The Americas: Updated!

by | Oct 7, 2009

For years I have been using in my classes several films from the “Americas” series, done by a group of academics and filmmakers and shown on PBS in 1992. At the time it was a great achievement, ten films which combined themes (economics, race/ethnicity, urbanization, revolution, counterrevolution, women, religion, art, identity, Latinos) and country profiles (Brazil, Mexico, Bolivia, Caribbean, Cuba, Central America, etc.). Even though the series was intended for a broad public and for introductory use in classrooms, the more you knew about Latin America the more you could appreciate how much the academics and filmmakers had packed into each film. The series was augmented by Peter Winn’s book Americas, now in third edition, and also a series of readings. Although the series continues to have much to commend it (I typically use three of the films in a one-semester course), events have moved on. the films represent the early 1990s, although work had started a decade before.

I believe those of us who teach about Latin America would like to see a new “Americas,” a series that would do something similar for Latin America today. the time may be ripe for an ambitious fresh look at Latin America in the spirit of the previous series because of an emerging pragmatic consensus on the way forward in Latin America. Somewhat loosely, here are some of the ingredients of that growing consensus:

  • Natural resources, particularly oil, are not in themselves the key to development.
  • By hindsight it is clear that Latin American countries should have moved away from “inward” development toward more “outward” development sooner.
  • Latin American countries should move toward a model of development based on human capital.
  • One key is a competitive private sector at all levels (small, medium and large business). “Competitive” means producing goods and services at world standards.
  • What is required of government is that it be effective and responsive, and not only at national but at regional and local levels.
  • Education should be expanded to provide opportunity for all, and quality should be improved (again to world standards).
  • Excessive inequality is not only unfair and unjust; it is an impediment to real development.
  • The rule of law is crucial in many ways, including ending impunity of military, police, and the powerful; combating crime and drug trafficking; and reducing pervasive corruption in government and the private sector.

In short, with this new consensus, time is ripe for a series similar to “Americas.” below, I offer some thoughts on the shape such a series might take.

Surviving in the City: “Americas” highlighted urbanization, the move to the city (“Continent on the Move”). the “urban shift” is now a reality: the continent is now 75-80% urban by the usual demo- graphic standards, so we’d want a closer look at life in the cities.

Food and Farming: My assumption here is that Latin American countries are rapidly moving toward a commercial farming model, to the point where even small farmers find themselves moving from subsistence farming to commercial crops.

Geography and Sustainable Development: One way to approach this topic might be to point out how geography affected the development of various countries (e.g., Colombia), and that the interior of South America went unsettled until the twentieth century. Now of course the Amazon region has been under threat from ranchers, loggers, and small farmers.

Business and Labor: Topics might include a story of small businesses, factories or stores; the story of pão de queijo—the small Brazilian roll from Minas gerais that started as local business and became a successful national chain; and discussions of foreign investment, informal employment, and organized labor.

Race and Ethnicity: The earlier film Mirrors of the Heart is excellent at portraying how prejudice operates at the family and local levels. Possible topics include indigenous militancy in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Mexico and Colombia; history of Afro-Latin America, including slavery, and claims of “racial democracy.”

Youth and Education: Although education is often treated as part of social policy, making it a topic itself has some advantages; we’ve all spent years in school, and the series itself might often be used in schools. Some topics include recent notable advances (e.g., almost universal enrollment in elementary school in some countries); likewise problems of equity and problems of quality.

A Changing Family: The idea would be to take a look at the household, with the realization that families vary considerably by economic and social class.

Law and Order: Possible themes include ending impunity; prisons; drug trafficking; domestic drug problems (e.g., Brazil is the no. 2 consumer of cocaine in the world, after the United States).

Deepening Democracy: All Latin American countries (except Cuba) have some version of formal democracy, but people remain largely disappointed with the results.

I see this film series as an interpretation of Latin America for English-speakers. Although the talking heads should be primarily Latin Americans, we must remember that Latin America itself is an abstraction. In their national identity people are Mexicans, Argentines, Costa Ricans, Peruvians and so forth; people may also identify with their village or indigenous roots. they may be linked to other countries in the continent by language, trade agreements, telenovelas, popular music, celebrities, religion; their governments collaborate in various ways, but they are not primarily interested in Latin America as such.

Anyone else’s ruminations on what such a series would look like would be different from mine. however, the ease with which these ideas have come to me reinforces my sense that the time is ripe for such a venture.

Fall 2009Volume VIII, Number 3

Phillip Berryman is a professor of Latin American Studies at Temple University. You may reach him at

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