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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 963

The Underdogs is set in the countryside and mountains, small villages, and cities of Mexico from 1910-1915. The revolutionaries and Federales are woven together in the fabric of Mexico’s fight for its identity in the early twentieth century. Azuela shows the crisis of ideology as the two opposing forces impose their wills across the country.

When the novel begins, the reader immediately falls into the sights, sounds, tastes, feelings, and smells of a small village in Mexico. Demetrio’s home of Límon is filled with the sound of dogs barking, Federales and horses intruding upon a poverty-stricken rural area, and the smell of tequila, eggs, and tortillas. By the time Demetrio steps out of a room to meet the intruding Federales, readers exhale in relief. The men all know each other and Demetrio’s wife and son run out to Demetrio’s father’s house to escape any further terror. Demetrio escapes to the mountains to meet the rest of his men. The mountainsides and ravines carve out the military and rebel trails snaking their way through Mexico. Azuela describes the landscape in its sharpness and barrenness. When Demetrio is climbing the mountains, they are described as rocky, veined, and with enormous cracks. The trees are not lush but have crags upon which the moon casts its shadows. Everything is dry and withering as if the Federales and the Mexican government have extracted the very life from the countryside to claim it as their own. The trees also become a source of horror when Quail finds Serapio and Antonio, two men that have gone missing. They are up in the branches of a mesquite tree swaying gently in the wind. Like the branches of the tree, they hang limp and rigid. The trees are a metaphor for the death that permeates the landscape. As each side uses the mountainside to advantage, bodies are strewn along the hills and ravines. The sharp edges and deep cliffs absorb the men. In a surprise attack, the men and the horses are startled and then descend to their deaths, and become “fused” into one. A boy loses his footing and tumbles over an edge, followed by a group of men falling over the crest. Azuela describes one slope nearly six hundred meters long. It is covered with dead bodies, tangled hair, and clothes stained with blood and mud. The earth accepts these bodies. White and black smoke rises from these hills, which further illustrates the death and decay in the mountains.  Luis comes to an important realization when he is with Solís, surveying the smoke and hills. At first, he thinks the smoke from the rifles and houses are combining as a sign of the revolutionary forces rising together and embracing. In the same moment, he is struck by how the smoke merges and then vanishes. As foretold in the smoke, the revolution has only an empty promise in these hills. The revolution appears to amount only to senseless death.

The Underdogs also illustrates the ethnic settings of the villages dotted along the trail. The small huts in the rural areas provide a flavor of the American Indian ways of life. Medicine is natural and yet primitive, like witchcraft. After Demetrio suffers a gunshot wound, he is carried into the hut of an old woman named Remigia. She treats him with a pigeon that she slices open in one swift move with her knife. The blood drips down on Demetrio and she leaves the warm bird on his midsection. The other woman in the village describe plant leaves and other methods of treating ailments, which fills in the American Indian...

(This entire section contains 963 words.)

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heritage in this part of Mexico and how it survives. The cock crows, and hens roost in the trees. A goat supplies milk and sustenance. These people are barely surviving, especially with the Federales pillaging these small villages. They take everything, including the women. Following a victory, the revolutionaries often visit the restaurants and bars dotted along their route to Guadalajara. These settings introduce readers to a segment of Mexican culture that has since been replicated in many novels and films. The men walk in victorious and hungry. They make demands of the waiters and waitresses. The revolutionaries are fighting for the poor, and yet in these bars their appetites are ravenous and out of control. In one scene in The Underdogs, Margarito slaps a waiter after not receiving his cold water. Other men in the bar retell their stories of abusing and killing waitstaff who have not accommodated their needs in the past. In this setting, their extreme poverty and need combines with the immediate spoils of victory. The mixture is toxic and compelling. As the food and drinks flow and their appetites are whetted, women often appear and brothels are the next advancement in taking their spoils. The female Federales, particularly in the example of La Pintada, share the same ravenous sense of victory. When claiming the booty that the revolutionaries believe is their own, La Pintada is often the best. Her booty, in one case, is a large horse which she rides into the bar, to the envy and amazement of her fellow revolutionaries. Sharpshooting and other bravado create a bracing and ugly picture. At one point, Guero says he will shoot himself and aims for a mirror. The bullet just grazes La Pintada’s hair as she sits motionless and confident. The mirror crashes and laughter erupts. The culture of the Mexican bar represents the bravado and confidence of the revolutionaries—and also the ugly spoils and disillusionment of their victories. It is as if they do not know what to do with victory, success, or with their riches because their lives have been impoverished and oppressed for so long.

