The Underdogs Themes
The main themes in The Underdogs are survival, ignorance, and brutality.
- Survival: Demetrio Macías and the other soldiers of the peasant class caught up in the Mexican Revolution fight, kill, and loot in order to survive.
- Ignorance: Demetrio is illiterate, and he and his men are often unaware of why they are fighting; they simply follow orders from leaders they never meet, relying on the greater awareness of the world held by men like Cervantes.
- Brutality: Acts of wartime brutality are committed by both revolutionaries and federal soldiers and are especially evident in the actions of Towhead Margarito and War Paint.
Contrary to the fatalistic nature of most of the characters in The Underdogs is the instinct of survival which the characters pursue first and foremost. Demetrio flees his home in order to survive; he fights in order to survive. If he and his men do not kill the enemy, the enemy will kill them. This “shoot or be shot” attitude persists until the increased acts of random violence suggest that maybe other factors are at play. But the men’s increased violence is simply an offshoot of the need to survive. When the stakes are life and death, nothing else really matters, and in this context the rapes, the torture, and the destruction of property can be easily understood. The men kill because it is better to be predator than prey. The only goal is to survive. There is no difference between accidentally shooting someone and intentionally pulling the trigger. Someone dies and someone lives. If the men can then sleep in better beds, eat better food, and drink more alcohol, why not?These comforts only insulate the instinct to survive. For Demetrio and his men there is no varied, complicated list of consequences and no real indication of what will happen if they win or lose. There is only one consequence: death. They view everything around them with animal eyes. For Luis Cervantes, survival means a bit more: wealth, recognition, and power. These goals are as important to Cervantes as staying alive is to the peasant revolutionaries.
The theme of ignorance can be seen on several levels. The inability to know or reluctance to know shapes every character. From faulty intelligence and illiteracy, to a general unawareness of the world, Demetrio and his men rarely know what is going on. They know that men dressed in a certain way should be shot, but outside of this singular clarity, there is little illumination. When Demetrio is shot, the men defer to Venancio, a barber known in his town as the witch doctor. Venancio is the man who knows the most, but in truth, Venancio knows very little. When Luis Cervantes, a trained medical student, enters the town, Venancio cannot help being impressed with the young man’s knowledge. Cervantes’s knowledge and speeches soon win over the peasants. They are not ignorant enough to be afraid of knowledge, but they admit to not really comprehending what Cervantes is talking about most of the time. Yet when Cervantes suggests they meet up with General Natera, the men agree. When they are told by more important, more intelligent men to keep on fighting, the peasants keep on fighting, while Cervantes eventually takes off to the United States. But throughout his time with Demetrio, Cervantes is also ignorant. He is aware of a great deal, but he is not aware of the intricacies above him. Initially he spouts the beliefs of a moral man, but he betrays these earlier admissions when he begins to pillage and plunder alongside the peasants, who now seem to be controlling his actions. As the war continues, the larger picture grows harder and harder to see. Throughout the novel, the men constantly profess their lack of knowledge and understanding of the cogs and gears driving them forward.
In The Underdogs Azuela mostly points out the negative aspects of human nature through the banal way in which Demetrio and the revolutionaries view human life. In the first few pages, Demetrio and his men seem to hate the federal troops, and vice versa. They find two of their comrades hanging from a tree, and when Luis Cervantes stumbles into town everyone but Demetrio wants to kill the enemy, deserter...
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or not. Considering the situation, the actions of the revolutionaries, and their views on life and death, can now be understood. But as the novel unfolds, these “heroes” who profess to be fighting for their country begin to kill indiscriminately. At first they justify the murders, but later they abandon this charade. A priest is shot for wearing city clothes, and Towhead (also known as Blondie or Whitey, depending on the translation) ties a rope around a federal soldier’s neck and drags the man behind his horse. This random, banal type of mindset is not restricted to the warriors, as War Paint gets angry and kills Camilla in a heartbeat. Would she have acted so brutally, so carelessly, had the revolution not dissolved the rules of basic conduct? Halfway through the novel, several characters reflect on people they have killed and give the reasons. Each reason is more pointless than the next, and Azuela even writes in narrative that this theme “is inexhaustible.”
While Azuela gives few examples (outside of Cervantes’s manipulative nature) of the psychological brutalities that can be inflicted upon man, these invisible acts can be seen in Demetrio and his men, all of them following orders from authority figures they rarely see. None of them see Pancho Villa and other high-ranking revolutionaries, the men who make the major decisions, but these invisible figures cause Demetrio and the others to continue to fight against the federales and then fight against other revolutionary factions.
The Underdogs illustrates Mexico's vast natural landscape. The mountains, ravines, and trees are presented with grand beauty and also a haunting sense of foreboding. When Demetrio climbs the craggy mountains and steep ravines, the reader senses his great effort; every step requires tremendous effort. The landscape is stark and dry; there is no sense of growth or life. When the Federales are charging up the mountain, they fall into crevices like “stones” into the water. When Camila goes to the river every day to get water, she feels a great sadness in her land. The rocks, sun-baked branches, and moss are dry and sheathed in shadows. The wind blows softly but stirs “the pointed leaves of the tender ears of corn.” The branches are dry, the cliffs are eroded, and the rock is unwelcoming.
From the beginning of the novel, animals reappear to remind the reader of the swiftness with which death and violence are mixed with life. At first, Demetrio and his wife are trying to decipher the sounds: are they human? Or is it an animal that is stirring? When the Federales enter Límon, there is the sound of horses and a dog barking. Then a shot is heard and a dog whimpers, then dies. The swiftness with which this happens is startling and an indication of the culture. Animals are also a valuable source of food and represent wealth. Their value is at once significant and then immediately worthless with the shot of a gun. Life for all is capricious.
