The Underdogs Summary

The Underdogs is a novel by Mariano Azuela. It tells the story of Demetrio Macías, a normal man who is caught up in the Mexican Revolution.

  • When government soldiers arrive in Demetrio's village, he flees to the mountains, where he joins the rebels and fights against President Huerta.

  • Demetrio joins Pancho Villa's army and becomes a general. Eventually, the revolution becomes divided over its purpose and the rebels grow disillusioned.

  • Demetrio returns to his wife and child, but he soon leaves them to return to battle. He dies during a clash with federal troops, without knowing why he has continued to fight.

Introduction

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Last Updated on February 19, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 334

Mariano Azuelo’s The Underdogs was originally published in 1915. It appeared between October and December in an El Paso newspaper. By 1952, the novel was recognized worldwide as the classic story of the Mexican Revolution.

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The main character, Demetrio Macías, joins the rebel forces and eventually earns the position of general in Pancho Villa’s army. Villa and other generals in The Underdogs are presented as the Robin Hoods of the Mexican people—taking from the rich and giving to the poor. The Underdogs also draws comparisons to Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and the French revolutionaries’ attempts toward democracy and equality.

The first part of the novel corresponds to the second phase of the revolution. Opposition forces gain strength against the Huerta government. The revolutionary armies are led by Pancho Villa, Carranza, and Obregón, and by peasants under Zapata-joined forces. Huerta resigned as president of Mexico and fled to Spain. The revolutionary armies entered Mexico City, and the novel focuses on the dissension within these revolutionary forces, particularly between Villa and Carranza. The main character, Demetrio, and his men represent the peasant guerrilla forces in the revolution. The Federales (government troops) blaze their way through the countryside—a disorganized and corrupt government stealing from the poor.

Many novelists published work in Mexico from the mid-1920s to the mid-1950s, but The Underdogs achieved both widespread popular and critical acclaim. Azuelo was one of the first writers to speak out against the corruption of the post-revolutionary government and society. In 1924, The Underdogs was referred to as the greatest novel of the Mexican Revolution. Its depiction of Demetrio’s charisma warms readers to the cause of the revolution. The disillusionment following the revolution is heartbreaking, and Azuelo’s early twentieth century novel explains an impoverishment within Mexico that persists into the twenty-first century. The characters, dialogue, descriptions, and narration set an early mark for the accomplishments of Latin American writers that have influenced the literary landscape since the 1960s.

Synopsis

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Last Updated on February 19, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 305

The Underdogs, written by Mariano Azuela in 1915, was one of the first pieces of literature to delve into the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Because of the wounds left over from this conflict, many people were not yet willing to accept Azuela’s novel, which details the consequences—some positive, most negative—of the fighting that spread throughout Mexico.

In this compact novel, Azuela follows the path of Demetrio Macías, an ordinary farmer whose arbitrary fight with a government soldier seals his fate as a rebel on the run. Soon Demetrio gathers a band of anti-government men, and they become a heralded group of marksmen, picking soldiers off left and right, passing through towns northwest of Mexico City and gaining support for their cause. But as the fighting continues, as it seems the rebels and Pancho Villa’s army are gaining ground, constant despicable actions on the part of the rebels taint the glory of their success. Demetrio and his followers, however, fail to see their inhuman acts (the random killing of men, rape of women, plundering and pillaging of towns) as anything but a consequence of the war.

Azuela tells his story in short bursts of prose and covers large swaths of time in succinct narrative passages, moving along quickly from one atrocity to the next. Between the senseless killing and romantic interludes, there are moments of clarity and introspection where the characters take a closer look at what they have done and question why they continue to fight. Much of The Underdogs is fatalistic, as Demetrio cannot understand who he is fighting or why. He simply shrugs and keeps fighting until he is the last man alive, picking off soldiers from behind a boulder, not questioning, just doing, and following the same blind path traversed by both sides of the Mexican Revolution.

