Silvia Moreno-Garcia's Certain Dark Things is a neo-noir, thrilling adventure in an alternate Mexico City where vampires exist. Moreno-Garcia's vampires are unique, inspired by cultures and folklore. We follow Atl, an Aztec vampire, as she fights for freedom from the evil colonizer vampires alongside a charming young trash-picker, Domingo. Featuring colorful characters, lore, and an adventure, Certain Dark Things is a fun read. Gabe expands on the world and the vampires within. Kat gives us a crash course in History about the colonization of Mexico. There is so much we weren't taught and still don't know. We hope this book and episode light a fire in you as it did us, to always learn more!
Sources in this Episode: An Indigenous reframing of the fall of the Aztec empire The Spanish Conquest Of Mexico Is Still Being Debated Don’t call us traitors: descendants of Cortés’s allies defend role in toppling Aztec empire Build-A-Vampire World History Encyclopedia’s overview
Media from this week's episode:
Certain Dark Things (2016)
A pulse-pounding neo-noir that reimagines vampire lore.
Welcome to Mexico City, an oasis in a sea of vampires. Domingo, a lonely garbage-collecting street kid, is just trying to survive its heavily policed streets when a jaded vampire on the run swoops into his life. Atl, the descendant of Aztec blood drinkers, is smart, beautiful, and dangerous. Domingo is mesmerized.
Atl needs to quickly escape the city, far from the rival narco-vampire clan relentlessly pursuing her. Her plan doesn’t include Domingo, but little by little, Atl finds herself warming up to the scrappy young man and his undeniable charm. As the trail of corpses stretches behind her, local cops and crime bosses both start closing in.
Vampires, humans, cops, and criminals collide in the dark streets of Mexico City. Do Atl and Domingo even stand a chance of making it out alive? Or will the city devour them all?
Certain Dark Things: Culturally Inspired Vampires in a Neo-Noir Mexico City by Gabe Castro
RED: Quotes, someone else's words.
In Certain Dark Things, named for the line in a Pablo Neruda poem, “I love you as certain dark things are loved,” we get a glimpse of Mexico City that is honest and complicated, full of depth we often reserve for cities like New York or L.A, maybe even Paris and London. Writer Amal El-Mohtar said of this Mexico, “one of Silvia Moreno-Garcia's great achievements in 'Certain Dark Things' is her representation of Mexico City as a real place, a city with history, districts, subways, with beauty and ugliness, with problems.” In this very real, neo-noir alternate universe Mexico City, there are vampires. These vampires are born, not made and they differ drastically, greatly impacted by their place of origin.
The story follows a few colorful characters, vampires and humans. We have Atl, a Mexican vampire who’s species are birdlike inspired by Aztec Gods of which they are named after. Domingo, a young street boy who gets by sifting through trash and becomes a companion for Atl. Ana Aguirre [Ah-gee-rey] is a detective skilled at hunting vampires but tired of doing it, has sought refuge in the vampire-free Mexico City. Nick is the son of the leader of the Necros, a villainous race of colonizer vampires, and he is hunting Atl. Nick’s family’s Renfield, the human familiar (named after the character in Dracula), Rodrigo is sent on this mission to find Atl and bring her back alive to Nick’s father, Mr. Godoy. And then there’s Bernardino, a vampire from the Revenant species, a Nosferatu hunchbacked race that can give and take life from anyone, even other vampires.
In Certain Dark Things, Atl is on the run after committing a horrible offense, murdering a vampire’s wife and others. Her own family has been savagely murdered, their powerful reign in Mexico wiped out quickly. Atl is from Tlahuihpochtli [Tah-lah-wu-pal-chi] species of vampires, inspired by Aztec Gods. She has stopped in the vampire-free Mexico City to connect with an old family friend of her mother’s Elisa so that she can get papers to travel further south and into safety. She is being pursued by Rodrigo and Nick, of the Necros clan. Atl encounters the young and sweet, Domingo on the subway and invites him to her home where she later asks him if she can drink him. Meanwhile, in Mexico City, there are human gangs who’d like to keep Mexico City vampire-free. One gang in particular, the Deep Crimson, hire skilled vampire huntress detective, Ana to find and kill both Atl and Nick. What follows is a deadly chase, emotional explorations, and a study in Mexican colonization history.
