 monarch butterflies.

Now Monika Maeckle, founder of the Texas Butterfly Ranch website and the Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival, wants to extend a similar honor to others who have lost a loved one, especially during such a trying year. And so this year’s festival will honor those who have died from COVID-19, social injustice and other causes. The free festival has started online and concludes Oct. 29 at texasbutterflyranch.com.

“Given everything we’ve gone through this year ... these are all people with names and families and loved ones that are trying to mourn at this very difficult time,” Maeckle said.

Founded by Maeckle in 2016, the festival highlights the monarch butterfly’s annual fall migration, as millions funnel down from Canada and the northern United States through San Antonio and into Mexico. The migration started around a month ago and should peak in San Antonio from Oct. 10 through Oct. 22 before winding up in late November.

Previous festivals featured in-person lectures and workshops as well as art exhibits and movies, with a big wrap-up at the Pearl. But with the ongoing pandemic, the festival has had to pivot online. The online content includes on-demand videos, online native plant sales and live online presentations by several nature and wildlife experts.

District 4 Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia long has been familiar with Maeckle’s monarch butterfly program and festival. This year, she’s holding them even closer to heart.

“This year it brings an even greater significance because I’ve lost a lot of loved ones to COVID,” Garcia said, so submitted submitted nine names. Those include an uncle in Mexico, six cousins in San Antonio and two members of her church.

“It’s going to be just a reflection and a celebration of their life,” Garcia said.

Garcia said she sees this year’s festival as a learning opportunity about both the monarch butterfly’s migration and its rich symbolism in Hispanic culture as an emblem often found on Day of the Dead altars.

In addition to tagging monarchs with the names of lost loved ones, the festival will feature a Day of the Dead altar at Confluence Park designed by San Antonio artist José Sotelo with photos of those who have passed.

Each year around the time of the festival, Maeckle and other citizen scientists with the festival team tag around 600 to 700 monarch butterflies with a small round sticker, recording each butterfly’s sex, location and name of the person who tagged it before releasing it to the migration.

This year, those stickers also will include the name of someone who died. Maeckle has around 100 names of coronavirus victims alone. People can submit for free the name of their lost loved one to a Google Doc that’s available through the Texas Butterfly Ranch website. Maeckle also invites people to record the name of the person who died on an audio clip and then submit it to the festival, which will play it on an audio track for an upcoming tribute video Oct. 29.

The timing couldn’t be more appropriate. Maeckle noted the butterflies’ migration coincides with both the celebration and the spirit of Día de los Muertos.

Each year, millions of what she sees as tiny ambassadors of hope, sorrow and passage flutter into Mexico just in time for Day of the Dead on Nov. 2. Maeckle noted some indigenous people view the butterflies’ arrival as ancestors coming home to visit.

“The monarchs (typically) arrive by Day of the Dead,” Maeckle said. “There’s just a ton of folklore and spirituality and all kinds of meanings.”

Perhaps the most magical aspect of the migration is the butterflies’ very journey. The monarchs that migrate to Mexico in the fall often are the great-great-great grandchildren of those that first left Mexico in the spring, as most butterflies only have a two-week lifespan. Their destination: a small patch of forest some 10,000 feet up in the mountains west of Mexico City.

“And they go to that same place every year, and nobody knows how they find their way,” Maeckle said. “They’re flying home to a place they’ve never been before.”