One-Page Summary

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Summary

The Underdogs begins at night in a small hut in the small town of Límon near the Sierras, northwest of Mexico City. On this night, soldiers from the Mexican army stumble drunkenly into town, and Demetrio Macías must leave his wife and child and flee into the dry, rocky canyon, where he soon meets up with his friends, who have sworn their allegiance to each other and their hatred of Huerta’s military. Demetrio and his men harass the government soldiers, hiding in cliffs and acting as snipers. After a major confrontation in which many government soldiers are killed, Demetrio takes a bullet in the leg; his men fashion a stretcher and carry him away. After the soldiers retreat, the rebels come across two of their men hanging from a tree. Several more are missing. As they search for shelter, the rebels come across others who laud their victories over the government men. This theme of applauding the rebel army will begin to erode as the rebels’ barbaric acts eventually overshadow their skills in killing government men. But for now, Demetrio and his band are heroes. When they finally come across a small settlement of Indians, they are again treated with generosity and respect from these local people who have also suffered at the hands of the government.

While Demetrio recuperates, he becomes infatuated with a young woman named Camila (or Camilla, depending upon the translation) who does not return his affection in the least. The older women of the town administer to Demetrio’s wounds using their ancient remedies (for example, blooded and mutilated pigeons spread over ailing body parts) until Luis Cervantes comes into town. Cervantes is a young medical student known for writing inflammatory pieces against the rebellion. He says that he was coerced into joining the government army. But Cervantes quickly soured on the task of killing. In fact, he discovered from intimate conversations with government soldiers that most of the men did not want to fight; they believed they had chosen the wrong side, but they continued nevertheless. Cervantes, however, could not. He deserted and sought out the rebels. But when he shows up in the small Indian village, he is immediately locked up. Demetrio’s men want to kill Cervantes straight off, but Demetrio comes up with a plan. He has his men steal a priest’s robe from a nearby town. He then orders Cervantes shot but allows the young man a confession. Since Cervantes does not confess any schemes against Demetrio and his men, Demetrio lets him go and soon discovers Cervantes’s wisdom and medical knowledge. Cervantes quickly talks his way into Demetrio’s closest confidence and rides the coattails of Demetrio’s rapid rise in the rebel fight against the government and against Huerta.

As Demetrio heals, he again pursues Camila, but Camila falls quickly for Cervantes, who pays no attention to her advances. Camila is driven mad with frustration. As the rebels ride out of town, she begins to weep hysterically. Her mother believes her daughter has been possessed by evil spirits and proceeds to beat Camila with a stick.

Demetrio and his men, who profess to understand none of the complexities of the revolution, simply want to go on fighting, but Cervantes convinces them that it is in their best interest to join up with the larger forces under General Natera. They go off in search of allied forces and come across an old man who tells them of a few enemy soldiers in the next town. However, the old man is a spy and setting a trap. Demetrio and his men fall into the snare, but Demetrio’s aggressive nature foils the plot. When another agent tells him to wait, Demetrio ignores the warning and orders his men to attack. The rebels slaughter the Federales.

After the victory, the rebels meet up with General Natera in Fresnillo to plan the attack on the enemy stronghold of Zacatecas. At the meeting, Natera elevates Demetrio to the rank of colonel. Cervantes runs into Captain Solis, an old acquaintance who confronts Cervantes with his past federal associations. Not so long ago, Cervantes, as a journalist, wrote articles condemning the rebels. Cervantes tells Solis that he has converted, but this conversion only occurs because of Cervantes’s sense of self-preservation. Throughout each progressive stage of the war, he hangs on until he believes it wise to move on. Cervantes maintains loyalties only to the safe continuation of his life.

While the men wait for battle, they talk about the great rebel Pancho Villa and discuss the opulence and grandeur of Villa and his men from the north. The details of riches and privilege become the reasons for the war, until the men realize the accounts are nothing but stories; none of them has ever actually seen the man, and once again the war becomes hollow. Yet they continue to fight, and during the battle to take Zacatecas, Demetrio again proves himself to be the bravest of men, and the euphoric ride continues for a bit longer.