Each of these characters is so profoundly written with depth and honest motivations. My heart ached for the simple and sweet boy, Domingo. He falls in love with Atl (who wouldn’t) and through his limited lens of the world attempts to protect her. It would be so easy to write him as a lovesick pup who quickly disrobes himself of his morals to best serve Atl but he stays true to his integrity and care. His understanding of the world is through the lens of film, books, and pieces of the world he picks up along the way in subway carts and in the trash he sorts through. Silviai Moreno-Garcia allows us to see each character individually, giving us intimate moments with them to learn of their motivations and decisions, leading to the events of the book. And its easy to feel for all of them (except Nick, eff Nick). Detective Ana, though a skilled vampire hunter, is also simply a single-mother who yearns to protect her daughter, to give her a life she never had, and to escape poverty. Even Rodrigo, who’s found himself in the snare of Mr. Godoy, is somewhat forgivable and understandable.
One of my favorite pieces of Moreno-Garcia’s alternate world are the different races of vampires. They are inspired by their origin locations and were so exciting and inventive. Everything about the vampire races is different from the way they consume blood (or if they do at all), their effect on humans, and their physical appearance. Atl’s people are akin to Gods. It is such a refreshing imagining of vampires, these ones birdlike with sharp features, wings, an affinity for sugar and a proboscis. Atl cannot eat human food or she’ll be sick but graced with melanin, she can venture into the sun (though it will make her tired and eventually take a toll on her wellbeing). The Necros are a sickly, disgusting race of vampires that are literally the colonizers of Mexico. They are a walking STD, having sex with or exchanging any fluids with a Necros spells death for humans and even other vampires. Necros are pale and beautiful. They lure in their prey and by feeding the victim their blood can control their actions and hear their thoughts. They burn up in the sun, not like traditional vampires into pillars of ash but do get boils and burns (major downer for these vain vamps). The Revenants, we see one with Bernardino, are an older species of vampires. They have telltale hunchbacks and thin, translucent skin. Revenants don’t simply drink blood but consume life energy, they can shave off years of your life or give you more. And as I mentioned earlier, they can drink from humans and vampires.
One of the themes in the novel is that of war. For Atl and Nick, their families are at odds, in a drug war. Atl’s family had run the drug trade well for generations in Mexico, supplying goods to both humans and vampires. Nick’s family, seeking to grab hold of the market, murders Atl’s mother. In retaliation, Atl murders Mr. Godoy’s wife and others. In further retaliation, Atl’s family is wiped out, leaving her on the run. There’s another war afoot though, that of the humans versus vampires. In Mexico City, Deep Crimson runs the drug trade and they won’t tolerate vampire drug lords on their turf. As we saw in Tigers are not Afraid, the drug wars and dangers of Mexico City can be easily transformed into mythical beasts, the horrors feeling so monumentally insurmountable.
There is so much to love and appreciate about Certain Dark Things. As always, with a Moreno-Garcia novel I am both entertained and educated. I absolutely love fantastical works that highlight the real world. To have these monsters with motivations, not just for monsters sake. I wish more vampire, werewolf, supernatural lore was like this, a world robust in history and influence. Certain Dark Things made vampires believable, understood geographically and racially. Again, with Moreno-Garcia you never know what exactly to expect but you do know you’ll enjoy the ride. That this tale, like all her others, will be rich in storytelling, character explorations of people and the lands they inhabit.
