Mariano Azuela’s novel, The Underdogs, is a male-dominated novel. The story of the exploits and wartime adventures of a rebel band during the Mexican Revolution is primarily driven by men; the majority of the characters are men who are separated from their families and lives and who are fighting for a cause in which they strongly believe (at least at the beginning of the novel). Despite the masculine story, however, there are two highly developed and significant female characters in The Underdogs. These women, Camila and War Paint, are a representation of two of the roles women played during the Mexican Revolution. While the portraits Azuela paints of these women and their role in society and revolution are incredibly accurate, he does neglect the explore the other avenues of participation that women had in the revolution. Thus, Azuela semi-accurately portrays the roles that women played in the revolution during this time through the characters of Camila and War Paint.
Through these two women, the modern reader can achieve a sense of understanding as to two of the primary roles that women played during the revolution in the early 20th century. Camila is a young women who embodies a primarily domestic role, providing comfort, care and shelter to the rebel soldiers as so many women did during this time in Mexican history. War Paint provides a stark contrast to the mild Camila; as her name suggests, she is a fierce and hardened warrior, a soldadera. Her role in the revolution is much different: she actually joins the ranks of the rebel band led by Demetrio Macias, and fights alongside the men.
While the two women are highly developed characters who accurately represent the portion of society from which they come, there are many women who participated in the revolution whose roles did not fall into the “domestic” and “warrior” categories. Many women were journalists, lobbyists, and propagandists; some were nurses, tending to the wounded outside of their homes; some even participated in religious protesting. Thus, while Camila and War Paint’s roles in Azuela’s portrayal of the Mexican Revolution are accurate and well-developed, there is a much larger picture of women’s roles that is missing from the novel.
Women in Mexican Society: Pre-Revolution
In order to effectively understand how women’s roles in Mexican society changed during the Mexican Revolution, we must examine the societal expectations of women’s behavior before this tumultuous time in their history. Women in Mexico between the 18th and 19th centuries experienced many changes as the enlightenment swept across Europe and impacted Spain. Were women only good for producing children and caring for a husband? The answer to this question was in the process of being determined even as early as the 18th century.
In the late 1700’s, small steps were taken to reform the treatment and expectations of women. Education, even if incredibly limited instruction was to be had, became more accessible to women living in urban areas; changes were made in order to allow women to enter the work force; women were even pushed and encouraged to join in the fight for independence. As with many countries during this time, women’s rights had been limited for centuries, so the changes that were made in Mexico during the Enlightenment allowed women to break free of the mold that society had placed upon them and explore other avenues. They could work outside of the home, receive an education, and participate in politics, even if it was to a limited extent. Many women did participate in the wars of independence, offering their services for the benefit of the country.
After the freedom was finally achieved, women were expected to return to their private spheres and traditional roles; that is, raising a family, keeping a home, and caring for a husband. However, many women did not wish to return to their old lives; they continued forming organizations, signing petitions, and attempting to show the government how valuable their contributions to society could be. They seem to have succeeded, at least limitedly; the government seemed to recognize that women could be valuable societal participants, but made adjustments to the ways that they would be allowed to participate. Education was oriented toward the home and family, organizations and petitions set up by females remained exclusively for women, and the like. Regardless of developments in the government, however, women did continue to raise and nurture their families and serve their communities as they had prior to the wars of independence.
By the time the Mexican Revolution began, women were ready to be recognized fully for their talents and abilities. While many women chose to stay behind the scenes and care for the soldiers on the sidelines, like Camila in The Underdogs, there were equally as many women who chose to actively participate in the revolution. Women such as War Paint chose to become fighters, while others followed less dangerous paths (although many were equally as radical). Despite the fact that Camila and War Paint are both accurate representations of the women who chose the same paths during the revolution, there are still many different roles that women played during this time that Azuela does not acknowledge.
Women in The Underdogs: Is It Enough?
Even though Camila and War Paint’s stories are woven throughout the “bigger picture” of Azuela’s novel, their characters are meticulously developed and show readers how women within their roles in society and revolution were expected to behave (and how they actually behaved). Camila is present throughout the entire story; if not in person, than in name. She is the domestic, meek girl who stays on the sidelines of the battles and passively waits for injured, hungry or exhausted soldiers to show up on her doorstep and allow her to care for them. War Paint, on the other hand, has a wild personality and refuses to let her life be dictated by outside influences; she joins the rebel band as a fighter, not a caretaker.
There were real women who would have embodied the characteristics of War Paint and Camila and participated in the same or similar activities during the revolution, but there were also many other women who did nothing of the sort. Thus, Azuela could have done a much better job portraying, or at least mentioning, the other types of resistance and participation of women in the revolution. War Paint and Camila’s roles in the revolution and society surrounding it, however, do give readers a semi-accurate portrait of some things that women were doing to participate in culture and society during this time in Mexican history.
Camila: Women in Society during the Revolution
Camila, the domestic, first appears after Demetrio Macias has been wounded in a fight. The rebels carry their leader on a stretcher to a small village, where they expect Camila and the other women to take care of him and nurse him back to health. Azuela introduces Camila as an obedient girl who follows tradition and conforms to the expectations surrounding her role in society as a woman. After Macias is brought into her village,
A very friendly girl brought a jícara filled with blue water. Demetrio grabbed the gourd with his trembling hands and drank avidly.
