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Five Things We Learned from Watching 'Ay Mariposa'

A bordered patch butterfly rests on a purple flower. | From "Link Voices: Ay Mariposa"
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In Link Voices' "Ay Mariposa," viewers follow inhabitants of the Lower Rio Grande Valley whose lives have been flipped upside-down by President Trump's border wall: Marianna Treviño-Wright, the executive director of the National Butterfly Center in Texas, and Zulema Hernandez, migrant worker, immigrant and advocate for all migrants, both wild and human-kind.

The film's motif revolves around one particular colorful inhabitant of the region: the butterfly, nature’s dainty and delicate wonder.

Interpretations of the butterfly have varied in history across different countries. A German myth, for instance, deemed butterflies (or “Schmetterling”) as witches with the ability to transform themselves as such to steal milk, while a belief in Russia goes that a butterfly (or “babochka”) is what the soul of an old woman evolves into when she dies. Similarly, famed Greek philosopher Aristotle bestowed butterflies with the name “psyche,” meaning “soul.”

In a different vein, the Spanish word for butterfly, “mariposa,” finds its roots from the Virgin Mary — its literal meaning “Maria posing” — for the resemblance to her hands in prayer. It’s an uncanny nod to what’s happening to the butterfly’s landscape at the Lower Rio Grande Valley today, where 95 percent of its habitat has disappeared, and one of its few places left to call home is at the mercy of the concrete U.S.-Mexico border wall.

Below are five things we learned from watching “Ay Mariposa.”

1. The National Butterfly Center (NBC) is hailed as the most diverse nature preserve of the country.

Its location in Mission, TX is home to a high concentration of butterflies — more than 230 species — and many cannot be spotted anywhere else in the continental United States. Butterflies that have been spotted at the Center are documented in a list found here, those of which include the Mexican bluewing and red bordered pixie among many others.

The NBC is a project of the North American Butterfly Association (NABA) that began in 2002. The preserve is a 17-year culmination of revegetation and cultivating the lands appropriately for butterflies to populate. In fall of 2011, the Center planted 12,000 plugs of rare grasses and endangered wildflowers in partnership of U.S. Fish & Wildlife, creating the Geoffrey McAllen Memorial Native Grassland and Wildflower Refugium.

2. Monarch butterflies are among those that stop by the NBC.

Unique to their kind, monarch butterflies take part in a great two-way migration like birds, as they cannot survive the cold weather of northern areas. Therefore weather growing colder, typically around October, is their cue to turn to the warmer south for overwintering. One place where they stop by during their epic trip is the National Butterfly Center.

Scientists still don’t have a definitive answer to how they guide themselves to the south, but they suggest the butterflies use a combination of the earth’s magnetic pull and the direction of the sun to get themselves where they need to be. Nonetheless, the annual phenomenon helps with transferring pollen to wildflowers along the way.

A bordered patch butterfly rests on a blade of grass. | From "Link Voices: Ay Mariposa"
A bordered patch butterfly rests on a blade of grass. | From "Link Voices: Ay Mariposa"

3. Butterfly species depend on a variety of different plant hosts to lay their eggs and develop into an adult.

Butterflies wouldn't settle on just any plant to lay their eggs — different species discern which plants will be suitable for their survival. For instance, a monarch butterfly’s preferred plant host may be the milkweed for its poisonous qualities, but a pearl crescent butterfly’s preferred plant is the smooth aster. More than 60 species of butterflies may be tied to just one plant species, and if a plant host disappears, the butterflies dependent on it will follow suit.

The National Butterfly Center grows native and endangered plants to attract specific butterflies. It has gone from hosting just over 30 plant species to more than 200.

4. President Trump’s border wall will compromise a significant amount of land from the 100-acre preserve.

Citing eminent domain, or the government’s right to seize private property for public use, the Trump administration issued 28 waiver laws, waiving protections like the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Air Act for wall construction in the name of border security. This allowed the government to begin building 33 miles of the border wall on National Butterfly Center property, undoing many years of conservation efforts by environmentalists.

Though the NBC filed a lawsuit in 2017 against the administration for their actions, it had languished in court, and construction of the wall on the region began in early February of 2019 despite their efforts of protest. The wall will plow straight through the National Butterfly Center, splitting the nature preserve in two. In total, 70 percent of the 100 acres of the NBC will be compromised for the wall.

5. The border wall will push many species of flora and fauna close to extinction.

The borderlands, an environmentally protected region in the U.S., are one of the most biologically rich areas in North America where hundreds of animal and plant species alike call home. As such, construction of the border wall will evidently affect the ecological balance between butterflies and their plant hosts, as many of the plant species would be destroyed as the wall carves through the land. But additionally, the wall will threaten a third of 346 wildlife species that are already endangered or on the brink of extinction. Because the wall fragments the habitat, rendering a sizeable chunk of the borderlands inaccessible, food, water and ability to find mates will be critically limited for the species that depend on the region to provide that for them.

Some of the species in danger include jaguars, which, though they used to roam at the riverbanks along the Rio Grande, have essentially disappeared from Texas. Mesquite trees, which thrive best from seeds processed through javelinas and coyotes, will also suffer if the animals can't access the area. Furthermore, animals that can’t fly at a high altitude, like some species of owls, will be forced to turn away as well. The pygmy owl, for example, can only fly five feet off the ground.

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