What We Missed in History Class about the Colonization of Mexico by Kat Kushin
RED: Quotes, someone else's words.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Certain Dark Things was a really unique and powerful story of Atl, the descendant of Aztec blood drinkers, living in a modern day Mexico City, where vampires are not allowed. The story is impactful, and very interesting, and it painted a picture of Mexico that I hadn’t seen before. I really look forward to reading other books by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, and recommend you do the same. In the book, we’re given history and world building that I unfortunately didn’t have much context for. I learned a little bit about the Aztecs, and a little about the impacts of Spanish colonization in school, but not enough, so I really appreciated this book for giving me the opportunity and jumping off point to learn something. In my section I'll be giving you some of the information I learned about, and I highly encourage you to do the same. In learning about both of these topics, I realized just how little I knew before. The version I received in Elementary or Middle school was a watered down, sprinkle of the full story. So as always, the lesson here is to question what you're taught, and ask what is missing, whose perspectives are not present, and why. Another piece of this I’m realizing in taking in this information, is a week is not enough time. I think I could research this for my entire life and still not know what actually happened. One, because I am not indigenous to this land so there will always be nuances and information that I am missing, and two, because the unfortunate result of colonization is the erasure of knowledge, people, and history. I say all this to recognize I’m not an expert on this subject, and I’m going to do my best to cover it thoughtfully, and encourage you to take the information presented as a jumping off point for your own learning, as well as seek out indigenous voices when learning about these topics.
With that being said, I'll get into it a bit more. In the book Certain Dark Things, we’re given a window into Atl’s world, as well as the world of vampires. The story follows Atl, and a human named Domingo. Throughout we’re given glimpses of other vampires, all with their own unique quirks. There is one vampire that I’ll speak on specifically that is a colonizer Necros Vampire named Nick, whose existence in many ways is that of a plague to the Indigenous vampires. This character exists because of the history of Mexico, and the impact of colonization. The deep impact that colonization is something we’ve spoken about in the show a handful of times, and the perspective in Certain Dark Things is very refreshing, in that Nick is not rationalized or sympathized with. He is entirely a monster, who shows no respect for the people of Mexico, and instead feels entitled to them, and everything around him. At no point are we given a softened version of Nick, or a reason to care for him, because there aren’t any. In another story, he may have been our protagonist, but thankfully in Certain Dark Things he is not. Instead we’re given the perspective of Atl.
Colonialism in Mexico:
Mexico was colonized by Spain on August 13th, 1521, when Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes took the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan (tuh·nowch·teet·laan). In an article from the British Museum called An Indigenous reframing of the fall of the Aztec empire written by Laura Osorio Sunnucks, Head of the Santo Domingo Centre of Excellence for Latin American Research and María Mercedes Martínez Milantchi, Project Coordinator for the Santo Domingo Centre of Excellence for Latin American Research. They say “For many, this date commemorates the beginning of a period of Indigenous genocide, ruthless colonialism, forced religious conversion and the erasure of Indigenous knowledges and practices.” In 2021, they’ve started a project that will facilitate research led by indigenous archaeologists and heritage specialists to bring Indigenous perspectives to this history. “It will showcase their new interpretations of pictorial manuscripts (codices) and glyphs in the collection using contemporary Indigenous knowledge and languages.” Projects like this will hopefully bring new and more accurate perspective to the events, as a lot of the history that is perpetuated is either inaccurate, or colonizer lead. In fact, there were so many different versions of the history of the event, that I found conflicting information depending on where I looked. What I did find suggested that there was a war, and that the conquest was not done by Spain alone. The siege is said to have lasted 75 days, and is described as a brutal siege with warships and cannons.There are a few versions of the story of Spanish colonization, many positioning Spain as an godly force, minimizing the power of the indigenous populations that lived there, and suggesting that a small Spanish army was more powerful than the much larger Mesoamerican empire. Another very interesting piece of this is that Hernan Cortes was not supposed to attempt to conquer Mexica, and was only supposed to explore. In his choice to conquer he was marked as a traitor to Spain according to another conquistador, Panfilo Narváez. So in many ways, it doesn’t even seem like conquering Mexico was a part of the original plan.