After the battle, the men celebrate and drink and continue their lives of debauchery. Demetrio’s friend introduces him to a brutal, calculating man named Towhead Margarito (also called Whitey or Blondie Margarito, depending upon the translation), and around the same time, a local woman called War Paint sidles up to Demetrio. War Paint is a brazen woman, unafraid to speak her mind. When Demetrio directs War Paint towards a hotel, she laughs at him. She asks him, what is the point of the revolution if they cannot sleep in any house they want, if they cannot break down doors and windows, pillage, and steal? Again, the reasons for war come to the surface, and again they are not related to any genuine social motives. The rebels grow more and more destructive as time goes by. They consume drink and food like animals and disregard the pleas of any local willing to protest.

But throughout the killing, the drinking, and the destroying of property and people, Demetrio continues to pine for Camila, finally prompting Cervantes to ride back to the small town to retrieve her. He lies to Camila, saying he, not Demetrio, wants her. Camila jumps at this chance and only discovers the trick when she wakes up in Demetrio’s bed the next morning. War Paint finds out what happened and tries to console Camila. She tells her to fake an illness so she will not have to move on with Demetrio and the others. But when the time comes to speak, Camila agrees to go with Demetrio. She later tells War Paint that, to her surprise, she finds herself warming to Demetrio. This angers War Paint, who, despite her new infatuation with Towhead, considers herself Demetrio’s girl. Soon she tells Camila that Demetrio wants to go back to his wife and child. Camila, distraught, confronts Demetrio with this news. He vows to get rid of War Paint once and for all, but in the next confrontation, War Paint draws a dagger and kills Camila. She dares Demetrio to kill her, but he does not.

Demetrio, Cervantes, and the other men continue to plow through towns and villages, leaving death and destruction in their path. Occasionally one of the men reflects on killing or war, but all that comes out of these reflections is a hazy certitude of why men do things. When Cervantes tells Demetrio they need to travel to Aguascalientes, Demetrio again does not understand. Cervantes tells Demetrio he has to vote for the Provisional President of the Republic, for a man named Carranza. Through the continued acts of debauchery, Demetrio begins to sing a song about not knowing why.

The third section of The Underdogs jumps ahead in time, beginning with a letter from Cervantes, who has long since departed to pursue his own ends in El Paso, Texas. In the letter, Cervantes laments the deaths of two of Demetrio’s comrades and celebrates the suicide of Towhead. Meanwhile, the war has broken into revolutionary factions. Huerta has been defeated, so they do not really know why they are still fighting. Yet they are, and along the way, Demetrio picks up =a young poet named Valderrama, who, like Cervantes, eventually disappears when he realizes his fate. The problem is that most of the men never realize their fate. They are trapped in this cycle. Near the end of the novel, Demetrio and his men capture a few deserters and condemn the men for deserting as the Federales condemned Cervantes. There is no longer a right or wrong, only a continuation of fighting.

After two years on the road, Demetrio finally returns to his wife and child, but he will not stay. His wife asks him why he keeps fighting, but Demetrio only replies with a vague answer and soon departs for battle. In the end, he and his men find themselves trapped in the same rocky terrain they had used before to pick off the Federales. Everyone around Demetrio falls until he is the last man alive, hiding in the rocks and firing his rifle for reasons he still does not understand.

Setting

The Underdogs, which begins not long after 1910, is set for the most part in the region northwest of Mexico City, split between mountains, barren canyons, plains ,and a variety of cities, towns, and villages. Azuela’s details of the hot, desolate surroundings help to set the context for the travels of Demetrio Macías and his rebel forces. Much is tied to land and to nature. The rocks, leaves, and dirt simply and inevitably move along at the mercy of external forces, reflecting the movement of Demetrio Macías and many of his men. The mostly barren surroundings also intensify the perception of the revolutionaries as base animals. In this region where the climate and terrain make survival difficult, animals must consider survival first. This base need motivates the men to act they way they do, usually without know why. They continue because they are still alive, and beyond this condition, nothing else really matters, including the lives of others.

