Al filo del agua (literally, on the edge of the water) is a Spanish phrase with two meanings. It signifies the moment that the rain begins. The phrase is also used in reference to something imminent. The imminent in Agustín Yáñez’s novel, the Mexican Revolution, was brought on by dissatisfaction with the political situation and by social unrest. The Roman Catholic Church was one of Mexico’s institutions on which the unrest was focused; hence the emphasis on religion in the novel. Reform of the political system and land distribution were other causes for the revolution.
By 1910, Porfirio Díaz had been dictator of Mexico for more than thirty years. He had ruled with an iron hand, and only recently had the dream of political freedom and social improvement begun to filter through to the many semi-isolated towns of Mexico. The same few families had always been the social leaders and political bosses in the towns, and Díaz’s thirty-odd years of rule had done nothing to lessen this inequity or to improve the lot of the common people. Education was nonexistent except for the privileged few, and superstition was rampant.
Another force that held the people in its grip was the Church, a circumstance especially true in rural areas where Juarez’s 1859 Reform Laws seldom reached. These laws had greatly reduced the political power of the church, and such things as processions and public religious festivities were forbidden. In the small towns, however, the priests often continued such ecclesiastical activities in spite of the law.
Yáñez paints against this historical background a series of character studies portraying the effects of a narrow, rigid, dull, and conventional life on people of different ages, with varying degrees of education and exposure to outside influences. These influences, being, in the eyes of the village, outside ones and therefore bad, include such things as freemasonry, bright clothing, strangers, uncensored writings, fun, spiritualists, and people who had been to the United States. The list could go on and on. Yáñez creates a sense of monotonous gloom with the sure hand of an artist who has experienced this kind of life himself. The fictitious but typical town in which the action takes place is set in the state of Jalisco, of which the author was a native.
Each morning the church bells in this town call the people out of their beds as early as four o’clock to begin another dreary, quiet, prayerful day. Life is taken very seriously. The women wear dark, somber colors and do not leave the house except to go to church or to do necessary errands. There is no visiting except in the case of extreme illness or a death in the house of a neighbor. There is little laughter, dancing, or singing. Strangers and strangeness are condemned. Nonconformity, even in small things, starts tongues wagging. At the end of each unvarying day, the church bells send the people to bed, an act that for many means the onset of sleepless hours of anxiety or of wrestling with guilty consciences and of wondering when and in what form God’s wrath will be brought down upon their heads.
With this daily pattern providing the atmosphere, broken only by funerals, special fiesta days, and an occasional scandal, the action in the story begins as the people are preparing for their Lenten and Easter activities. The panorama of people and events proceeds through the year, displaying the special religious days of June; the expected deaths, illnesses, and bad luck in August; the celebration of patriotic holidays in September; the scandalous prank of the students home...
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for vacation in November; and the Christmas season with its festivities, which continues on into the New Year, at which time the people are awaiting the appearance of Halley’s Comet. This event is being anticipated so intently by Lucas Macías, the soothsayer, that the rest of the people prepare for trouble, for Lucas has from the start associated the appearance of the comet with the stepping onto the scene of Francisco Madero, the man who is to lead the revolution against the tyranny of Díaz.
The person who can most nearly be described as the main character is Don Dionisio, the stern and upright but just and compassionate parish priest. He alone touches in some way upon the lives of all the other characters in the book. His help comes from two assistant priests, who present a vivid contrast to each other. One, Padre Reyes, is liberal and forward-looking; the other, Padre Islas, is narrow and conservative. Although Padre Reyes is much more likable, it is Padre Islas, scurrying along the street from church to home so as to avoid meeting his parishioners on a personal basis, who wields more influence on the lives of the townspeople, for it is he who directs the organization to which all the unmarried girls belong. Into their minds he instills the urgent need to stay pure by remaining single, and he imbues them with a sense of guilt for thinking even wholesome thoughts connected with the opposite sex. This narrow man never uses the chapel of the Holy Family but always the chapel of the Virgin Mary, and Padre Reyes, the other assistant, is not above teasing him by asking if he thinks María and Juan will make a nice couple, or if he is aware that Mercedes is about ready to make someone a good wife. These questions are calculated to enrage Padre Islas. Padre Reyes, with his modern ideas about such things as life insurance—too far removed from the imaginations of the people to be noticed—is largely ignored, while Padre Islas is revered as a saint beyond the temptations and afflictions of ordinary man. Great is the disillusionment when the good Father Islas is found collapsed on the floor of the church in a fit of epilepsy, which results in his having to be removed permanently from the priesthood. The archbishop chooses wisely when Don Dionisio is made head priest, for he approaches the problems of his parishioners with the best elements of the philosophies of his two assistants—an urgent sense of responsibility for their souls accompanied by a forgiving and understanding heart.
Two other personalities who present a study in contrasts are María and Marta, the orphaned nieces of Don Dionisio, who has reared them since they were very small. At the time the story begins, they are in their twenties, unmarried, and on the verge of taking opposite paths in life. Marta is contented with her love for children, her work in the hospital, and other gentle occupations. She is the ideal end product of the social and religious forces at work in her environment. María is rebellious. She has read forbidden literature—for example, Les Trois Mousquetaires(1844; The Three Musketeers, 1846) and newspapers from the capital—behind her uncle’s back. María runs away with a woman of very questionable reputation to follow the revolutionary army. She is a creature of reaction against her unnatural environment.
What happens to María happens, with variations, to nearly all the young people who have had contact in any way with the outside world. Luis Gonzaga Pérez, a young and talented seminary student, is unable to reconcile his inhibitions concerning the opposite sex with his natural desires, and at the end of the novel, he is drawing lewd pictures on the walls of his room in an insane asylum.
Damián Limón, the young son of a fairly prosperous landowner, leaves home, like the prodigal son, and goes to the United States to work. Upon his return home, when criticized for going to such a sinful place, where Mexicans are treated like dogs, he counters by stating that at least there Mexicans are paid in money instead of in promises as in Mexico. Damián becomes scandalously involved in a flagrant love affair and kills the woman, Micaela Rodríguez, after having just caused his father to have a fatal heart attack over an argument about his father’s will. A corrupt political boss has a disgracefully light sentence placed upon him, and at the end of the story, he rides away to join the ranks of the revolutionaries.
The parents of Micaela, a spoiled only child, make the mistake of taking her to Mexico City for a few months. There she sees the parties, pretty clothes, and merriment of the capital’s young people. Never again is she satisfied to stay in her dreary hometown, and, failing to force her parents to move away to a livelier place, she threatens vengeance on the environment that binds her and shocks the town to its roots with her shameless flirting and indecent dress. She is finally stabbed by a jealous lover but dies forgiving him and putting the blame for her death on her own actions.
Doubt seems to be the villain that causes the downfall of these unfortunate young people. They taste of the world, compare it with their narrow surroundings, and find the surroundings wanting. Being few in number, these unlucky ones fall under the weight of a relentless social system that will tolerate no questioning. They turn their doubt of the system inward and begin to doubt themselves.
In the novel, the time is near at hand, however, when many doubters will join together with enough force to make a crack in the wall of hypocrisy that characterized Mexican society at the time. That crack would become ever wider as education seeped through. This is the meaning of the title of the novel. Yáñez gives the reader an unprejudiced and intricately detailed view of life in a Mexican town shortly after the beginning of the twentieth century. The book is not a call to arms to reform; rather, it presents an understanding, scathingly honest, and touching portrait.