In an NPR article titled 500 Years Later, The Spanish Conquest Of Mexico Is Still Being Debated by James Fredrick, they speak to the many inconsistencies in the portrayal of the Spanish Invasion. In fact, the version he initially speaks on is one of the versions I remember learning about in school. I remember learning first that the Aztec Emperor Montezuma surrendered his empire to Hernan Cortés, and that Cortés claimed Montezuma immediately recognized the divine right of the Spanish and the Catholic Church to rule the lands and he surrendered his empire. As History is written by the victors, it’s pretty obvious that that story makes no sense, and is very skewed towards Spain. One of the alternate versions of the happenings surrounding the Spanish invasion is also pretty skewed towards Spain, and the article speaks to that a bit. That the story completely ignores or minimizes the strength of both the Aztec army, as well as the indigenous rivals of the Aztecs that fought with Spain. They say: “The story of the Spanish conquest, as it has been commonly understood for 500 years, goes like this: Montezuma surrendered his empire to Cortés. Cortés and his men entered Tenochtitlán(tuh·nowch·teet·laan) and lived there peacefully for months until rebellious Aztecs attacked them. Montezuma was killed by friendly fire. The surviving conquistadors escaped the city and later returned with Spanish reinforcements. They bravely laid siege to Tenochtitlán(tuh·nowch·teet·laan) for months and finally captured it on Aug. 13, 1521, with the Spanish taking their rightful place as leaders of the land we now know as Mexico. Conquest accomplished.” What is so ridiculous about this version of events is there are two very fundamental questions that are missing for me. I am not the first person to ask these questions, there are historians, and scholars who have dedicated their lives to answering them. Native populations that know what actually happened.
Ultimately for that version of the story to be perpetuated for 500 years, the people asking questions have been silenced, systematically for that time. There is a reason that version of events is being maintained, because it benefits someone. But, there are two big questions missing from that version of events to me: First, the “they lived there peacefully for months until rebellious Aztecs attacked them”...okay but like why did they attack them? What did Cortes do? What did the conquistadors do? Everything was chill, and then out of nowhere we have a problem? Someone was messing with stuff…someone desecrated a temple or something. You don’t just switch the whole mood out of nowhere for no reason. Second, Cortes had a small army, miniscule, not big enough to take down a whole empire. Even with Spanish reinforcements, the Aztec empire was gigantic. In fact there were people in Cortés’ army that described the journey from the Tenochtitlan back to Spain as going from Heaven to Hell. Conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo described it as "all so wonderful that I do not know how to describe this first glimpse of things never heard of, seen or dreamed of before." Spain did not have the force necessary to take out an empire of things Spain had not ever heard of, seen or dreamed of before... Someone helped them do it… who helped them do it?
Cortes formed an alliance with the Tlaxcalan (tla(k)sˈkala) Empire, who considered the Aztec Empire their oppressors. The Spanish presented an opportunity for them to find liberation, so they allied with them in order to take Tenochtitlan (tuh·nowch·teet·laan). In exchange they were able to hold status and safety under Spanish rule until Mexico gained independence from Spain. In an article titled Don’t call us traitors: descendants of Cortés’s allies defend role in toppling Aztec empire, written by David Agren, they quote archaeologists in Tlaxcala. Archaeologist Eduardo Matos Moctezuma said “It wasn’t 600 to 800 Spaniards who conquered [Tenochtitlán (tuh·nowch·teet·laan)]. It was thousands and thousands of Tlaxcalans (tla(k)sˈkalans) , Huejotzingas (wayhotzingas) or other peoples, who were under the Mexica yoke and wanted to liberate themselves.” Another archaeologist named Aurelio Lopez Corral said “Cortés had 30,000 to 40,000 Mesoamericans fighting with him. He couldn’t have done it on his own.” The combination of the Aztec rivals, smallpox infection, and betrayal all combined to take the city of Tenochtitlan (tuh·nowch·teet·laan).
