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Romance, War and the Undead entwine in Isabel Cañas’ ‘Vampires of El Norte’

By Gabriel San Román


The first separation in Isabel Cañas’ ‘Vampires of El Norte’ comes between Nestor and Nena, who, as teenage friends, ventured away from their Rio Grande Valley rancho one night in search of fabled Spanish silver.

Nena is stricken by something during the outing.

Nestor hurriedly brought her body back to Rancho Los Ojuelos, where, by all appearances, Nena was rendered lifeless from the wound, which would later leave a telling scar on her neck. He left the rancho in shame made to believe her death was his fault.

For nine long years, that untruth prevailed. But when Nestor returned to the rancho as a vaquero and discovers that Nena is remarkably still alive, they embark on a path towards each other again—one that reveals the frightful mystery of that almost fateful night along the way.

Despite the title, the romance between Nestor and Nena is at the heart of Cañas’ sophomore novel. Set in the backdrop of Texas “being ripped out of Mexico” during the 1840s, history casts its harrowing shadow over its storylines.

And then, there’s vampires.

Weaving historical fiction, romance and horror together is no easy genre-mashing fear. But Cañas, whose debut novel ‘The Hacienda’ meshed history, suspense and the supernatural to acclaim, is more than capable. She draws engrossing characters, lush scenery and creeping terror in keeping the pages turning. Like any good horror novel, the mystery of the monsters isn’t immediately revealed. Instead, the men of Rancho Los Ojuelos are afflicted with some sort of susto. Only curanderas are able to mount any healing powers against it. All the while, rising tensions seep into the story as word of warring Anglos lusting for Mexican land spreads through Los Ojuelos. The ruthless Texas Rangers are derided as “Rinches” by the Mexicans.

An auxiliary cavalry of ranchers and vaqueros form to fight with the Mexican forces as war breaks out. Nestor, as a soldier, and Nena, as a curandera, are enlisted.

In the theater of war, they both slowly learn the truth about the monsters that have haunted Los Ojuelos. Cañas brims with brooding prose in dosing out the dread.

“Soon the monster would claw itself free from the body it had followed them in, shedding its cage with butchery, shattering a protective egg of bone and gore,” she writes in the novel’s most chilling scene.

In time, surviving the war acts as a salve for the bitter separation between Nestor and Nena.

Their budding romance—and Nena’s rancher parents’ opposition to it—also functions as a subtle critique of class divisions within Mexican society, which served to weaken the solidarity needed to mount a defense against an aggressive imperial threat.

Those interwoven plots frame Cañas’ latest contribution to the literary melding of Mexican historical fiction and horror, which joins Silvia Moreno-Garcia and other likeminded authors who are exploring those worlds through their wordsmithing.

Where Cañas thrives in ‘Vampires of El Norte’ is her setting, a place that author knows well through her own Rio Grande Valley roots," writes critic and local writer San Román.

Where Cañas thrives in ‘Vampires of El Norte’ is her setting, a place that author knows well through her own Rio Grande Valley roots. As the site of Cañas’ historical horror, the borderlands are Anzaldua’s “herida abierta” at its rawest.

With the passage of time, la frontera has become more medieval in its militarization. Walls, bayous, barb wire and other cruel contraptions all cement a continuous “keep out” policy between presidential administrations. Cañas takes us back to the carving of the land that made it so with ‘Vampires of El Norte’ set on the eve of imperial war between the U.S and Mexico. The old world, as Antonio Gramsci once said, is dying—and that’s when Cañas’ monsters appear. The vampire also stood a chief metaphor for Karl Marx is his undressing of capitalism. For him, class oppression sucked the life out of labor and the fruits of it. But in Rancho Los Ojuelos, the chief issue is land, not labor, and who will call it home.

In her author’s note, Cañas said that she initially played with the idea of involving vampires in a novel set in 19th Century Mexico, but that the supernatural element felt shoehorned in. A chance encounter with a historical proclamation from Juan Nepomuceno Cortina to the Mexicans of the U.S. state of Texas where he lambasted gringos as “vampires” in 1859 gave the novel new blood. Positioning the phantasmal bloodsuckers as captives in ‘Vampires of El Norte,’ though, drains them of their terror. The creatures of the night become wedged in between Nestor and Nena’s romance and the broader saga of the gringo invasor encroaching on Mexican land.

The love story at the heart of the novel still radiates with Cañas’ masterful prose. The advancing imperialism of the Mexican-American War on Rancho Los Ojuelos is retold with a historian’s touch and boils the blood at an infuriating pace. Readers looking for an enticing love affair set amid war will find ‘Vampires of El Norte’ more than satisfying.

But for horror fans, the vampires along the shifting U.S.-Mexico border play third wheel in el Norte despite their obvious presence as a metaphor for Manifest Destiny’s genocidal gluttony. Because of that, the undead aren’t able to fully plunge their fangs into the fray.


Gabriel San Román founded LibroMobile's Arts & Culture column in May 2020. Then he joined TimesOC, a Times Community News publication, as a feature writer in 2021, and worked from 2022-24 as a Metro reporter covering Orange County for the Los Angeles Times. San Román previously worked at OC Weekly – as a reporter, podcast producer and columnist – until the newspaper’s closing in late 2019. He also may just be the tallest Mexican in O.C.


Starting February 2023, #OffThePage is featuring Melanie Romero as our monthly columnist. Our Arts & Culture column was initially founded by local journalist Gabriel San Román in May 2020. Since then we have collaboratively featured over 25 stories and paid nearly 10 contributors from our community. Pitch Melanie a story or email us for more information!


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