The stories of Maria Zulema Martinez Hernandez and Marianna Treviño Wright, explored in the documentary film, ‘Ay Mariposa,’ are of pain and resistance.
The borderlands, writes director and author, Krista Schlyer, are filled with these two feelings and attitudes.
The migrations and transformations of both women are linked, by way of literary conceit, to the butterfly — whose migration patterns will likewise become adversely affected by border barrier construction.
Martinez Hernandez remembers her mother. The young Zulema Martinez was separated from her at age five after her father remarried. She never saw her mother again. Growing up, Martinez Hernandez kept her mother’s memory alive by recalling a river where she grew up in San Vicente, Nuevo Leon, Mexico, where her mother took her every morning to retrieve water. Nature became Martinez Hernandez’s escape from the all-consuming loneliness of her mother’s absence, as a caterpillar sees little, if nothing at all, of her mother.
Marianna Treviño Wright, executive director of the National Butterfly Center, is a dedicated naturalist. She’s led the 100-acre sanctuary as a world destination for biodiversity. Over 200 native plants can be found on the property and over 240 species of butterflies have been observed at the sanctuary since 2002. Treviño Wright is among the leading voices against border militarization in South Texas as border wall construction physically threatens the sanctuary and a heavy border patrol, and police presence, disrupts and obscures its splendor.
A lifelong Republican, the ‘butterfly lady,’ as Treviño Wright is known locally, has undergone a metamorphosis of her own. She is now a staunch critic of the U.S. two-party capitalist system. At a recent community screening in McAllen, as well as in many of the hundreds of interviews Treviño Wright has granted eager reporters since 2017, she derided both Democrats and Republicans as “corporate suits” who represent only the U.S. ruling class and as unable to achieve what an obvious majority of the U.S. electorate wants, namely, no more border walls. From a conservative caterpillar, Treviño Wright has blossomed and taken flight as a radiant and radical monarch.
Ay Mariposa debuted at the DOCLANDS Film Festival in San Rafael, California on May 4 and was viewed in McAllen on Earth Day for a community screening hosted by La Unión del Pueblo Entero, the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club, Texas Civil Rights Project and the Angry Tias and Abuelas.
Schlyer demonstrates deep, historical research of the butterfly and captures its political serendipity. The Spanish etymology of ‘butterfly,’ which derives from, ‘Maria,’ for example, was revealed to a much delighted Maria Zulema Martinez Hernandez in the film. The 77-year-old immigrant and farmworker rights activist always dreamed of becoming a butterfly: “I have even dreamed that I can fly,” she said. These two connections with the natural world, a love for rivers, and the longing to be free as a butterfly, have shaped the veteran activist’s life, and embodies the grassroots movement in the RGV set on defending the National Butterfly Center from President Trump’s main campaign promise.
Ay Mariposa tracks the life cycle of a butterfly, a universal symbol of migration and transformation, with both women’s life of politics. Treviño Wright’s chrysalis took form on July 20, 2017, when she found government contractors clearing part of the butterfly center’s land to make way for border walls before monies had been Congressionally allocated for such construction. The butterfly center has spent 15 years revegetating two-thirds of what was once an agriculture field. Federal funds were eventually allocated min March 2018. Language in a 2019 Homeland Security spending bill (passed after the film’s recording) exempted the butterfly center from construction, as the March 2018 bill spared the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge from border wall construction. Future spending bills may not exempt the butterfly center and the federal government could attempt to seize their land by invoking eminent domain, as Treviño Wright believes they will.
Schlyer summarizes the intersection between political complexities and the innocence of the natural world, intimated in a soothing narration, as when she says, “Life is a state of constant migrations, whether from plant to plant, wildlife refuge to wildlife refuge, or nation to nation, some butterflies can find what they need to live their life-cycle in a relatively small region, as long as there are native meadows to sustain them.” Martinez Hernandez found those native meadows in the Rio Grande Valley, where she settled as a migrant farmworker, emigrating to the Rio Grande Valley from the Mexican state of Matamoros in 1971. Traveling from ranch to ranch with her husband and newborn, Martinez Hernandez worked the agriculture fields where she took solidarity with fellow farm workers. She joined the United Farm Workers Union, now LUPE, shortly after emigrating — a time she described as her “liberation.”
Mortality and the life to come are underlying themes of Ay Mariposa. As butterflies spend their brief lives recreating life, both women have left proud legacies that will follow them. Treviño Wright said she is fighting the border wall for the sake of her community and her children, all five of whom were in attendance at the Earth Day screening. Martinez Hernandez was proud to boast of 10 kids, 23 grandchildren, four great grandchildren, and one great, great, grandson: “So, I’m rich; I’m a millionaire,” she proclaimed, after cataloguing her lavish legacy. The butterfly center, one might say, is likewise the legacy of its founder, Dr. Jane Scott, who died one day after Treviño Wright discovered the government contractors.
“A butterfly uses every available strategy for surviving a predatory world,” concluded the author of Continental Divide — a study of border wall effects on the environment. Treviño Wright, a victim of sexual threats to silence her opposition to the border wall by hostile callers to the butterfly center, and Martinez Hernandez, a victim of workplace violence as a farm worker, will continue to do everything in their power to prevent the construction of border barriers everywhere.
“I’m not going to give up, we’re going to keep fighting this battle,” said Treviño Wright. “As long as I can move, as long as I can talk, shout and rebel,” Martinez Hernandez said, “I will be against it; down with the wall!”
The 60-minute film features Martinez Hernandez singing a borderlands rendition of We Shall Not Be Moved/No Nos Moveran. Making good on her life’s promise, she plans to perform this song of resistance Sunday at a memorial for the river being held at the National Butterfly Center by the No Border Wall grassroots coalition entitled, In Memoriam Rio Grande — a protest against the border wall.
Damage inflicted by border walls—ecological devastation, civil and human rights violations, migrant deaths—reflect the pain of the borderlands. The resistance garnered and promulgated by Treviño Wright and Martinez Hernandez in Ay Mariposa is the hope that In Memoriam Rio Grande’s organizers plan to manifest in order to mobilize a mass resistance across the borderlands and the U.S. to stop the building of weapons that cause mass destruction.
A free screening of ‘Ay Mariposa’ will play at this year’s University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s Homeland Security conference in Brownsville on Friday, May 24 at noon. It will be followed by a discussion with Marianna Treviño Wright.