Review of "The Underdogs"

Mariano Azuelo’s novel The Underdogs was first published in 1915 and is an account of the revolutionary war in Mexico against the Federal government of Porfirio Díaz. The novel predominantly follows the military actions of bandit-turned-general Demetrio Macías, against the Federal government and the manner in which his armed forces are housed, fed, paid, disciplined and interaccaudt with themselves and others segments of Mexican society. In the account of Demetrio’s rise it is possible to see the historical context of caudillismo and the structural limitations for enacting progressive development once the economic and political contradictions of dependent development have been contested. To the first point of caudillismo, we can trace it in the brief career of Demetrio, who leads a small rebellion for personal gain and then decides to join the “formal” army simply in order to potentially gain more. The second issue is shown in the environmental, institutional and social destruction as a result of the civil war itself.

We first encounter Demetrio and his band in armed confrontation with the federal troops. Demetrio is shown to be brave, strong and charismatic to those under his command. He frames his participation in the rebellion in a moralistic personal narrative devoid of notions of class or national solidarity. This desire for revancha similarly motivates the other members of his band that too could be taken as archetypes for the historical context within which they find themselves. Their attacks are not coordinated with any of the other forces fighting against Díaz in the country until they are joined by Luis Cervantes.

Luis is an outsider, both from his previous advocacy of conservative positions, as is evident from his writing in the El Pais and El Regional newspapers, and his class background, his parents could afford to pay tuition for him to be a medical student. Additionally he is described as having a handsome appearance, likely preserved from not engaging in taxing manual, agricultural labor and having a certain reservedness. For these reasons he is given the name Curro, or handsome, which could be interpreted as referring both to his looks and his refined habits.

However these do not alone compose his variations from Demetrio’s group. He states his decision to join forces with the revolutionary band is for idealistic reasons rather than naked material interest. Azuelo shows how ambiguous such a commitment is, however, in providing a backstory that shows Luis previously in the company of the government troops and deciding to desert after being humiliated by his commander, learning how many of the troops were untrained farmers pressed into service and how profitable the side of the rebellion could be. This last consideration is unknown to the group and thus he is viewed according to all in the band as being “made of different stuff”, which in this context means being looked up with suspicion. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, he soon becomes a mouthpiece for the values proclaimed by revolutionary leaders such as Villa and Zapata. While not specifically citing the Plan of Ayala as a motivating force for his action, he states “The revolution is for the benefit of the poor, the ignorant, those who have been slaves all their lives, the miserable ones…” (15).

Though Curro is new to the group and an outsider, his capacity for ratiocination is also recognized. When determining the next plan of action, Curro is able to convince Demetrio not just to be an insurgent, but to make an effort to join the revolutionary army of Natera so as to gain position within the new political organization. On this point he states to Demetrio:

“You are generous, and say: “My only ambition is to return to my land.” But is it fair to deprive your wife and children of the fortune that the Divine Providence is now placing in your hands? Is it fair to forsake the motherland at the solemn moment when she will need the abnegation of her humble children to save her, to keep her from falling into the hands of the eternal oppressors and torturers, the caciques?” (25-26)

Leaving aside the ambiguity of Curro’s commitment to egalitarian reform, in the crucible of Mexican class struggle that Curro has entered into his propounded values are soon confronted by the material realities and he soon transitions to an opportunistic pragmatism. The reasons for this are best voiced by an acquaintance, Sr. Solis, he meets in the camp of Natera. Before he is shot in battle, Solis states that “you either become a bandit like them or you leave the stage and hide behind the walls of a fierce and impenetrable egotism” (38). Stripping the abstract to its materiality, we see that Solis refers to a series of behaviors that Luis also witnesses that could be summed as lack of revolutionary discipline.

The men which are leading the military charge are not just querulous about their socio-economic position but also amongst themselves, their aggression leads to in-fighting that, when exacerbated by alcohol, lead to murder. They display their anti-intellectualism by cooking corn with books, destroying art and breaking objects such as crystal chandeliers simply because they are manifestations of the surplus capital extracted from peasant labor. The chain of command becomes difficult to maintain. There is tension between the insurgents and those that have abandoned their roles in the Federal Army that is compounded by the anti-hierarchical sentiments unleashed by the revolutionary cause. The role of women in the novel not only shows their marginal status within a society dominated by males and naked force but becomes yet another point of differentiation between Luis and the “revolutionary” group. After Luis finds a “currita” that he expresses the intention of marrying, she must lock herself away from the other men for fear of rape. This romantic subplot also highlights the recurring tensions, distrust and conflict that exists between city and urban-dwellers.
As these variances in acculturation accumulate, Luis realizes that his “place” in the revolution is not to be found amongst the armed services but in the urban, professional class. At this point he begins to trade loot with the other members of the group to get the most valuable objects and hides some of his loot from them. Demetrio catches him, but does nothing as Luis manipulates the impoverished leader’s rich moral self-conception by offering to prove his loyalty to the group by offering him his take, which is declined.

After Luis has accumulated enough loot he decides to leave the group. Realizing that the best use of the capital he has accumulated from his time with Demetrio would not be in unstable, impoverished Mexico, he relocates to Texas and invests in the completion of his medical studies. This depiction of capital and intellectual flight is not unique to this historical situation but a trend that still occurs in many Latin American countries. With Luis gone, Demetrio has no compass with which to interpret the vicissitudes of power politics. When asked by Natera who’s side he is on, the Carranca or Villa, his response is to recognize his ignorance on the matter and state that he will follow whoever Natera decides.

In the closing section of the novel the cost of the conflict takes on a greater potency. No longer is the conflict just between the opposing forces but between the purportedly liberated and themselves as well as them with the land. The fighting has claimed so many lives and horses that it has slowed or stopped agricultural production, the legacy of theft and pecuniary speculation has harmed trade and caused peasants to now prefer commodity to money exchange. The novel closes with a deep pessimism as to the future of the movement, best expressed by Demetrio himself. Demetrio returns home to his wife and child but finds that he no longer desires to do the farm work that helped instigate him to take up arms. Furthermore he starts to believe the grandiose, conquerors mythology he created about himself and when asked by his wife why it is that he continues to fight, he has no noble response but simply points to a stone he has just thrown and says: “See how that pebble can’t stop…” (86).

On a final note I think it’s worth commenting that the predominant translation of “Los De Abajo” has been “The Underdogs”. While I agree that the band depicted were “the underdogs” in the fighting that transpired, I believe that my short analysis of the novel indicates that Azuela did not intended this interpretation that these people were simply “those from below.” This is evident in the fact that the one surviving middle class characters, Luis, become so disgusted by what he witnesses that he deserts and the depiction of the rebels as brave, but ignorant bandits that cannot build but only destroy.