“If a man has a rifle in his hands and a beltful of cartridges, surely he should use them. That means fighting. Against whom? For whom? That is scarcely a matter of importance.” (Azuela 87).
The uprisings in Mexico chronicled in The Underdogs reveal themselves as less than romantic and idealistic for the impoverished and poorly informed fighters whose actions Mariano Azuela describes. As young Luis Cervantes puts it, some or most have joined the fight, or been coerced into joining, as a way to avoid a life that consisted largely of being “half-naked and hungry” (Azuela 31). Azuela’s ‘underdogs’ seem to possess motivations far distant from the Revolution’s goal, epitomized by Zapata, Villa, and the anonymous author of The Socialist ABCs, to force reforms benefitting the poor (National Endowment for the Humanities).
(The Socialist ABCs 411-417) Instead, Azuela’s characters, with whose point of view the author is sympathetic, are looking for food and drink, extra money, escape from the consequences of their past behavior, or in the case of Cervantes, to observe the real revolution up close (Gerdes 560). The impression of a disorganized mass of fighters, often on both sides, who, in their distraction by food, liquor, women, loot, and mayhem, rather than a clear understanding of the reformist aims, sabotage their own effectiveness, is supported by this and other literature about, and from, this tumultuous period.
Even for the intriguingly named journalist and student Luis Cervantes, initially attracted to the fighters for idealistic and even heroic reasons, eventually women, loot, and destruction seem to predominate. The choice of the name Cervantes, associated with one of the most famous authors in chivalric Spanish literature, seems more than accidental. Cervantes introduces himself by telling the fighters that he “is inspired by the same ideals, defends and fights for the same cause.” (Azuela 15). In foreshadowing the motivational confusion that follows and plagues the fighters, Demetrio replies “What are we fighting for? That’s what I’d like to know.” (Azuela 16) Before story’s end, Cervantes has appropriated a barely 14 year old “bride” without apparent benefit of clergy, and exposed her to rape by Blondie (Azuela 57).
When asked to get the fighters to torch Monico’s house, Cervantes does it on his own with enthusiasm (Azuela 65). With great cynicism, Cervantes later allays Demetrio’s concerns about their looting with his usual verbal adroitnessl. “First of all, General, only you and I know about this…. Secondly, … just as Villa or Carranza aren’t going to ask our consent… we… don’t have to ask anybody’s permission about anything ….” (Azuela 66). Thus, Azuela is showing readers that even for the most idealistic, the lure of booty, for future security, undercuts the aims of land reforms. As Gerdes suggests, “Cervantes…is the incarnation of …the single important theme…: the betrayal of the Revolution’s ideals´ (Gerdes 560)
This is particularly striking because Cervantes, well-educated and thus probably part of the privileged class’ with more Spanish than indigenous heritage, does not suffer from ignorance of the underlying issues in the conflict (The Socialist ABCs 412). Ignorance, as warned by The Socialist ABCs, is personified as making the ‘worker’ vulnerable to “exploiters, priests, and alcohol” (The Socialist ABCs 411). Many of the front-line fighters in Azuela’s book, on the other hand, as in Juan the Chamula, and Pedro Martinez, certainly seem to be profoundly and dramatically ignorant of the philosophical aims of the uprising. Instead, they use the fight as an excuse for drunkenness, gluttony when they can coerce local women to cook for them or steal the ingredients, and pursuit extramarital sexual exploits (many of these tantamount to rape).
The narrator of Juan the Chamula, for example, imprisoned unjustly and then conscripted, is so unworldly that he believes the Carrancistas will cannibalize him. (Pozas 389). Eventually, Juan turns Carrancista, seduced by their two-peso gift, and desperate to find a living. (Pozas 392-393). For Juan, soldiering does not mean land reforms, but, instead, more regular meals, sexual initiation, mobility (e.g. to Veracruz), and an adult identity that blocks his father from abusing him (Pozas 396).