Other than the obvious conspiring against them, what else motivated the Aztecs to attack Hernan Cortes after the presumed months of peace? I read many of the letters that Hernan Cortes wrote, and while I think many of them were likely embellished or filled with outright lies on the actual happenings that took place during his time in Tenochtitlan, there are some things that seem possible. Specifically his disrespect to the Aztec beliefs and customs. In what is described as Cortes’ second letter, he speaks on desecrating a temple and replacing an idol with an image of “Our Lady and the Saints” “In these chapels are the images or idols, although, as I have before said, many of them are also found on the outside; the principal ones, in which the people have greatest faith and confidence, I precipitated from their pedestals, and cast them down the steps of the temple, purifying the chapels in which they had stood, as they were all polluted with human blood, shed in the sacrifices. In the place of these I put images of Our Lady and the Saints, which excited not a little feeling in Moctezuma and the inhabitants, who at first remonstrated, declaring that if my proceedings were known throughout the country, the people would rise against me; for they believed that their idols bestowed on them all temporal good, and if they permitted them to be ill-treated, they would be angry and withhold their gifts, and by this means the people would be deprived of the fruits of the earth and perish with famine.” In a statement of complete audacity, he told them that their gods weren't real, and that the true god is the Catholic god. The receivers of this information state outright that in him doing this, the people will rise against him, and ultimately they did. I’m not certain on the exact order of operations in how this took place, in whether his alliances started with the Tlaxcalans before he entered Tenochtitlan (tuh·nowch·teet·laan) or if that alliance started as a result of the retaliation from the Aztecs to his attempts to conquering Mexica. It seems overall that the history of this is debated.
What is apparent however, is the intentional picture that was painted of the Indigenous empires, both the Aztecs and their rivals, that attempted to validate the violence against them. The NPR article I mentioned previously unpacks this a bit. They say “For centuries, Spanish testimony portrayed the Aztecs and other Indigenous groups in the Americas as uncivilized, savage barbarians. But continued excavation of the Great Temple and Tenochtitlán has helped change that perception.” Raul Barrera Rodriguez, the director of the urban archaeology program at Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History speaks to this misconception. "Tenochtitlán was a huge city," says Barrera. "It had public institutions, a whole system of government, public servants, schools, public services — it was a totally organized city." When Tenochtitlan fell, the Spanish built their city directly on top of it. The temples and other sacred spaces still exist underneath. According to historian Matthew Restall, author of the book When Montezuma Met Cortés "The image we have of the Aztecs was overwhelmingly invented by Spaniards at the time," says Restall. "They used it to not only justify the conquest and colonization but any and all acts of violence that subsequently emerged." These misunderstandings and perceptions of the Aztecs and other indigenous groups were formed mostly for the Spanish benefit, to validate their conquest, and to rationalize the years that followed the fall of Tenochtitlan. The perpetuation of these viewpoints has far reaching implications, and all connect with the ways in which western colonizers viewed their colonies, as well as the inidigenous populations they destroyed. Restall continues, saying “Misunderstanding and misrepresentation of something like Aztec civilization today can make it easier for us to misunderstand and misrepresent Indigenous peoples of the Americas.” The reason these versions of events have been perpetuated for so long is because there are many who benefit from their perpetuation, internationally. The energy that Spain put towards the Aztecs and the other indigenous populations in the 1500s is what led to the continuation of that as they expanded north, as well as the ways indigenous populations were/are treated in the United States. The repercussions of these perceptions of the Aztecs and other native peoples in the Americas is still felt in the racism, colorism, and other forms of oppression still carried out today.
Why were the Aztecs brought up in the Character Development of Atl:
In Certain Dark Things, Atl is from Tlahuihpochtli [Tah-lah-wu-pal-chi] species of vampires, inspired by Aztec Gods. On Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s blog titled Build-A-Vampire they unpack where the character of Atl came from and the origins of the lore. Atl, the protagonist of the novel, is tlahuelpocmimi (singular tlahuihpochtli). A tlahuihpochtli is a creature from central Mexico which belongs to the rich tradition of witches in Latin America and the Caribbean. My great-grandmother spoke of witches menacing the countryside, casting spells on men and performing mayhem. The tlahuihpochtli is a type of witch which is able to transform into an animal (often a turkey). It drinks the blood of small children during the night. It can glow at nights (my great-grandmother spoke of balls of fire in the trees, which cackled). A tlahuihpochtli is born with this condition, which manifests when they become teenagers. Evil is therefore a genetic gift or ailment.
