Social hierarchies and human interactions operate in a peculiar manner in Juan Rulfo’s narrative world. Other narratives of the Revolution, such as Mariano Azuela’s The Underdogs, paint a picture of Mexican society where the rural poor are clearly manipulated or oppressed by the urban, wealthy, middle and upper class. When the Revolution comes the subjugated rise up and invade the homes of those who previously had power, exacting revenge with great brutality. When it subsides, however, the few revolutionaries who possess newly-acquired wealth, along with the educated class, take the place of the empowered poor in order to once again oppress them. In any case, what we see in these types of narratives is a clearly defined hierarchy of the powerful and the powerless. The oppressor and oppressed are always a clearly defined.
Interestingly enough, Rulfo departs from this notion of Mexican society. In The Burning Plain we see few references to social hierarchies beyond the presence of the inept and faceless government bureaucracy. It is no coincidence that one of the few moments where an “oppressor” is pointed out appears when one of these bureaucratic representatives in “The gave us the land,” the government official, tells the four complaining peasants that “you should be attacking the large-estate owners and not the government that is giving you the land.”
The truth is that the government official is attempting to displace the blame for the government’s shortcomings onto an undefined set of “oppressors” against whom the Revolutionaries should rebel. However, after more than ten years of fighting, these revolutionaries know better. They have already learned the hard lesson that looting, burning and killing off the so-called “upper class” is a battle they will always end up losing.
After all, this is what the revolutionaries in “The burning plain” discover. Eventually, they will be caught, and often the victims are not who they appear to be. Think for example of the people who perish at the hands of Pedro Zamora in the makeshift “bullring.” They are an “administrator,” who “died very quietly, almost without moving and as if he himself had wished to be stabbed,” and the foreman who, when he was stabbed, “didn’t seem to realize what had happened,” “got frightened and with his fingers tried to stop up the hole in his side,” and died “staring up at us.” These are both low-level employees of the wealthy, likely hired to take care of their boss’s land after he has fled the region. The administrator and foreman are probably just a months’ missed wage from joining Pedro’s band and their deaths appear to bring more guilt than satisfaction.
As a result, when the government official in “They gave us the land” defers the peasant’s complaints to the abstract concept of “large-estate owners,” the peasants try to appeal to the man’s human side, they try deal with him on a more personal level: “Wait, sir. We haven’t said anything against the Center. It’s all against the Plain. […] Wait and let us explain. Look, we’ll start back where we were—.” The peasants know what Rulfo tries to show us in The Burning Plain, that power lies in relationships, not in hierarchies. This is why in “Anacleto Morones” the pious women of Amula feel compelled to establish a rapport with someone they would normally run from — the bawdy sinner Lucas Lucatero — in order to get him to testify on behalf of Anacleto Morones. Life is structured not by the class you belong to, or the social circles you move in, but to who you know — and frequently who you are related to.
This is why family is so central to so many of the stories in The Burning Plain. The moments where the weight of family relationships are the key to getting what one wants are present in nearly every story: in “Tell them not to kill me!” Juvencio appeals to his son for help when he is captured by the Colonel; in “Paso del Norte” the son can only rely on his father to take care of his family, and the latter must finally assent; At the end of “The burning plain” El Pichón finally is brought to shame when he is confronted by his illegitimate son; in “Talpa” Tanilo can only rely on his brother and wife to drag him to see the Virgin; and in “No dogs bark” the father carries his estranged, criminal son as far as he can before the boy dies.
In the end, what the characters find so frustrating in The Burning Plain is the way that the feudal relationship has ceased to be the governing order in rural Mexico. There is a certain nostalgia for the charismatic “caudillo” who would look after the peasants under his protection as if they were his sons and daughters. This is the role that Pedro Zamora fulfills in “The burning plain,” as he and his watchful eyes stand guard over his sleeping followers, counting and recounting them at every opportunity. The new, impersonal federal government is something very different. It does not deal in relationships. As the residents of Luvina so eloquently point out, one cannot depend on the government because it “doesn’t have a mother.” Rulfo is unique in understanding how in rural Mexico, power lies in relationships, and how this is something that is lacking in the new post-revoltionary order.