The male narrator of Pedro Martinez enlisted for a reason similarly unrelated to revolutionary philosophy; to escape random shooting under martial law. Only later does the narrator express some understanding of Zapata’s aims (Lewis 380). The female narrator, Esperanza, describes the kidnappings and rapes perpetrated nightly by fighters, presumably feeling empowered by the unsettled circumstances and their unfamiliar new roles. This behavior clearly breaches the principles of Socialism propounded by the ABCs (Lewis 381) (The Socialist ABCs 415). Esperamza’s own personal concerns appear to revolve around her childbirths and her marital relationship rather than the Zapatistas’ lofty ambitions (Lewis 381)
In these readings, even the female fighters seem no more consciously committed to the goals of the Revolution than the men. According to Fernandez, some women exploited the conflict to embrace more sexually liberated roles as solfemale fighters (Fernández 58), Azuela’s striking character of War Paint is an example of a woman who seems not to have been very interested in the philosophical aims of land reform. However, she clearly took advantage of the fighting to adopt a more autonomous and independent persona and engage in her own choice of consensual sexual relations. There is even the faintest suggestion of these women’s feeling able to express homoerotic impulses, as for example, when Quails’ female companion appropriates a book with pictures of naked women (Azuela 56).
While the goal of the Revolution – to reduce the distance between the classes – seems admirable, even the leaders, such as Zapata, were quite simple in their level of worldliness, as evidenced by the description of the General by Guzman. This beloved leader is portrayed as deeply unsophisticated, but he, too, drinks to excess with his men and visitors (Guzman 355). The revolutionary leader Pancho Villa, as described by Reed, seems to be wise in that he knows that he knows not, and feels unqualified to be President, but even he keeps a mistress (Reed 369).
The end result of this confusion of motivations is mass destruction and spoliation. Everyone in these readings is participating in the fighting for reasons far removed from The Socialist ABCs, unrelated to socialist goals of giving workers the fruits of their labors. The result of this endemic confusion may have been the fulfillment of Jenkins’ dire prediction. This American businessman observed that Mexico’s “resources are being destroyed, its riches wasted in a senseless war, and…there will be famine” (Jenkins 364). The recent massive northward migration of Mexicans (both documented and undocumented) seems to confirm his worst fears. Lacking an articulation of its aims to all levels of society and to all fighters, and thus lacking clear motivation and discipline, the Mexican Revolution fell short of its potential. These readings provide an object lesson for constructive change, suggesting that clearly communicated goals inspiring motivation and discipline may lead to greater success in reform.
Anonymous. “The Socialist ABCs.” The Mexico Reader: History, Culture, Politics. Ed. Gilbert Joseph and Timothy Henderson. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002. 411-417. Print.
Azuela, Mariano. The Underdogs. 2008. Web.
Fernández, Delia. “From Soldadera to Adelita: The Depiction of Women in the Mexican Revolution.” McNair Scholars Journal 16.6 (2009): 53-62. Web.
Gerdes, Dick. “Point of View in Los de Abajo.” Hispania 64.4 (1981): 557-563. Web.
Guzman, Martin Luiz. “Zapatistas in the Palace.” The Mexico Reader: History, Culture, Politics. The Mexico Reader. Ed. Gilbert Joseph and Timothy Henderson. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002. 351-356. Print.
Jenkins, William O. “Mexico has been turned into a hell.” The Mexico Reader: History, Culture, Politics. Ed. Gilbert Joseph and Timothy Henderson. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002. 357-363. Print.
Lewis, Oscar. “Pedro Martinez.” The Mexico Reader: History, Culture, Politics. Ed. Gilbert Joseph and Timothy Henderson. Durham: Duke University Pres, 2002. 375-386. Print.
National Endowment for the Humanities. “Mexican Revolution: November 20, 1910.” 2015. Edsitement. Web.
Pozas, Ricardo. “Juan the Chamula.” The Mexico Reader: History, Culture, Politics. Ed. Gilbert Joseph and Timothy Henderson. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002. 387-397. Print.
Reed, John. “Pancho Villa.” The Mexico Reader: History, Culture, Politics. Ed. Gilbert Joseph and Timothy Henderson. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002. 364. Print.