Azuela presents a wavering sense of worth: the characters either experience great poverty or great riches. There is no middle ground in The Underdogs. In the villages, the Federales take everything: the animals, the food, and the women. When the revolutionaries reach a village, there is an overwhelming sense of loss. The villagers are barely surviving with their hens and goats. Most are emaciated. When the revolutionaries experience a victory, they enter a bar or restaurant and behave as the Federales do. They demand food and drink by brandishing their weapons and by beating and killing people. War Paint teaches Demetrio to loot the houses as this is their right to claim to spoils of their victory. She and the other revolutionaries take jewelry, clothes, horses, and anything else of value. War Paint’s scene with the lace-trimmed silk gown represents the juxtaposition of their values. War Paint finds this beautiful and valuable dress. She has no stockings, so she asks Pancracio to get her blue stockings from “her advances.” The revolutionaries justify their looting as payment for their services. The laughter from these exploits is unsettling. This is the point where the revolution slips into the debasement of its values. The fighting seems meaningless when all is lawlessness and greed.
Passion and Disinterest
Azuela’s characters exhibit wide ranges of raw and immediate emotion when they interact. For example, when Camila meets Luis, she flirts with him freely and openly. When he leaves, her tears are bitter and open. The old woman who disapproves of her display of emotions beats Camila with a whip to keep her from crying. There is little tenderness in the novel. When Demetrio returns home to his wife, they embrace each other, but the peace does not last long before he is gone again. Other relationships suffer as well. There is no emotional connection between Demetrio and his son. When War Paint meets Demetrio, she boldly affronts him. There is no nuance and no gentleness. In the bar, Guero is a gun-toting brute. Other men share their stories of abuse and the killing of innocent people with pride. The revolution is overflowing with emotions that are often misplaced.
Azuela focuses on the physical characteristics and skin color of his characters, which suggests a preoccupation with race in the Mexican Revolution. He describes a range of Indian and fair-skinned features that sum up the range of people who are fighting in the revolution. Azuela paints a picture of Mexico that represents its varied ancestry and influences. Pancracio is light-complected and freckled. His smooth skin suggest he is very young, but “his whole aspect [is] bestial.” Manteca is animal-like with rougher features and “sunken eyes,” and his hair falls around his neck. La Pintada has olive skin and copper-colored spots on her face and arms. The other revolutionary women have olive skin, bright eyes, and ivory teeth—as they brandish their revolvers and ammunition cartridges across their waists. Camila, the peasant girl, is also bronze in complexion with ivory teeth. The women are strong, and their features are also strong. When Camila looks at Cervantes, she sees his clean and radiant face with pink cheeks. When Cervantes introduces his future wife to the group, the group sees a beautiful girl with rosy skin and fair hair. The characters represent a range, and the light-skinned or fair characters are the ones with greater wealth and a higher station in life. When Pancracio captures a handsome blonde man with a fancy mustache, he kills him instantly, and at one point the men say to one another, “let’s go get those rich bastards.”
Azuela also distinguishes the rich from the poor by their level of education. Venancio is thought to have expertise because he has read two to three books. Cervantes is a medical student and journalist. His communication skills frequently dazzle Demetrio. Cervantes can plot out an argument with examples. He is articulate, unlike any other man in Demetrio’s group. His ability to form ideas and comprehend the movement of the revolution leads him to the revolutionaries’ cause. However, when the cause slips away from its political and intellectual ideals, Cervantes loses interest and leaves the country. The post-revolutionary forces are trapped in a banality that does not serve his interests. While in the United States, he encourages Venancio to continue to dream of a life greater than that in Mexico, even if it may be difficult and challenging to continue his education. Clearly, education is a priority for Cervantes, and he will pursue it for himself with whatever means he has.
Cervantes’s letter at the beginning of part 3 captures the key differences between him and Venancio. He writes that “due to professional obligations” he has been unable to write. His next sentence references the news of Pancracio and Manteco’s deaths; they stabbed each other following a card game. This is not a surprise. When Cervantes switches subjects in the letter to discuss Venancio’s chances of getting a medical degree in the United States, he is discouraging. Cervantes does offer another suggestion to help Venancio improve his social position: opening a Mexican restaurant. Cervantes’s focus at the end of the novel is about getting rich in no time. Is this purely American? Or something else? Azuela’s development of Cervantes moves from the educated, to the disillusioned, to getting rich. Azuela may be arguing that even the most idealistic and intelligent lost sight of their ideals during the Mexican Revolution.
When Demetrio’s wife asks him why he has to keep fighting, he responds by throwing a stone into the canyon. He is amazed at the continued movement of the stone. This moment captures the fatalistic tone of Azuela’s novel. Throughout the novel, people may change, but they do not step outside of themselves for this transition. Demetrio and his friends are farmers, not soldiers. Previously they did not live their lives randomly hurting, torturing, and killing people. But throughout the downward spiral of these characters there is never shock, only acceptance of some new level of brutality. Luis Cervantes’s ability to change sides is part of his nature. Because of his nature, he is expected to join the revolutionaries and then to leave. Demetrio is expected to keep fighting because this is his nature. Camila actually does seem to change, as she warms to Demetrio and decides to travel with him and his men. But when War Paint stabs Camila, this break from fatalism ends. Every person is locked into a certain role, and for the most part they carry out these roles without question. Demetrio and his men live in the openness of plains and canyons and mountains where leaves and rocks move according to higher powers, the winds and the rains, just as Demetrio and his men move according to the orders of higher powers.