Férula […] reminded him that on their mother's side they were heir to the noblest and most highborn surname of the viceroyalty of Lima. Trueba had simply been a regrettable accident in the life of Doña Ester, who was destined to marry someone of her own class, but she had fallen hopelessly in love with that good-for-nothing immigrant, a first-generation settler who within a few short years had squandered first her dowry and then her inheritance. (2.21)
In Férula and Esteban's pride in their mother's surname, we get the sense that "class" is a category separate from wealth – nobility can't be lost just because a family loses its money. Class is a more enduring label, which suggests that, in this society, members of the lower class couldn't easily shed the stigma of their low birth by making a fortune.
The upper class, however, in whose hands were concentrated all the power and wealth, was unaware of the danger that threatened the fragile equilibrium of their position. (2.72)
Though class is regarded by many characters in the novel as a stable and immutable category, the author hints that the category is more "fragile" than they suppose.
Word of his cruelty spread throughout the region, provoking jealous admiration among the men of his class. They peasants hid their daughters and clenched their fists helplessly because they could not confront him. Esteban Trueba was stronger, and he had impunity. (2.74)
Upper-class status comes with a get-out-of-jail-free card. Esteban Trueba can do whatever he wants with impunity.
"What they don't realize is that poor people are completely ignorant and uneducated. They're like children, they can't handle responsibility. How could they know what's best for them? Without me they'd be lost – if you don't believe me, just look what happens every time I turn my back. Everything goes to pieces and they start acting like a bunch of donkeys." (2.75)
Esteban justifies his behavior and the patriarchal structure of his society by comparing the peasants to children and to animals – creatures that don't know how to take care of themselves. He argues that he acts like a father towards his childish tenant-farmers, providing them with a source of authority without which they'd flounder and starve.
At times Clara would accompany her mother and two or three of her suffragette friends on their visits to factories, where they would stand on soapboxes and make speeches to the women who worked there while the foremen and bosses, snickering and hostile, observed them from a prudent distance. […] Clara grasped the absurdity of the situation and wrote in her notebook about the contrast of her mother and her friends, in their fur coasts and suede boots, speaking of oppression, equality, and rights to a sad, resigned group of hard-working women in denim aprons, their hands red with chilblains." (4.17)
The feminism of Clara's mother and her suffragette friends falls flat on the ears of the working-class women at the factories. Clara sees that it's easy to concern yourself with political ideas when you're wealthy and don't have to worry about working for a living – the factory workers have more pressing concerns.
"There's no point in trading one capitalist for another. The thing to do is form a cooperative and tell the madam to go to hell. Haven't you ever heard of that? You better be careful. If your tenants set up a cooperative, you'd really be finished. What I want is a whores' cooperative. Or whores and fags, to make it more encompassing. We'll lay out everything, the money and the work. What do we need a patrón for?" (4.48)
Tránsito Soto's political ideas are born of her ambition and a sense of practicality – she's not interested in high-minded theoretical ideas. She's interested in what works.
Hungry tribes of unemployed workers and their families […] wandered the streets begging for a chance to work, but there were no jobs and slowly but surely the rugged workers, thin with hunger, shrunken with cold, ragged and desolate, stopped asking for work and asked for alms instead. The city filled with beggars, and then with thieves. […] There was not enough charity for so many poor, defenseless people. (4.90)
The portrayal of the impoverished workers indicates that the problem of unemployment is systemic – there are no jobs for the people to work, and charity is insufficient to meet their needs, too. The author suggests that something about the political system needs to change.
Just as she had gone with her mother in the days when she was mute, she now took Blanca with her on her visits to the poor, weighed down with gifts and comfort.
"This is to assuage our conscience, darling," she would explain to Blanca. "But it doesn't help the poor. They don't need charity, they need justice." (4.95)
Charity is a tradition among the women of the del Valle and Trueba families – Nívea, Clara, Alba, and even Blanca (at her mother and daughter's prodding) help the poor with their labor and with gifts of money and food. All of these characters, with the sole except of Blanca, recognize that charity isn't going to cut it – the political structure that perpetuates poverty in the first place needs to change as well.
"When I grow up, I'm going to marry you and we're going to live here in Tres Marías," she whispered.
Pedro stared at her with his sad old man's look and shook his head. He was still much more of a child than she, but he already knew his place in the world. (5.16)
Pedro Tercero can see that Blanca is being naïve. She has yet to learn the social rules that disallow the marriage of two people from different social classes, and sees herself and Pedro Tercero as equals.
"Charity, like Socialism, is an invention of the weak to exploit the strong and bring them to their knees."
"I don't believe in your theory of the weak and the strong," Jaime replied.
"That's the way it is in nature. We live in a jungle."
"Yes, because the people who make up the rules think like you! But it won't always be that way."
"Oh, yes, it will. Because we always win. We know how to move around in the world and how to use power." (10.15)
Jaime's conversation with his dad reveals that they're both aware that things are the way they are because the powerful make the rules.
They lit torches, and the jumble of voices and dancing in the streets became a disciplined, jubilant procession that advanced toward the well-tended avenues of the bourgeoisie, creating the unaccustomed spectacle of ordinary citizens – factory workers in their heavy work shoes, women with babies in their arms, students in shirt-sleeves – calmly marching through the private, expensive neighborhood where they had rarely ventured before, and in which they were complete foreigners. (12.4)
The Socialist victory is illustrated through an inversion – and some fear an invasion – of space. When the party of the working class achieves victory, the wealthy suddenly have to make room in their ritzy neighborhood for the poor, just as they'll have to make room in the political arena for a class that had previously been shut out.