But the locations chosen by Azuela are also determined by the time in which this novel takes place, 1910–1915, a large chunk of the Mexican Revolution (1910–1917). In this time and place in history, Mexico underwent huge upheavals of traditional social values and public perception of authority. People of all levels in society were greatly affected by the war, but Azuela mostly focuses on the peasant class’s response to increased government oppression and finally the revolution, a chance to maybe change things. In The Underdogs, Luis Cervantes, an educated city man, represents the middle- or upper-class view as it pertains in any positive way to the revolution. Cervantes is first on the side of the Federales, but sniffing the future, he changes to the side of the revolutionaries, and when this side starts to break down, he leaves the country for El Paso, Texas.

Much of the historical setting reflects Azuela’s actual participation in the war as a medical student and journalist. Somewhat autobiographical, these similarities in place and circumstances also point out the reflection of an entire class, of Azuela’s friends, who went through the same situations and made their decisions based on middle-class values. In this time period in Mexico, the revolution began as a mostly unified force but quickly devolved into warring factions. This breakdown is mirrored in the actions of Demetrio and his men as their self-control dissipates day after day like the dust around them, and like the larger concepts supposedly dictating their actions. For most of the novel, Demetrio and his men simply exist, as was the case for the millions of actual peasants. They are just trying to get by and deal with a war, but they do not really change in their most basic motives: to eat, drink, sleep, and have sex.

The setting also acts as a representation of the outside and outsiders. In the first few pages, Demetrio is already forced to abandon his home for the great openness of the mountains and plains. The rules of shelter, like the rules of many things, quickly disappear, leaving Demetrio to do what he wants, although he will have to trade one cruelty for another. In this novel, everyone is running. Everyone is trying to get out of something, be it physical or metaphorical or psychological, but most people, like Demetrio and most of his men, do not know why they are so often on the outside. But this outsider mentality comes with few strings. Demetrio and his men maim, kill, rape, steal, destroy, and see no impediments, moral or otherwise. They are outside, and because they leave the interior for so long, because they stay away from law and order for so long, when they briefly return to this order from time to time, they have no wish to restrain themselves. Once morality disappears, the sky is the limit.

Azuela tells a story of war and its consequences . War is different to different people, and through detailing the peasant class and the rough terrain of the region, Azuela provides a glimpse of war as atrocious, inhuman, and incomprehensible to the people doing most of the fighting, killing, and dying.

Characters

Demetrio Macías

From ordinary farmer to revolutionary hero, Demetrio fills the role of the heroic peasant trapped by circumstances and a lack of knowledge and understanding. His bravery and shrewd intelligence allow him to quickly climb the ladder of military leadership. But for Demetrio, the ladder does not reach into the highest ranks. In fact, he never pulls himself high enough to be clear of the fighting or to be anything but a glorified soldier always on the front lines. Like the wild animals that inhabit his world, Demetrio does not understand much of his life. He cannot see the string pulling his body in different directions, yet at some level he is at peace with this resigned outlook on life. He is most comfortable when he is fighting, when he does not have to wonder. True to his character, he goes down fighting. Demetrio is the representation of the Mexican peasant during the Mexican Revolution. He is the representation of any man or woman whose simple attempt at survival gets sidetracked. Although the path may change, the destination, survival, remains the same.

Luis Cervantes

The character of Luis Cervantes most closely resembles the real-life Mariano Azuela. Both studied medicine and journalism, and both participated in the revolution on the side of the revolutionaries. But whereas Azuela was a liberal in his professional careers, Cervantes changes sides based on his survival instincts. In this regard the two lives differ, yet later in the novel Cervantes leaves the fight for El Paso just as Azuela left the fight for El Paso in 1915. In The Underdogs, Cervantes, though knowledgeable in many areas, still sinks to the level of the revolutionaries when they begin to kill and rape. Cervantes does not kill indiscriminately, but he watches without protest time and again. Of all the characters, he is the most manipulative, using trickery more than violence as a means to survive. Cervantes claims to care about the cause, but in the end he turns into a bandit like all the others. By the time he is ready to leave, he has collected quite a nest egg.

