Demetrio Macías (day-MAY-tree-oh mah-SEE-ahs), a Mexican Indian who fights against government forces in the Mexican Revolution. Demetrio rebels against the government as a result of the treatment he receives at the hands of Federalist troops. He has no personal ambition, but his bravery and leadership eventually earn him the rank of general. Still, he is not a student of the rebel cause. His reasons for fighting at the outset are simple, even personal; later, he does not know why he continues to fight. His men wreak havoc on the many towns they enter, but Demetrio, in general, is not the sociopathic thug that so many of his men are, and he often steps in to keep their behavior in check. Demetrio is successful at defeating his enemy in battle but rejects several chances to kill those who have wronged him. He will not consider immigrating to the United States. He is an essentially peaceful man who has reacted to his circumstances. His only wish is to return home and to a peaceful life. He does return home, but the revolution does not provide him with a peaceful end.
Luis Cervantes (lew-EES sehr-VAHN-tehs), a pseudointellectual who joins Demetrio’s troupe, claiming to be a former journalist who has just deserted from the Federalist forces. He has deserted in part because he has come to see the truth about the government’s side, and he sympathizes with the poor and oppressed, represented by the rebels. How much of Cervantes’ story and, more important, his stated beliefs about the revolution is true is often difficult to discern. It takes some time for Demetrio and his men to trust him. He has the ability to intellectualize the revolution in all the ways in which Demetrio cannot, and it is Cervantes who encourages Demetrio to take his rightful place in history. Cervantes, however, looks out for himself. He always keeps himself out of harm’s way during battle, he collects booty when the opportunity arises, and he finally immigrates to Texas, from where he invites another of Demetrio’s men to come so the two of them can open a Mexican restaurant together.
Solís (soh-LEES), a true intellectual who has become disillusioned with the rebel cause. Solís appears only briefly, but his conversation with Cervantes provides an important view of the revolution, one probably similar to the author’s view. Solís began as an idealist and supported the rebel cause, but he has come to see the revolution as a hurricane and its participants like leaves in the wind, simply swept up by circumstances. He still appreciates the revolution on an ideal, theoretical level, but in the hands of the thugs who have executed it, he recognizes that it has become nothing more than an arena for robbery and murder. Solís is killed by a stray bullet as he and Cervantes talk.
Blondie (or Whitey Margarito, depending on the edition of the translation), a rebel who exhibits outrageous, even sadistic, behavior. Virtually all of Demetrio’s men display repugnant, criminal behavior (and in fact share criminal pasts), but Blondie’s behavior borders on the criminally insane. For example, he tortures a prisoner by dragging him down a road with a rope around his neck, and he makes an innocent person he meets in the street dance by shooting at his feet.
Camilla (kah-MEE-yah) or Camila (kah-MEE-lah), depending on the edition of the translation, a young woman who helps nurse a wounded Demetrio back to health. Her interests lie in Cervantes, who ignores her. Later, Cervantes tricks her into coming to join Demetrio, who has expressed an interest in her. She comes to care for Demetrio, but her criticism of the barbaric behavior of Blondie lands her on the wrong side of War Paint, who brutally murders her later.
War Paint or La Pintada (lah peen-TAH-dah), depending on the edition of the translation, a camp follower and armed female thug who accompanies Demetrio’s men. At first, she expresses interest in Demetrio, but soon she is back at Blondie’s side. She is jealous of Camilla on many levels, and when Demetrio orders the women not to accompany the men—an order instigated by Camilla—La Pintada, already enraged by Camilla’s comments about Blondie’s behavior, stabs Camilla to death in front of Demetrio and his men. Her attitude and actions are surpassed in their criminal nature only by those of Blondie.
Mariano Azuela knew firsthand the materials of this novel, for he had served as a military doctor with Pancho Villa’s Golden Boys. His vivid account of revolutionary Mexico was first published serially in a small El Paso newspaper. Almost forgotten, it was revived in 1924 and won immediate fame for its author. Pessimism marks this story of “those below”—los de abajo—at the beginning of the Mexican Revolution. This is no overall picture of the revolution but rather a blending of excitement, cruelty, and beauty as seen through the eyes of a man practically pushed into the struggle, a soldier who fought because the enemy was in front of him. Best known of Azuela’s sixteen novels, The Underdogs has appeared in dozens of Spanish editions and has been translated into many languages.
