Alfonso Pereira is an Ecuadoran landowner plagued by domestic and financial troubles. His wife, Blanca, nags him, and he is worried about his seventeen-year-old daughter, Lolita, who wants to marry a man who is part Indian. Don Julio, his uncle, adds to his difficulties by demanding repayment of a loan of ten thousand sucre, a debt already three months overdue.
When Pereira confesses that he is unable to pay the loan, Don Julio suggests that his nephew try to interest Mr. Chapy, a North American promoter, in a timber concession on Pereira’s mountain estate. Privately, the old man suspects that Mr. Chapy and his associates are on the lookout for oil and use their lumber-cutting activities in the region as a cover. To interest the North Americans, however, it will be necessary to build fifteen miles of road and to get possession of two forest tracts. Also, the Indians have to be driven off their huasipungos, the lands supplied to them in return for working on the estate.
Pereira assures his uncle that such a course will be difficult. The Indians, having a deep affection for their lands along both sides of the river, will never willingly relinquish them. Old Julio ridicules Pereira’s sentimentality and tells him to return to the estate at Tomachi and build the road. Back home, Pereira discusses his problem with Padre Lomas, the village priest. The padre agrees to persuade the Indians to work on the road: He will tell them that the labor is the will of God. They also try to determine how many mingas, parties in which Indians are plied with drinks to make them willing to work, will be necessary before the road can be completed. Jacinto Quintana, proprietor of the village store and saloon, promises that he and his wife, Juana, will make the home brew for the first of the mingas.
Andres Chiliquinga, an Indian worker, is unhappy because Pereira has returned. Andres had gone against his master’s and the priest’s wishes by marrying Cunshi. Andres is one of thirty Indians sent to start cutting wood and clearing the roadbed.
To find a wet nurse for her baby, Blanca Pereira examines some of the Indian mothers. Their undernourished babies are diseased, some with malaria or dysentery; others are epileptic or mentally disabled. Policarpio, the overseer, finally chooses Cunshi, mother of the healthiest child in the village, and takes her to the Pereira house. The master, seeing the young Indian woman, forces her to bed with him and then rapes her.
One night, Andres makes the long trip home to see his wife. Finding no one in their hillside shack, he becomes suspicious and angry. The next day, he deliberately lets his ax fall on his foot. The Indians treat the cut with spider webs and mud, but when the bandage is removed, three days later, the foot is so badly infected that Andres is sent home. A medicine man who poulticed the sore saved Andres’s life, but the wound leaves Andres disabled.
One day, while Pereira and the priest are at the Quintana store discussing the building of the road, they send Jacinto on an errand. After his departure, both men force themselves upon Juana and rape her.
Pereira gives Padre Lomas one hundred sucre for a big Mass. Then he holds a minga , and work on the road is accelerated. Storms make life miserable for the Indian workers, unprotected as they are in their camps. Some die when they try to drain a swamp. Others perish in quicksand. Pereira, choosing to risk the lives...
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of the Indians rather than follow a longer, safer route, keeps the workers drunk and entertains them with cockfights. The laborers continue to toil.
The priest visits Juancho Cabascango, an Indian with a prosperous huasipungo beside the river, and asks for one hundred sucre to pay for another Mass. When the Indian refuses, Padre Lomas curses him. A short time later, a flash flood drowns some of the Indians and their cattle. Blaming the disaster on Juancho, his superstitious neighbors beat him to death. The priest declares the affair the will of God and easily collects several hundred sucre for his Mass.
At last, the road is completed, but the Indians receive none of the benefits Padre Lomas had promised. He, however, buys a bus and two trucks, which take all transportation work from those who used to drive mule teams into Quito with the products of the region. Young Indians now ride the bus to the city and, there, become criminals and prostitutes.
As a result of easy transportation and the possibility of a profitable sale in Quito, Pereira decides not to give the Indians their customary grain from his plentiful harvest. Policarpio’s protests do no good. When the hungry Indians go to Pereira’s patio and beg their master to relieve the hunger of their families, he tells them that their daily pay of fifty centavos is generous enough. Besides, the ton and a half of corn needed to feed the Indians will help considerably in reducing his debts. He does, however, heed his overseer’s warning and asks that guards for his estate be sent from Quito.
Hunger stalks the region and babies and old people perish. When one of Pereira’s cows dies, the famished Indians beg for the carcass. He refuses, thinking they might be tempted to kill other cows, and orders Policarpio to bury the dead animal. Desperate, Andres uncovers it; after he and his family eat some of the meat, the tainted flesh kills Cunshi. Padre Lomas demands twenty-five sucre, more than the Indian could ever earn, in payment for burying the dead woman. That same night, Andres steals one of his master’s cows and sells it to a nearby butcher. Tracked down by dogs, Andres is captured and flogged in Pereira’s patio. There is no one to protest except his small son, who is almost killed by the white men when he tries to help his father.
A score of foreigners arrives in Tomachi. The Indians welcome them timorously, thinking that these new white men could certainly be no more cruel than their Spanish masters. Mr. Chapy’s first act, however, is to order the Indians driven from their huasipungos to make room for company houses and a sawmill.
When Andres’s son brings news of the order, the Indians rebel. They had stoically accepted the cruelty of the whites, even the lechery of the white men toward the Indian women, but the Indians feel that the land is theirs. Jacinto vainly tries to stop them when they march on the village. The enraged Indians kill six of the white men. The others, including Mr. Chapy, flee in their automobiles.
They return, over the road the Indians had built, with three hundred soldiers under a leader who had killed two thousand Indians in a similar rebellion near Cuenca. Troops hunt down and machine-gun Indians of all ages, male and female. The few survivors, taking refuge in Andres’s hillside shack, roll rocks down on the soldiers and shoot at them with birdguns. Finally, the soldiers set fire to the thatched roof. When the Indians run from the burning house, the troops shoot them without mercy.