David Romero's connection with the Monarch butterfly runs deep.
His home state of Michoacán in Mexico is a place that leaves many visitors in awe of its beauty. But beyond its Sierra Madre del Sur mountain range and the miles of crystal blue coastline, Romero more deeply connects with the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site nestled in the forested mountains of northeast Michoacán.
"I am like a butterfly myself," he told the Rivard Report Thursday afternoon. Like the Monarch butterfly that migrates north each spring and fall up to Canada and back again to its roosting grounds in Michoacán for the winter, Romero, too, migrated to Canada, stayed for 13 years, and eventually made his way back to Mexico.
When he returned to the Monarch reserve, he saw firsthand how the enormous population of Monarchs had diminished from such a swarm that visitors couldn't "speak without one going into your mouth," to a small group occupying only a few trees.
"When I saw that, I collapsed and cried," he said. "And I decided I had to do something."
That's where Todos Somos Mariposas, a Mexico City-based foundation led by Romero, his sister Zyanya, and fellow Monarch advocate Andrew Arriaga, comes in. Romero started the initiative about nine months ago to raise awareness of the declining Monarch migration, which has declined in North America by 80% from the 21-year average.
The increased use of pesticides, genetically modified crops, and climate change are a few factors that, according to scientists, have led to the migration decline. Habitat loss is also a factor, but one that hopefully more and more everyday citizens can reverse through the planting of pollinator plants and milkweed, the Monarch host plant.
According to Monarch Watch, we are losing 6,000 acres of potential Monarch/pollinator habitat a day in the United States due to development.
"Monarchs have natural peaks and troughs in their population and even the peaks lately have been lower than any time in recorded documentation," Arriaga said.
Todos Somos Mariposas – which translates to "we are all butterflies" – has grown into a documentary-in-the-making, and Romero and Arriaga recently traveled to Texas to gather testimonies from fellow Monarch advocates and "citizen scientists," including Mayor Ivy Taylor, and to learn more about the conservation efforts in place to sustain healthy butterflies as they migrate through the "Texas funnel."
"Most of the people we've been talking with have been conserving or tagging and tracking Monarchs for upwards of 20 years," Arriaga said. "We want to learn what they’ve seen over that time and try to help reach a wider audience."
San Antonio is no stranger to the Monarch butterfly and the preservation efforts for it and its habitat. Thanks to Taylor signing the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) Mayor’s Monarch Pledge in December, San Antonio is the nation's first "Monarch Champion City." This designation signifies the city's dedication to support the declining Monarch butterfly migration by adopting all 24 actions suggested by NWF.
Some of the actions include implementing pollinator gardens, encouraging citizen science projects to support the butterflies, and even hosting a butterfly festival which already took place last month at the San Antonio Zoo.
Arriaga and Romero see our "big and diverse" city as a model for others, particularly in Mexico, who hope to unite many different efforts in collaboration to promote Monarch habitat sustainability and awareness.
"Seeing how that (collaboration) has played out here and where that enthusiasm has come from is key in replicating that in other places," Arriaga said. "When we talk to business or community leaders in Mexico we believe they will want to learn how you pull people together and have (various) initiatives like in San Antonio."
A unique aspect of Todos Somos Mariposas is the emphasis on outreach to everyday citizens and advocates who aren't necessarily scientists or trained professionals by definition. Communities of "citizen scientists" abound when it comes to Monarch butterfly conservation, at least here in Texas, along with dedicated scientists. People like Mary Kennedy, Monika Maeckle, Dr. Tracy Villareal, and Dr. Cindy Klemmer are just a few of those who have been leaders in the Monarch cause.
Arriaga and Romero are even hoping to spark more interest in the wider community through a campaign that would bring a Monarch butterfly emoji on smart phones. (To sign the petition for a Monarch emoji, click here.)
"Those kinds of activities don't necessarily save Monarchs, but those are the kind of actions we want to take to build awareness of how were effecting our biospheres," Arriaga said.
Todos Somos Mariposas, which is sponsored by the Mexican Comisión Nacional de Areas Naturales Protegidas, is still in its early stages, but the team has already spent time visiting with indigenous Mexican groups who reside in the Monarch sanctuary zone in Michoacán. One of their key focuses is to actively include those communities in the fight for preserving the Monarchs by gaining their perspectives as close "neighbors" to the butterflies that can inspire others who have yet to experience the winged-insects in all of their glory.
The team also hopes to connect these indigenous communities with likeminded advocates both in Mexico and in the U.S. and Canada, since each country plays a unique role in the Monarch's survival. From what Arriaga and Romero have gathered from their outreach mission so far, despite their countries of origin nearly everyone involved in Monarch preservation sees it as much more than just a science project.
"It's amazing to see how many people from all different places have that same deep emotional reaction (to the Monarchs)," Arriaga said. "I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that people who help the Monarchs along the (migration route) really sort of adopt them emotionally."
Helping to preserve these creatures and their habitats has admittedly be an emotional and personal experience for both Romero and Arriaga, too. After all, Romero's enchanting childhood memories of the Monarch sanctuary in all its splendor are what he uses to connect those he meets with a more peaceful Mexico.
When people ask where he's from, he responds: "I'm from where the butterflies go," as a way to detach his beloved country from the drug violence that corruption that many still associate it with today.
"People would ask me, 'What butterflies? What do you mean they go to Mexico?,' and then the conversation would take a completely different trail," he said. "I would describe the Monarch sanctuary to them and how wonderful it is."
Arriaga, a Houston, Texas-native, shares a similar connection with the butterflies, that he believes have the ability to unite international communities.
"As somebody who has lived in lots of places, I identify with the fact that (the Monarchs) have crossed over so many countries and how we're all interconnected in some way," Arriaga said. "The Monarch is a symbol that links cities all along the migratory route and brings people together and shows all the different ways our biospheres are connected."
Soon, Arriaga and Romero will return to Mexico City to compile all of their interviews and plan for the road ahead for their initiative, which with monetary support, could mean traveling the whole length of the Monarch migration to gather perspective and stories on conservation.
More than anything, the Todos Somos Mariposas team wants to spark international "cross-pollination of ideas" and dialogue to ensure the longevity of a creature that has touched the lives of many through its beauty and its symbolism for the human experience.
"Our fate on this planet is very much like theirs," Arriaga said. "It makes you wonder: if we can't preserve (the planet) for the butterflies, can we preserve it for our own children?"
For more information on Todos Somos Mariposas, click here.
*Top image: A screenshot of a scene from the rough cut of the Todos Somos Mariposas documentary.