Camila

Camila (or Camilla, depending upon the translation) is a young Indian woman in the village Demetrio and his men stumble into after the first major battle. Demetrio is immediately infatuated with Camila, but Camila is not interested in his looks or meandering hands. And once Cervantes comes to town, her eyes fall on no one else. But Cervantes ignores her, causing Camila to break down. She dislikes Demetrio and hates Cervantes, but still would do anything for him. When she is later tricked, she again breaks down and weeps, but she also begins to change. Camila begins to appreciate Demetrio and his softer, more introspective side. She gets a glimpse into his innermost thoughts, but War Paint kills her, and Demetrio again has no one to confide in.

War Paint

A young local woman, War Paint represents the downward-trickling effects of war. She is not a soldier, but after Demetrio and his men arrive in town, victorious, War Paint laughs at them. She immediately recognizes Demetrio’s importance and sidles up to him. At this point she is less reserved than most of the soldiers. She tells the men that in war, there are no rules: to the victors go the spoils. War Paint shapes her worldview in the context of war and its brutality and ambiguity. She steals, destroys, and gets close to people whom she feels can help her. War Paint is the second biggest schemer after Cervantes, always playing with people’s emotions, until her lack of restraint results in the death of Camila. In killing Camila, War Paint also presents Demetrio with another fatalistic moment. He could kill her, but he lets her go; he does not interfere in the progress of things even though Camila, the one person who really listened to him, is now dead.

Towhead Margarito

In a long line of reprehensible characters, Towhead (called Blondie or Whitey in different translations) epitomizes the worst of the revolutionaries. He shoots people at random. He tortures enemy soldiers and forces a young girl to sleep with him out of spite, and in the end, Towhead shoots and kills himself, closing the door on his life using the only method familiar to him: brutality.

General Natera

Natera, who only briefly enters the picture, represents a kindred spirit to Demetrio. Natera has more power and more understanding of the situation, reflected in the glare he gives Cervantes after Cervantes gives a long-winded speech about justice and freedom for Mexico. But in most ways Natera is like Demetrio, thrown into a situation with no control.

Captain Solis

The character of Captain Solis exists primarily to point out to Cervantes the true nature of things. Solis tells Cervantes that idealism is a farce, that there is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and in the end you can either turn into a bandit or sink under the waves. Cervantes resents Solis, a man from a similar background, for so bluntly ruining the game. Only a few days later, Cervantes is presented with this situation, and as Solis predicts, Cervantes chooses the path of the bandit.

Valderrama

As Cervantes departs in the third section of the novel, Valderrama joins Demetrio’s forces in order to fill the role of the young, knowledgeable man apart. Valderrama is a poet and musician, emotional and a fervent believer in the liberal cause. And yet for Valderrama, self-preservation gets in the way of ideals. When he overhears Demetrio discussing an impending battle, Valderrama disappears, never to be seen again.

Venancio

Venancio represents the man of knowledge within the peasant society. Venancio is a barber by trade, and in his town he also pulls teeth and performs medical duties. Because of his greater knowledge of things, Venancio’s position is slightly elevated. Yet because he still exists within peasant society, he is trapped like Demetrio and the others. He is the bridge between two worlds, made clear through the letter he receives from Cervantes from El Paso in 1915. Venancio is knowledgeable enough to warrant a business proposal from Cervantes, but he is too far inside of Demetrio’s world to be able to pull himself out. In the end, he goes down fighting like the rest of his friends.

Demetrio’s Wife

Described as attractive in the beginning but severely aged upon her husband’s return, Demetrio’s wife mostly represents the normalcy to which Demetrio cannot return. She is the final asker of the question repeated so often throughout the novel: why must you keep fighting? And because his wife, his closest companion, asks the question, Demetrio delivers his most honest answer: he doesn’t know.

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