SOUTH ORANGE, NJ -- On the same day that the World Wildlife Fund reported a steep decline in the population of migrating monarch butterflies in Central Mexico, Mexican author and environmental  activist Homero Aridjis, speaking at Seton Hall,  recalled how he used to watch the butterflies arrive in waves of color until they completely covered the trees.

Such childhood memories helped inspire him to become a crusading environmentalist, he said, and the beauty of the butterflies and the Mexican landscape gave him the passion to become a poet.

In a special appearance in the United States, Aridjis — who also had a career in diplomacy, serving as Mexico’s ambassador to Switzerland and the Netherlands — on Thursday addressed  Seton Hall students and faculty at the John C. Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International  Relations, reading some of his poetry and describing his decades-long efforts to protect the monarch’s habitat.

Sign Up for E-News

In 1985, Aridjis helped formed one of Mexico’s first environmental organizations, called the Group of 100, which consisted of writers and scientists committed to fighting for the environment and for species, like the monarch butterfly, that are endangered by human activity.

Aridjis and the Group of 100 were able to prevent the monarch’s wintering grounds in Michoacan, Mexico, where Aridjis was born, from being destroyed by logging. The World Wildlife Fund study indicated that the decline in the butterfly population was probably caused by warm weather and loss of habitat in the United States, not Mexico.

Aridjis, accompanied by his wife, Betty Ferber, explained  how they successfully  prevented the Mitsubishi company and the Mexican government from building what would have been the world’s largest salt works at the San Ignacio lagoon in the Mexican state of  Baja California, a critical breeding ground for the whales.

When the Mexican government attempted to prevent information about the project from being disclosed, Aridjis said he and his supporters approached American foreign correspondents based in Mexico to get the news out. “The foreign newspapers really helped the campaign because of Mexican censorship,” Aridjis said.

Aridjis said he probably would not have become an environmentalist if he had not  grown up in Mexico. He said he was inspired by the beautiful landscapes and his Mexican mother’s passion for art and nature. His interest in poetry and literature comes from his Greek father, he said.

Aridjis presented several poems from his books “Time of Angels” and “Eyes to See Otherwise,” reading each poem in its original Spanish, followed by a Seton Hall student reading  the same poem in English. One of those students was Erandi Trevino, a senior diplomacy student from Mexico, who said afterward that Aridjis’ appearance gave her a different perspective on what it takes to effect change.

“I find Homero’s perseverance and willingness to take risks really inspiring, especially in Mexico,” she said. “For that environment to not be protected would be a tragedy and it’s great to listen to someone who has fought for that protection.” 

Aridjis said there were many influences on his poems, from his daughter’s  tattoos of angels to the current rise in violence in Mexico.

Aridjis said some of his poems were about the political problems in Mexico and were critical of the government but they were not able to change policy.

“The Mexican way is to ignore the criticism,” he said.

The reporter is a journalism major in the Department of Communication & The Arts at Seton Hall University.