Places Discussed

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 618


*Limón (lee-MOHN). Rural village in Zacatecas in which the novel begins and ends. In the opening pages, Federalists raid Demetrio’s humble home, kill his dog, threaten his wife, and burn his fields. Demetrio flees to the mountainside and calls for his fellow revolutionaries to join him. Severe contrasts in the landscape symbolize the rugged nature and simple beauty of country life. The steep slopes, giant rocks, and dry branches of the river canyon contrast sharply with the delicate San Juan roses that dot the landscape. The rebels are outnumbered five hundred to twenty but because they have a more intimate connection with their surroundings, they force the Federalists to retreat.

At the end of the novel, Demetrio, who has risen in rank from chief to general, returns to Limón and briefly rejoins his wife and son, whom he hardly recognizes after his absence. Although Demetrio, too, has gone through many changes, the village landscape remains unchanged. When his wife asks him why he continues to fight in the revolution, he throws a stone against the mountainside and watches it slowly roll down. Like the tumbling stone, Demetrio is propelled, beyond his will, by the momentum of the revolution. The novel’s cyclical structure denies a sense of progress that signifies the defeated aims of the revolution. Demetrio dies, rifle in hand, at the same ravine in which he won his first victory.

Camila’s ranch

Camila’s ranch. Tiny ranch owned by the Indian woman Camila, who tends Demetrio’s wounds as he and his men recover from their battle with Federalists at Limón. Demetrio falls in love with Camila, whose ranch comes to symbolize the simplicity, honesty, and integrity for which he longs.

Vacant mansion

Vacant mansion. Abandoned home of a wealthy Federalist who has fled in advance of the rebels, who ransack the house. Filled with expensive books, carpets, furniture, and artwork, the mansion contrasts sharply with the houses of the revolutionaries, whose greed for material wealth combines with their brash, often violent behavior, to depict the seedy underside of the revolution.


*Moyahua (moy-AH-huah). Small Mexican town in the state of Zacatecas, where the rebels raid the home of a landowning Federalist, Don Mónico. In many ways, this raid parallels that of the Federalists on Demetrio’s home in the first chapter. Although the revolutionaries want to ransack Don Mónico’s house, Demetrio forbids such action. An idealist, he feels that such material pursuits distract the rebels from the true cause of their revolution. Moreover, if the wealth simply changes hands from the Federalists to the rebels, then corruption will not be defeated, and the revolution will be in vain. Instead of looting the house, Demetrio runs Don Mónico and his family off their property and has the house burned to the ground. Ironically, Demetrio and his men then spend the night in a dingy building that is used as a garbage heap.


*Juchipila (hoo-chee-PEE-la). Zacatecas village at the base of a high hill in which Pancho Villa won his first victory in 1910. When Demetrio and his men enter this village, he finds that the villagers no longer want to support the rebels. The town stands for both the promise and the failure of the revolution.

*El Paso

*El Paso. Texas border town to which the pretentious Federalist-turned-rebel Cervantes escapes. In a letter he tries to encourage fellow rebel Venancio to join him and start a new life. His flight marks his abandonment of the revolutionary cause.

*La Bufa

*La Bufa (BOO-fah). Mountain near the city of Zacatecas where Demetrio leads a brave charge against the Federalists. His leadership earns him the rank of general.


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Last Updated on June 23, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 235

Brushwood, John S. The Spanish American Novel: A Twentieth-Century Survey. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1975. The second chapter of this scholarly work is dedicated to Azuela’s best-known novel. Compares and contrasts it to other novels produced in 1916.

Leál, Luis. Mariano Azuela. New York: Twayne, 1971. A full-length biography and examination of Azuela’s life and works. Asserts that Azuela’s novels, especially The Underdogs, are the best recording of Mexico’s transition from the past to the present.

Rutherford, John. Mexican Society During the Revolution: A Literary Approach. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1971. Describes the themes, structure, characters, and social context of Azuela’s novels. Discusses Azuela’s portrayal of peasant revolutionaries; characters as mouthpieces for the author; and portrayals of Villistas, Indios, and intellectuals during the revolution. Extensive annotated checklist of history and criticism.

Schwartz, Kessel. A New History of Spanish American Fiction. Coral Gables, Fla.: University of Miami Press, 1972. A close analysis of the novels of the Mexican Revolution, with an extensive discussion of The Underdogs. Describes the novel as Azuela’s masterpiece; asserts that Azuela has come close to writing the definitive novel of the Mexican Revolution.

Spell, Jefferson Rea. Contemporary Spanish-American Fiction. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1944. A good study of Azuela’s novelistic techniques. Chapter 3, which is dedicated to Azuela as portrayer of the Mexican Revolution, contains a description of the characters, events, and methodology of The Underdogs.




Critical Essays