The Underdogs presents the experiences of numerous characters involved in the Mexican Revolution in varied, highly distinct ways. Not only different parts of Mexican society, often from different areas of the country, but also different individuals had competing vested interests in the Revolution’s outcome. Even the federal troops changed loyalties among a rapidly changing array of presidents. With shifting coalitions, the joined opposition forces gradually gained strength. Several generals, notably Francisco (Pancho) Villa and Venustiano Carranza, led rival factions, while Emiliano Zapata aimed to unite the landless peasants. Throughout, the reader is often moved to wonder what people are fighting for, rather than fighting against. Conflicts arise as they switch sides, at times more from convenience than conviction. On the most fundamental level, the novel pits idealism against realism as Azuela paints revolution as a potential breeding ground for monsters.
Demetrio Macias is a peasant revolutionary fighter who moves from foot soldier to general. The progress of this natural leader through the Revolution’s battles and guerrilla fighting structures the novel. While Demetrio is sure that he and his fellow countrymen need a change, his motivations stem in part from his deep sense of personal injustice. Persecuted by the federal troops, who burn down his house, he commits to opposing them to the death. Yet he admits that fighting is as much a way of life as means to an end, stating that he can no more stop fighting than a pebble tossed into a canyon can stop falling.
In contrast, Luis Cervantes is an urban elite and apparently an unwilling recruit to the rebel cause. A former medical student, his motivation lies in rejection of the corruption of the establishment and upper classes. While the daily hardships and moral quandaries of battle erode his idealism further, he nonetheless attempts to infuse Demetrio with belief in the nobility of the cause. As Luis loses confidence that the revolution can succeed, his attitude becomes more pragmatic and he indulges in illegal behavior.
Demetrio’s followers rarely seem devoted to the ideals of social justice. Their interactions degenerate into personal feuds that undermine their effectiveness as a fighting force and push them to the brink of anarchy. Margarito in particular seems not merely amoral but sadistic.
Gender also structures the characters’ attitudes. Asturias generally presents the motivations of the female characters as personal, even to the point of apolitical. Camilla, who participates as a nurse for the rebel troops, is at first attracted to Luis but later torn by her affection for Demetrio. Another woman, La Pintada, becomes obsessed with jealousy over Demtrio and ultimately murders Camilla.