“Want any more?”
Demetrio raised his eyes: the young woman had a very ordinary face, but her voice was filled with much sweetness.
Camila is a typical village girl, fulfilling her duty of providing care to the soldiers who show up on her doorstep.
The young girl soon becomes infatuated with Luis Cervantes, though he does not return the affection, and Macias desires for Camila to become his lover. After the rebels leave her village, she disappears from the story until Macias decides to send for her. She does indeed become his lover at this point, riding along with the rebel band and providing Macias with the comforts he asks of her; however, she is not exactly the most convenient person to be tagging along with the band, as she cries regularly and is constantly getting into arguments with War Paint. Camila is eventually stabbed after an argument with War Paint, which devastates Macias, who then turns all of his efforts to fighting.
Camila embodies the characteristics of the domestic woman in Mexican society during the revolution. By the time the Mexican Revolution began, 80% of the population of Mexico lived in rural areas untouched by the modernization that occurred in urban areas; thus, the majority of women were homemakers, farmers’ wives, or vendors at village markets, selling flowers, vegetables, or food to hungry travelers. Many women who lived in these rural areas chose not to fight were often forced to offer their homes, food, and bodies for the comfort of those fighting for the rebel cause. Providing care to the men of the revolution was not the only role that women played, however. Some women joined the ranks as fighters, as well.
War Paint: Women’s Roles in the Revolution
As the only female warrior presented in the novel, War Paint is proven to be one of the most feisty and hotheaded characters. The first description that Azuela gives of her shows her wild spirit and non-conformist attitude:
“Are you Demetrio Macias, then?” asked the young woman all of a sudden, bursting in from atop the bar, swinging her legs and tapping Demetrio on the back with her coarse leather shoes.
“At your service,” he replied, barely turning his head around.
Indifferent, she continued moving her uncovered legs, showing off her blue stockings.
War Paint’s introduction to the story is a complete contrast to the young and mild Camila, who seems, for the most part, to obey the expectations of women from prior to the Mexican Revolution. War Paint refuses to bow to pre-revolution standards for women and instead presents herself in the complete opposite light: as a rebel. She is absolutely successful in this endeavor, and actually becomes one of the rebel fighters. As a female fighter, she is known as a soldadera; these women were among the first of their race and culture to join ranks with men and fight for a cause.
Many women chose to follow the same path as War Paint and becomes soldaderas. These female soldiers were first developed during the wars of independence as women joined the ranks of soldiers to prepare food, wash their clothing, and help to take care of them when they were injured. During the Mexican Revolution, they traveled around with the rebel bands that their husbands or lovers belonged to, often participating in the fighting themselves. War Paint fits this description: she joins the rebel band with the man she loves, Towhead Margarito (though she is also attracted to Macias).
Artists and writers during this period often portrayed these soldaderas as heroes, creating paintings (and, for authors like Azuela, characters like War Paint) and even songs that were sung about female fighters. While this was not the most popular avenue for women living in Mexico during the revolution, there were still many that did choose this path of rebellion, instead of a less dangerous one.
Other Women’s Roles during the Mexican Revolution
As was previously stated, Camila and War Paint, while their characters do embody two of the large roles that women played during the Mexican Revolution, are not representative of their entire sex. Aside from becoming soldaderas to join in the fighting or staying home to tend to soldiers that needed care, there were many other activities that women participated in to show their support for the revolution. Women were active participants in areas such as journalism, where they would write about the revolution and its effects on society; they would propagandize and protest to encourage other men and women to join in the resistance; some of the educated women became nurses on the front lines of the fighting and on the home front (similar to Camila’s role). Some women participated in resistance groups, helping to gather ammunition and arms and transport them to those fighting, as well as performing courier tasks and espionage. Many of the middle and upper-class women who lived in urban areas away from the fighting avoided participation altogether.
Prior to the revolution, women were just beginning to emerge as important members of society and some were daring enough to push the limits of what was deemed “acceptable” female behavior. While many women of the revolution chose to conform to those expectations and become the caretakers of the soldiers, like Camila, there were many more like War Paint who fought against them. They were not just soldaderas. They did much more than that, but Azuela doesn’t mention them in The Underdogs.
The women of the Mexican Revolution were active participants in many more fields than just the two that Azuela portrayed through Camila and War Paint. While his female characters do show how domestic women and soldaderas were active participants in the revolution, he neglects to show just to what extent women in general actually engaged in the revolution. Readers get a good sense of the role of the domestic caretaker and the female fighter, but learn nothing about the nurses, protestors, propagandists, journalists, and the like from his novel.
Arrom, Silvia Marina. The Women of Mexico City, 1790-1857. Stanford: Stanford University
Azuela, Mariano. The Underdogs: A Novel of the Mexican Revolution. Trans. Sergio Waisman.
New York: Penguin Books, 2008.
Buchenau, Jürgen. Mexican Mosaic: A Brief History of Mexico. Wheeling: Harlan Davidson, Inc.
Macias, Anna. “Women and the Mexican Revolution, 1910-1920.” The Americas, Vol. 37, No. 1
(July 1980), pp. 53-82.
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