Human Rights Activists Mark Día de Muertos With Butterfly Release at Holy Cross Cemetery

Sister Rosemary Nicholson holds a painted lady butterfly during a Día de los Muertos event at Holy Cross Cemetery, November 1, 2023.
Sister Rosemary Nicholson holds a painted lady butterfly during a Día de los Muertos event at Holy Cross Cemetery, November 1, 2023. Photo by Brooke Binkowski.

A small group of human rights activists and allies gathered on Wednesday to release butterflies in recognition of Día de Muertos.

The event focused on migrants, asylum-seekers, and refugees, particularly children caught up in a growing number of global conflicts. Traditionally, November 1st is the day that the souls of children return to visit beloved friends and family members, and November 2nd is for the adults.

Immigration activist Enrique Morones led a prayer for the dead. 

“We’ve been going to Holtville for 35 years and doing a ceremony for the hundreds of people who are buried there that are unidentified,” said Morones. 

Hundreds of unidentified bodies of those who died attempting to cross the border in the desert are buried in a mass grave at Terrace Park Cemetery in Holtville, just a few miles from the international border.

This year, the ceremony took place at the Holy Cross Cemetery in Chollas View alongside a statue of St. Jude — patron saint of hope amid difficulty.

Frank Modic, a retired chaplain turned butterfly wrangler, handed out newly-hatched painted ladies in small boxes labeled “No Olvidamos” – We Won’t Forget. Participants held the butterflies in their cupped hands until they were warm enough to fly.

“There’s a little saying that says, Just when the caterpillar thought it was going to die, it began to fly,” said Modic. “That’s why we celebrate with butterflies.”

Butterflies are longtime symbols of transformation and freedom of movement for those who have been caught up in often labyrinthine immigration laws and policy changes in the United States. They are also thought by some to be the souls of the dead, arriving to enjoy the fresh flowers on their Día de los Muertos offerings.