Though Pedro Páramo is notable for marking a break from the social realism that defined much of Mexican literature in the 20th century, it is still grounded in Mexican history and the culture of its time. The novel's dream-like progression and expressionistic atmosphere are best understood in terms of two significant events that changed Mexican society – the Mexican Revolution of 1910 and the Cristero War of 1926-1929.
Both the causes and goals of the Mexican Revolution remain a subject of debate, but what is certain is that the country was overcome with a fervor for change. Before the Revolution, Mexico operated under a quasi-feudal structure, in which large landowners controlled most of the property that was farmed by the country's peasants, who mostly inhabited small villages like Comala. One class that was particularly overlooked in this system was the country's bourgeoisie (middle class), and it was this class that initiated protests against the country's dictator, Porifio Diaz, in the early 20th century. Though Diaz had taken power in the 1850s via a military coup, he oversaw a stabilization of the Mexican state and an expansion of its economy. The latter effect both empowered the bourgeoisie (through allowing for a greater educated class and also encouraging new economic opportunities) and enraged them since most of the wealth and land stayed in the hands of the oligarchy - the select few that Diaz favored.
As the election of 1910 approached, a northern landowner, Franciso Madero, idealistically appealed to the bourgeoisie to support his candidacy in hopes that he could ensure a more even distribution of opportunity and a lessening of the military state. Diaz's victory in the election, engineered through unabashedly corrupt means, would historically have led the liberal faction to disintegrate, but Madero surprised the government by calling upon the Mexican people to lead an armed revolt on November 20, 1910.
It was then that the Revolution truly began. Now that the common mass - mostly illiterate farmers tired of being overworked without receiving their share of the new wealth - was mobilized, Diaz's government found its control less assured than it had believed. The revolutionaries were less inspired by any liberal or progressive philosophy than they were by a nostalgic hope of reclaiming the local control of their own land and villages, a control that was lost under Diaz. Their passion and knowledge of their own countryside led to a guerrilla war that caused Diaz's resignation and Madero's inauguration by May 1911.
However, the energy of the masses was not easily quelled, and when Madero's liberal reforms were quashed by the landowning class, Madero was overthrown and assassinated in 1913. Bloody revolution reigned for over a decade, as rulers were overthrown and local rulers – Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa foremost among them - ran Mexico in pieces. Ultimately, the peasants lost their zeal for a battle that produced no national results, and began to return to their villages. The peace was finally engineered by a party known as the Constiutionalists, shrewd politicians who distributed enough land to villages to buy their support while still maintaining upper class control on most of the country's wealth. The peasants who had empowered the revolutions were easily subdued, and as wealth became consolidated in cities under the new government, this common population found it progressively necessary to abandon their villages in favor of greater opportunity in those cities. Thus began a steady migration from rural Mexico, a migration that helps to explain the historical factors that are implicit in Rulfo's depiction of Comala as a near ghost town.
The common fervor had apparently died down by the mid-1920s, but the Cristero Rebellion sprang up in 1926, another event alluded to in Pedro Páramo. The rebellion, which was centered in western Mexico, was encouraged by the clergy but fought by the peasants, who called themselves Cristeros for the religious signification of the word. The traditional account is that the wealthy landowning classes, whose prominence was challenged by the liberal constitutional reforms, used the clergy to inspire an attempted overthrow. Other arguments suggest that the rebellion was less about the economy than the government – as the latter grew more central and socialized, it saw a need to battle the Church, which held most authority in rural areas, for control. By this argument, the Church merely directed a common discontent into a series of armed skirmishes that were finally quelled by a 1929 agreement between the government and the Church, negotiated without any input from the peasants who fought. Though a much shorter-lived conflict, this rebellion deepened the resentments on both sides of the social divide, while also making rural society more irrelevant and thereby encouraging more migration to the cities.
This brief history of 20th century strife in Mexico is key in understanding the elegiac tone of Pedro Páramo. Not only does it provide some real-world context for the depraved state of Comala, but it also elucidates the context of the novel's main themes: nostalgia, longing, death, and loneliness. Rulfo's work is entirely modern and universal, but it is also very much a work inspired by and dedicated to his people and country.