When the gods of Crunchyroll’s new anime-inspired series Onyx Equinox decide that the fate of humanity should be determined by an epic game, a young boy named Izel’s life takes a turn for the divine and dangerous. He’s tapped to become the one person capable of keeping the living from being sucked into the underworld.
Izel’s (Olivia Brown) story is a fantastical one, pulling from the mythologies of a variety of different Mesoamerican cultures that make up Mexico’s rich indigenous history that spans back generations. When we had a chance to speak with Onyx Equinox creator Sofia Alexander recently about the series, she laid out her vision for broadening our pop-cultural canon by digging into robust mythologies that simply haven’t been given all that much attention, fiction-wise. As personal a story as Onyx is, Alexander explained, it’s also something she really wants people to understand as being part of a larger reflection on Mexican and indigenous identity.
Charles Pulliam-Moore, io9: What is Onyx Equinox to you personally beyond you being the series creator, what does the show mean to you?
Sofia Alexander: In a larger sense, Onyx is a love letter to Mexico and to other Mexicans, I feel. It’s for dreamers and creators who have never felt truly seen in the media—how we wish we could have been seen in an epic way, in an adventurous way, in a way that would be story-driven and a pace that was more anime-inspired. I want the world to immerse themselves into this world, into this culture—these cultures, actually—that are usually not very well known. When these stories are told, it’s usually by not Mexicans or even indigenous people, and we don’t have the power to say how we want to be seen. So, our portrayals have been very unfair or rather unjust.
For so long Mexicans have been portrayed as either drug dealers or these bloodthirsty warriors that only care about sacrifices, and I wanted to change that. Onyx is an invitation to other Mexicans and to other indigenous people to tell their stories. To feel like they have the power and the possibility, and that someone else has done it and that they can do it and they should do it in order encourage more people to tell more stories like Onyx that are their own.
io9: Steeped in mythology as the show is, the show also feels so personal. How much of you is in Izel?
Alexander: I grew up with my grandfather, who was indigenous and he wanted us to love Mexico, to know our roots and where we come from, and to never forget that. Life works in funny ways because we didn’t know we were going to ever live in the U.S. I never expected to. I remember learning the coins and what they were worth and thinking “I’ll never need to know this.”
I felt like my identity was being lost. Because I don’t look like what most people think a Mexican looks like. I pass as white and that gives me a privilege, and all of these things were things I’d never questioned in my life before moving here, which shook those ideas I had about myself. My identity and also the experiences I was going to, some that were very dark, were the perfect storm building to this story that was waiting to be told.
io9: You were speaking about Onyx not reflecting just a singular culture, but a multiplicity of cultures that all make up this larger idea of what it is to be Mexican. There’s a moment—I think it’s in the first episode—where you see Izel and Nelli speaking with an old woman who’s an immigrant. The kids are from Tenochtitlan, but the old woman isn’t, and they recognize that difference between them has larger cultural implications. Talk to me a bit about how you worked that commentary into the series as a whole—this celebration of Mesoamerica and indigenous identity while also making clear that the people aren’t a monolith.
Alexander: Well, to start, most people think of Mesoamerica as being only either the Aztecs or the Maya, and even calling them “Aztecs” is not the proper term. But that’s a very long discussion that we can save for another time. These were people who did not have borders. Yes, there were times of war, and of conquering for territory, but there was also trade and travel. Many were immigrants, and many traveled for business. It’s not like they were just exclusively Maya, or Totonac, or Purépecha—and that’s another thing, there are so many cultures that have not had the spotlight that the general term “Aztec” has had. There’s the general idea of Aztecs that’s gained popularity because we have more information about them.
io9: That’s part of the historical record we focus on a lot, right.
Alexander: I wanted to show people from all over the world—the Mesoamerican world—in Onyx, and it wasn’t really a challenge to implement that, because I’m also an immigrant. Having these people be refugees and live through what a lot of people to this day still live with—how they’re welcomed or not welcomed based on what happened to them or where they come from. It’s the same thing with Nelli and Izel.
io9: When the second trailer initially dropped, I was surprised to see how bloody the show was going to be even though it’s got this very youthful anime aesthetic overall.
io9: But as you get into the series, you can see that the blood isn’t gratuitous or just for the sake of violence. This isn’t a story that frames sacrifice as brutality, but as part of everyday society. How did you go about striking that balance between depicting blood as this essential element to the story that’s not something to fear, but also making it obvious that the stakes are high?
Alexander: Yeah, that was a big concern of mine from the very, very start. It’s like, I understand that the stereotype that Hollywood has led with has done a lot of damage to these cultures. They were people. They had hopes, they had dreams. They joked around. They were normal, but they haven’t been normalized. What’s been normalized is the idea of the horrors of the sacrifices, and even that ignores that there was a variety or spectrum of sacrifices.
io9: How do you mean?
Alexander: There were not always human, and blood sacrifices varied from a nick on your hand to the stereotypical heart thing. It’s very difficult at times to understand that blood is something that makes Onyx’s world turn. Blood’s given to humans by the gods who themselves don’t bleed. In myth, there’s this idea that blood has to be given in order to make the sun rise, and symbolism like that is part of what shapes a big part of this world.
io9: I feel like there are a lot of people who might come to Onyx Equinox having been fans of other series like Blood of Zeus that are similarly following a mortal’s adventures that involve the gods. What was important to you to highlight in order to make it feel like its own distinct thing?
Alexander: For the first season, at least, I can say that my goal introducing this world to someone who is not privy or has ever known anything about Mesoamerican Mexico, was to show that the balance between God and humans and the natural world, along with the monsters, is what incites this fight. If you were to live in a jungle or something, you’d be exposed to the elements and the animals. That’s just how things are. But there are also these gods who need sacrifices from humans because humans are meant to venerate these deities.
This is something we tried to handle as delicately as possible and with as much dignity to the myths, and yes, it’s a violent story. But the heart of Onyx is really seeing Izel grow and go from not wanting to live and hating humanity and not caring if others die to seeing things differently. This is a story about a boy who doesn’t have the tools to survive this kind of tragedy and so much psychological trauma. He’s been stripped of everything that he is and that’s why he’s chosen. Because if there’s anyone who can prove that there’s strength in humanity, it’s someone like him.
Onyx Equinox hits Crunchyroll on November 21.
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