Monarch Butterflies Signal Immigrant Support

Luis Rafael’s low-poly design is displayed at dozens of storefronts in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. (Maya Miller / Chicago Tonight)Luis Rafael’s low-poly design is displayed at dozens of storefronts in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. (Maya Miller / Chicago Tonight)

Monarch butterflies have flocked to a Chicago neighborhood, but their presence is more of a political act than a natural one.

Signs featuring the orange-winged insect – Illinois’ official insect since 1975 – are featured on dozens of storefronts in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, signaling support for the local immigrant community at a time when fear of deportation appears to be on the rise.

More than 10 percent of the neighborhood’s residents are undocumented immigrants, according to census data and data compiled by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.  


Luis Rafeal, a 22-year-old Dreamer, designed the sign. It features a raised black fist in place of the butterfly’s thorax and abdomen.

“The monarch butterfly is one of the greatest symbols that’s been used in the immigration movement for generations,” said Rafael, whose parents brought him to the U.S. from Mexico when he was 3 years old. “I was just trying to play my part in it.”

Displayed on the doors and windows of businesses along 47th Street and Ashland Avenue, including hair salons, jewelry stores, restaurants and even a financial technology company, the 8 x 11 signs read “We Support Immigrants” and “We Know Our Rights.” On the back are tips for dealing with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, and phone numbers for immigration attorneys.  

Jill Chavin, who’s owned the sprawling appliance and furniture store Carpet Corner since 1986, said that while she’s held off putting up political endorsements in the past, she had no qualms about displaying the monarch sign because she believes immigration is an apolitical issue.

“I’ve been very fortunate to be in this area for so long and this community has been very good to me, so I’m certainly here for them,” said Chavin, a third generation Russian-American. “We all have to support each other.”

Chavin said that many of her customers have expressed gratitude for the symbol of support.

“The monarch butterfly is one of the greatest symbols that’s been used in the immigration movement for generations,” said Luis Rafael. (Maya Miller / Chicago Tonight)“The monarch butterfly is one of the greatest symbols that’s been used in the immigration movement for generations,” said Luis Rafael. (Maya Miller / Chicago Tonight)

Monarch butterflies have been used as a graphic representation of the migrant in art, literature and activism for decades. Their pattern of migration spans several generations and takes them through the United States on their long journey from Mexico to Canada and back.

“It takes four generations for the monarch butterfly to arrive at its destination,” said Maria Martinez, who co-owns the Monarca restaurant on Ashland Avenue.

Martinez said she and her husband named their restaurant after the butterfly for this reason, but that the sign expresses another message.

“It’s a way to let people know that they shouldn’t be scared, that there are places they can go to socialize, eat and where they can get information on their rights,” Martinez said. 

For Rafael, the butterfly brings attention to the fact that undocumented immigrants are living beings.

Some community organizers are now working toward bringing the sign to other local areas with predominantly immigrant communities. There are 14 neighborhoods with more than 5,000 undocumented immigrants across the city, according to the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

While Rafael said that the fear across these immigrant communities has been sobering, he’s been uplifted by the impact his design has had.

“If a 22-year-old immigrant can do something like that, anybody else who wants to make an impact can,” Rafael said. “I’m definitely going to continue doing this work.”


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