There are many and contradictory ways to deal with such creatures, some simple and others elaborate. You can sew little silver medals with the faces of saints to the clothes the child wears, tie a handkerchief, or repel the vampire-witch with garlic or onions. But these are not the only solutions. There are probably two dozen ways to tackle them: folklore is complicated.
In moving this creature from a rural context into a modern urban city, I made changes to it. Atl is not a witch, and although she transforms into a bird-like creature, she does not hunt for babies (she does need “young” blood and ends up finding a teenage garbage picker who can provide this).
When working on my novel the basic question was “What if vampires were real, not myths?” So, Atl emerged as a sort of realistic vampire. She can’t cast spells, a little medal won’t scare her, and she descends from bloodsuckers who integrated well with Aztec society. She is contrasted throughout the book with other authentic vampires who have European origins and seem to be the basis for the vampire as found in pop culture, like Dracula. Society in Certain Dark Things is inundated with portrayals of Euro vampires, but the Mesoamerican ones are less visible. This is a slight parable of the way Mexican society is inundated with Anglo culture: walk by a Mexican bookstore, look at the SFF section and witness that it’s all books in translation.
Of course, by positioning itself in an urban context, by offering a glossary in the back and categorizing vampires, Certain Dark Things breaks some of the complications of folklore. Oral tradition allows for knots and contradictions the printed page and the modern fantasy novel avoids: my great-grandmother’s stories were not always the same in the telling, they did not all align neatly.
My novel borrows liberally from Mexican folklore, from my thoughts on Aztec culture, from Mexico City life, noir films and old horror movies. There are other visions of vampirism by Latin American writers: David Bowles wrote “Ancient Hunger, Silent Wings,” which also stars a tlahuihpochtli. Incidentally, Bowles has a collection coming out in a few months, Chupacabra Vengance, which contains this and other stories.
What am I saying? That I offer one vision of “Mexican” vampires, but one alone which should not be viewed as universal, nor the only one. Here below I reproduce “Stories with Happy Endings,” from my short story collection This Strange Way of Dying, which takes the vampire in Mexico in a different direction. Have fun.
A lot of the misconceptions surrounding the Aztecs stems from the importance of blood in their belief systems. What was portrayed by Spain as satanic were misunderstandings surrounding the Aztec rituals and belief systems. The mythology surrounding the origins of humanity and their relationships with the gods tied back to blood. The gods gave their blood to give humanity life, and to the Aztec traditions, giving blood back was a part of the honoring of life and these gods, and continuing life on the planet. In my learning I ended up reading an entire book about Quetzalcóatl (pron. Quet-zal-co-at) or 'Plumed Serpent' was one of the most important gods in ancient Mesoamerica. A mix of bird and rattlesnake, their name is a combination of the Nahuatl words quetzal (the emerald plumed bird) and coatl (serpent). Quetzalcóatl was the god of winds and rain, and the creator of the world and humanity. In the World History Encyclopedia’s overview of the “Dawn Lord” Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, 'Dawn Lord,' was a Mesoamerican god who represented a menacing aspect of Venus, the morning star, and was one of the four gods which held up the sky. The people of the ancient Americas believed his rays could damage people, crops, and water sources. Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli played a key role in the Aztec creation myth and was 12th of the 13 Lords of the Day in the Aztec calendar. Each aspect of Venus - morning and evening - was manifested in the form of two ancient Mesoamerican gods: the feathered-serpent Quetzalcoatl and his canine companion Xolotl. Quetzalcoatl represented Venus as the morning star, and Xolotl represented it as the evening star. I’m not 100% sure because I couldn’t find anything specifically stating this to be true, but I think the version of Atl in Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s book carries similarities to Quetzalcoatl in that her transformation described in the book mimics that of a feathered serpent and that her dog Cualli could be similar to their canine companion Xolotl. The book I read on Scribd titled Quetzalcoatl: The History and Legacy of the Feathered Serpent God in Mesoamerican Mythology by Charles River was pretty interesting, and gave some context to things I didn’t know about previously.