We love to sit on our porch and watch the butterflies circling our yard. These beautiful beings draw out our wonder with their beauty and playfulness. There are 18,000 species known as butterflies and those who study their habits of eating, mating, and migrating are often caught up in a dance of details about them. They are quite simply enchanting.

Kaarlo Isaacs as young Mendel in the butterfly forests of Mexico

Son of Monarchs is a richly thematic movie written and directed by Alexis Gambis. It draws us into the complicated and conflicted life of Mendel (Tenoch Huerta), a biologist who grew up near the monarch butterfly forests of Michoacanis, Mexico, and has always been fascinated by these ephemeral beings. Now he is living in New York City and doing graduate work in biology mapping the genetics in the monarch’s distinctive wing patterns. He sees this research as a way to support biodiversity.

After the death of his grandmother, Mendel returns to his hometown, and it is soon becomes clear that he, like the monarchs, is a migrant travelling between two worlds. Science has given him rewarding and adventuresome work, but it has also taken his spirit far from his culture. Although most of his family welcome him back warmly, he is alienated from his brother (Noe Hernandez); as young boys, they were traumatized by the death of their parents in a mine flood.

Changes in the area underline his concern for the destruction of the ecosystem upon which the butterflies depend during their migration. He agrees with a local artist who laments, “We live in a time where social and environmental issues can’t really be treated separately anymore.”

In his own life, this truth is represented by a new relationship with Sarah (Alexis Rasmussen), a white woman who works as a human rights advocate dealing with cases where Mexican children have been separated from their families at the border.

Tenoch Huerta as Mendel examining his tattoo

Back in New York, Mendel slowly moves to a closer connection with monarchs as ephemeral creatures bearing mystical meanings. Bearing witness to their plight and potential, he gets a large tattoo of butterfly wings, symbolizing his yearning to transform into someone who can really fly free.

Son of Monarchs is loaded with thought-provoking themes such as genetics, climate change, cultural identity, dealing with grief and trauma, and mystical yearnings. Praise must also be given to the imaginative cinematography of Alejandro Mjia and the music of Cristobal Maryan.

Monarchs in Mexico

Go Deeper

Sharman Apt Russell teaches writing and is the author of Anatomy of a Rose which we found to be a work of particular clarity and creativity.
She has also written a book title An Obsession with Butterflies: Our Long Long Love Affair with a Singular Insect where she pays tribute to these beings who draw out our wonder and remind us of beauty and transformation.

Only a few flowers would miss them if they were gone. But human beings, according to Russell, would be distraught. “More than any other group of animals, butterflies look as if they were designed in art school.” We would miss their ephemeral beauty. Their colors stun our senses, and we pay attention. And that’s really something given all the other pretty faces competing for our attention!”

Open this wonderful book and discover the many ways and diverse reasons why butterflies have been appreciated over the centuries. Be sure to read the excerpt where Russell notes the meanings and stories that are associated with butterflies. A few examples:

The butterfly is the Creator who flew over the world searching for a place where humans could live.

“At night butterflies bring us dreams
Butterflies came from the tears of the Virgin Mary.
A butterfly will show you your true love.
Butterflies are the souls of children.
A man in love has butterflies in his belly.
Butterflies are stray, familiar thoughts,
Butterflies are air and angels.”