This favorite story about the Mexican Revolution still merits its international fame. It has both literary and sociological worth. Azuela’s honesty glitters in it because he does not overly caricature the Porfirista enemy even while lampooning him. Neither does Azuela spare the hypocrisies of his own side. His characterization is true to life, and his action scenes are fast and clear. Violence, pathos, beauty, and tragedy are etched against Jalisco’s night-blackened hills, so that the reader receives an indelible image of revolutionary pageantry, with its women soldaderas, bandoliered rebels, uniformed federales, and greedy nouveau riche who muddy the pond of revolutionary ideals. While painting only local vignettes of a nationwide holocaust, The Underdogs presents both the seedy and the inspiring aspects of the entire event.
The genuine worth of this novel was not recognized until almost a decade after its publication. By the mid-1920’s, however, it had been translated into various languages and was considered both a Latin American and a Mexican classic. It was written almost literally amid powder smoke, when Azuela was in despair because he saw that the revolution was drowning some injustices in blood only to spawn others as bad and as self-perpetuating. The virtue of the novel thus lies in its eyewitness impressions of intense, futile events. Azuela captures the excitement of times when bandoliered peons rode and marched off to war to the strains of the “Zacatecas March” or “La Cucaracha,” when the Victorian, Bourbonic, ordered age of Porfirio Díaz was dying. Lamentably, it was being supplanted by a violently conceived but stillborn new order that was not even to attempt many of its reforms until many dismal years later.
Ranked internationally as the best novel of the Mexican Revolution, The Underdogs helped transform the novel into the most important literary genre of Latin America. (Before 1910, novels by Latin American authors had inspired few translations and little fame beyond the local regions in which the individual novels were produced.) The Underdogs may also be the first Latin American novel whose singular literary style was shaped by the subject matter rather than by academic tradition. For example, in this work, time is telescoped to reflect the rapidity of events, and linguistic nuances tinge different aspects of the novel, including characters, scenes, and episodes. Individual members of Demetrio’s command symbolize certain features of Mexican society—one soldier is a former barber, others are peons, both poor and prosperous, and there are also prostitutes, virtuous countrywomen, a former waiter, and many other types. Although the venal characters are city dwellers and never country folk, the latter are sometimes ignorant.
Using an elliptical style, Azuela selects and spotlights a few specific characteristics of a person, a scene, or a situation so as to describe it deftly. He thus uses disjointed scenes, rather than systematic chapters, to strengthen the overtone of violent eruption. Selfishness wins, idealism is crucified, and the novel’s true protagonist—Mexico’s poor—does not march out of misery.
Although fragmented into many swift scenes, the novel is divided into three basic sections. The first section has twenty-one chapters and reflects hope; the last two sections have a total of twenty-one chapters and reflect failure. It is in the latter two portions of the novel that the filth, nastiness, and lewdness of war are best painted, when persons such as Cervantes realize that the revolutionary issues will not be decided by logic or delicacy but by brute power, as symbolized by self-made, upstart generals who care little for ideals.
Azuela uses colors and details well. The natural dialogue is regionalistic but not difficult and, although each personality uses special shades of language that subtly characterize him or her, a high percentage of the characters speak in standard Spanish.
The revolution ultimately disappeared without having helped the common people who needed help; rather, it had made their lives more difficult. Azuela’s sympathy in The Underdogs is thus always with the poor, whom he neither idealizes nor attacks. For the opportunists who betrayed the revolutionary ideals, he reserves a special sarcasm.
Azuela’s masterpiece became the standard novel of the revolution, which was the first significant socioeconomic upheaval in Latin America. Most other revolutionary movements of the preceding years had not sought to aid the submerged masses, the mestizo, the Indian, the laborer, the underdog in general. Following Azuela’s example, many Mexican and other Latin American novelists took up the fight for reform, denouncing tyranny and championing the cause of the forgotten. Since 1916, numerous starkly realistic novels have been published throughout Latin America that defend the underdog.