Publication Date

October 1, 1992

Perspectives Section



Visual Culture

The five hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s first voyage has spawned countless public programs and museum exhibitions, and it is no surprise that public television and commercial filmmakers are also devoting considerable attention to Columbus. But of all the films completed in anticipation of the Columbian Quincentenary, one of the best is surely The Buried Mirror, with Carlos Fuentes. A joint U.S.-Spanish production, this five-part film was conceived by historian Peggy Liss and developed by the Smithsonian Institution in conjunction with the Spanish Quincentennial Commission and Spanish television. Aired this summer on the Discovery Channel, the series deserves a wider audience and will be of particular interest to Latin American historians.

The Buried Mirror provides a superb introduction to the history of the Spanish empire and the establishment of Spanish colonies in the New World. Yet, despite the fact that the series attempts to survey the major landmarks in Spanish and Latin American history from the conquest to the independence movements, it is not primarily concerned with a political narrative. Instead, The Buried Mirror is an exercise in cultural and intellectual history, and despite sometimes excessively broad strokes, the series succeeds in vindicating this old-fashioned approach and does so brilliantly at times.

Much of the explanation for this success can be attributed to Fuentes’s role as writer and on-camera narrator. Fuentes’ not only makes an excellent on-screen host, but his script is powerfully written and beautifully expressive. Throughout the series the producers make excellent use of stills, and especially close-up shots of major works of art from Latin America, many from Mr. Fuentes’s native Mexico. Fuentes’s own narration is informed by a sensitivity both to the works of art in their own right and to the broader cultural meanings that lie hidden in these pictorial texts. Clearly, he has pondered the ambiguous multiple meanings of many of these paintings and murals and communicates their significance very well indeed. Above all, he succeeds in convincing viewers that the artistic conceptions embodied in specific works are not merely historical curiosities but have the power to explain entire cultural transformations and historical epochs. In short, the series takes a profoundly humanistic approach to its subject and displays a maturity of judgment throughout that few comparable American productions have managed.

But the very breadth of The Buried Mirror presents some problems. The series’ implicit premise, that there is or ever has been one common “Spanish American” culture, could be challenged, and inevitably in so sweeping an attempt to cover five hundred years of history there are segments and historical epochs that specialists will find unsatisfactory. Although the project’s advisory board included scholars who specialize in Brazil, that country gets short shrift despite some impressive footage from Minas Gerais, and the Caribbean is treated as a mare hispanum throughout. But these lacunae can be defended: Fuentes makes it clear that the focus for the series is on explaining Spanish-American culture throughout the Americas.

More problematic is the script’s occasional tendency to let Mr. Fuentes’s beguiling wordsmithery hammer out glib but unhelpful historical generalizations. For example, in discussing the complicated question of Spanish decline, price inflation, and the loss of economic power to northern Europe, Fuentes tells us only that by becoming rich Spain became poor, and that for Latin Americans the result was that they became “colonies of a colony.” But these empty rhetorical flourishes are few, and in other cases Fuentes’s words, often accompanied by superb art work or interesting contemporary footage, are moving and informative. Speaking against a background of grainy ethnographic footage of one Peruvian highland ritual, Fuentes tells viewers that these hard-pressed Indians are actually asking us “not to forget our common humanity.” And, although it will be familiar territory to specialists, the film uses the works of Goya especially well to capture the transition from the enlightenment to reaction in Spain and the effects of the French Revolution and Napoleonic invasion. In Latin America the transformation from colonial status to independence is also nicely handled, and perhaps the best moments of the series come when Fuentes narrates the history of the Latin American independence movements. Here, too, time permits him only to highlight events in Colombia, Venezuela, Argentina, and Chile, but Fuentes’s earnest delivery communicates to Norteamericanos the vital but often overlooked truth that these early revolutionaries were possessed of a moral energy and a desire, which they shared with their British-American counterparts, to create a just secular order. The Buried Mirror is less persuasive in explaining what went wrong with the political development of these Latin American republics, but its insistence that there is a positive dimension to their origins is a welcome reminder of how South Americans view their own history.

The series concludes with a final episode aimed clearly at an audience in the United States concerned with issues of Mexican immigration, bilingualism, and the consequences of cultural changes. Although Fuentes is not shy about expressing his point of view on these sometimes vexing issues, the show will disappoint those who expect a polemical treatment of either these contemporary issues or the historical record. In fact, even before the series aired, articles in the Washington Times warned, erroneously, as it turns out, that the series would become a vehicle for anti-Americanism and indict the United States of crimes both past and present. To be sure, in the fourth episode Fuentes does describe the war with Mexico as an unjust one, and he denounces “dollar diplomacy” and frequent U.S. military interventions in the affairs of Central American nations. But for anyone with the least familiarity with Latin American opinion, these sentiments will come as no surprise.

Mr. Fuentes comes closest to contemporary ideological controversies only in the final hour, where he warns against illiberal racial prejudices and discusses U.S.-Mexican border tensions. On the whole, Fuentes refrains from much editorializing about the United States, nor is his judgment always critical. For example, Fuentes is careful to praise President Franklin Roosevelt for his “Good Neighbor” policy. Moreover, in the final episode, he is positively ecstatic about the multicultural possibilities for the hemisphere best embodied in Los Angeles and other American cities with Mexican and other new Latin immigration.

In the final analysis, however, The Buried Mirror is not merely a tract for our times but a powerful demonstration that history continues to shape the present. In fact, the series’ credo, that “mirrors have the power to capture the sun and show us ourselves,” is an apt metaphor for the real power of history. The five mirrors held up by Fuentes and his collaborators have been burnished to a high sheen indeed, and American audiences would do well to look into them. Unfortunately, PBS declined to broadcast the series in 1992, and as a result many Americans without cable television have so far been unable to view what is unquestionably one of the finest efforts to use the medium of television to interpret and explain history.

Malcolm Richardson is a historian who specializes in modern Europe and who has been active in the national observance of the Columbian Quincentenary.