The Underdogs Summary

Mariano Azuela

The Underdogs

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The Underdogs Summary

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The Underdogs by Mariano Azuela is considered the representative novel of the Mexican Revolution, which began in 1910 and lasted until 1920, and the novel has earned comparisons to works such as Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. Azuela himself was a medic during this conflict and brings his firsthand knowledge to bear in his work, which was one of the first critiques of the revolution and of post-revolution society. It was initially published as a serial in the newspaper El Paso del Norte in 1915 and retains this episodic nature in novel form.

Azuela’s novel follows Demetrio Macías, a poor farmer living in the small town of Limón in Mexico, with his wife and young son. Having opposed the local caciqe or leader, Demetrio finds his life in danger and he is forced to abandon his family and flee to the mountains. There he joins a small band of rebels who are fighting the Federales, or government forces. During an encounter with these soldiers, Demetrio is shot in the leg and has to be taken to a nearby village to rest. His wound is treated by Camilla, a woman who soon falls in love with another of the rebels, the proud medical student Luis Cervantes, who has recently deserted the Federales in favor of the rebels and who will eventually flee the revolution for the safety of the U.S.A. However, Luis does not return Camilla’s affections and she eventually becomes Demetrio’s lover.

Through a series of military victories, Demetrio rises in the ranks of the rebel army, eventually becoming a general. From this point on, however, his luck turns and, after a defeat at Aguascalientes, his men are forced to retreat. The novel moves quickly between major events and Azuela is careful to draw attention to the differences and dissension that exists among the rebel factions. Furthermore, the behavior of the rebels increasingly reflects that of the government forces they are fighting against; they rape women, murder men and loot villages. These behaviors are particularly evident in the characters of Whitey and La Pintada, who represent the darker excesses of the rebel forces. Demetrio, on the other hand, while far from perfect, remains something of an idealist, whose first instinct is to share the loot among the people, instead of keeping it all for himself. Rather than bringing about change or even delivering peace to the ordinary people of Mexico, the rebels begin to mete out the kind of violence that they were once subject to at the hands of the army, and which motivated them to rebel in the first place.

After two years, and with the ordinary people becoming hostile to the rebel forces, Demetrio returns to his family in Limón, where he finds himself unable to answer his wife’s questions about why he fought for so long. While the revolution is almost over, the government is not content to let the rebels go unpunished. Troops are sent to the last remaining strongholds and Demetrio, vastly outnumbered, dies alone while taking aim at a soldier. The novel thus ends in the same place it began, and its cyclical nature suggests that change is illusory and that the revolution has failed. Indeed, Demetrio’s inability to articulate his reasons for fighting raises similar questions about the meaning of the revolution more generally.

Azuela’s tone is bleak and unsympathetic, pointing to the rebels’ limited understanding of politics or of the conflict, and their repetition of many of the atrocities for which they condemn the Federales. His detailed descriptions of the landscape seem to offer a metaphor for the difficult moral terrain the rebels find themselves in and its unchanging nature compounds the sense that the revolution has failed to fundamentally change Mexican society. The rebels’ interest in money also raises the question of material versus moral values; are they fighting to effect political change, or in order to loot the houses of rich men? Given that many of the rebels come from poor backgrounds, their desire for material things seems natural, but in prioritizing their greed over the broader goals of the revolution, their cause itself becomes impoverished. The Underdogs takes an unflinching look at a complex period in Mexican history and asks some difficult questions, both about the revolution itself and, implicitly, about post-revolution society. As a result it remains a necessary and important account of this seminal time.