What’s it about? A young Aztec (Mexica) kid named Izel lives a quiet life with his older sister Nelli, until his sister has to make the ultimate sacrifice so that Izel can be spared a brutal fate. As a result, Izel is inadvertently thrown into a war amongst the gods and must prove that humanity is worth fighting for.
Content Warning: Graphic depictions of violence against Indigenous people and human sacrifices.
I’ll be honest: when I first saw the trailer for this series, it made me extremely anxious. In theory the premise of Onyx Enquinox sounds interesting since it’s a story that takes place in a fantasy world based in Mesoamerica and the main characters are predominantly Aztec (technically Mexica is the correct term). I can understand the genuine enthusiasm for the series since there are ongoing conversations about how important representation is to QTBIPOC, but those discussions become complicated when you examine what representation looks like in Latin America and the Caribbean.
I don’t think I can explain the entire history of Latin America and the Caribbean in this review, but what you do need to know is that the way colonialism played out created violent racial hierarchies that are still felt to this day. As a result, white latines and mestizes (mixed raced people of European and Indigenous descent), have greater social, economic and political power, which means they also have control over what kind of representation they want to see in media entertainment. As a result, Black Latines, Black-Indigenous and Indigenous people are often depicted as racial stereotypes and “comedians” have actual careers doing Black/Brown face.
The purpose of mestizaje as part of the nation building process has always required the erasure of Black Latines, Black-Indigenous and Indigenous people under the guise that we are all “united” and must assimilate into the country’s national identity for the sake of “progress”. This is especially true when it comes to the appropriation of Indigenous cultures and spiritualities as something that belongs to the state to fit the sensibilities of white latines and mestizes. This is why representation is such a complex issue to talk about for Latin American and Caribbean communities because “representation” hasn’t always been fair to everybody.
These conversations were heightened after the release of Pixar’s movie Coco, which was heavily critiqued by Binnizá/Zapotec writer Eren Cervantes-Altamirano, who critiqued the movie for stripping Día de los Muertos from its roots and erased the presence of Indigenous people to suite the sensibilities of white latines and mestizes. The main question that both myself and other natives had after the release of Coco was, “who gets to tell indigenous animated stories without us being in the room?”
These are the questions I asked myself while waiting for premiere for Onyx Enquinox; and after having seen the first episode, it left me feeling angry and tired. The first couple of minutes are confusing because it begins with the literal destruction of an Indigenous city by Mictlāntēcutli (god of the dead) without any explanation as to why this is happening. The only thing that is clear is that the gods are contemplating the fate of humanity and the legendary rivals Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca made a bet to see if the “lowest-of-the-low” can save humankind. The immediate brutalization of Indigenous bodies wasn’t something I expected to see this early in the series and it just leaves a bad aftertaste in a story that is supposed to be important for representation.
After the chaos, we meet our protagonist Izel, a nice kid who lives a quiet life with his sister, Nelli. There isn’t much to say about Izel except that the narrative wants us to believe he is “lowest-of-the-low,” when in fact he is just a soft and clumsy kid. Izel’s peaceful life is disturbed when his home city has to make a big decision for the sake of the community. This traumatic moment negatively affects Izel and it makes me wonder how he will be humanity’s champion, especially since he has been given a reason to resent humankind.
The fact that Onyx Enquinox depicted human sacrifices is one of my biggest gripes when it comes to anything regarding Indigenous Empires in Latin America because it’s such an overused narrative. Yes, it did happen, but not in the large scale that often comes to mind when people think about those Empires. Human sacrifices were often used as an excuse by colonizers to destroy these Empires because they were seen as “savages” and “uncivilized.” That’s not to say human sacrifices cannot be talked about, but the reality is that it’s so often the only thing brought up that it diminishes any further nuanced discussions about these pre-colonial civilizations.
Overall, aside from the cosmic calamity and the introduction of our hero, not much really happens in this episode except for brief depictions on what daily life was like in Mesoamerica. While the movements and gestures of characters felt stiff, the animation was surprisingly striking and colorful, which is probably the only nice thing I have to say about this show so far.
Since a lot of things happened in this episode it’s difficult to feel attached to Izel and his struggles because the show is more focused on setting up the gradual reveal of the plot rather than us getting comfortable with our protagonist.
But the one question that I keep asking myself is, who was Onyx Enquinox made for? How are other indigenous folks particularly from Mexico going to react to this series? The Aztec (Mexica) Empire has always been used either to describe Indigenous people as “extinct” or has been culturally appropriated by mestizes to reconnect with their “Indigenous past”, meanwhile there are actual contemporary Indigenous people living and challenging these narrow depictions of their communities (i.e. Coco). I understand wanting to tell stories based on these grandiose Empires and based on Sofia Alexander’s interviews she did extensive research to try create an engaging story, but so far it feels emotionally draining.
In the interest of being fair, I will keep watching this series to see if it gets better, but I don’t anticipate it being a joyful ride.