Mexican author and political commentator Carlos Fuentes, who has tackled some sweeping topics in his acclaimed novels, takes on the entire history of the Americas as writer and narrator of a five-part television series that will air as part of the quincentennial celebration of Columbus' arrival.
Titled "The Buried Mirror," the series covers a time stretching from pre-Columbian civilizations to "the murals of East L.A.," Fuentes said at Cal State Fullerton during an October tour of California, which included a number of lectures and a sold-out reading at the Los Angeles Theatre Center.
Fuentes described "The Buried Mirror," which began shooting in Mexico City in October, as "a celebration of the Spanish-speaking world."
Fuentes, whose novels include "The Death of Artemio Cruz," "The Old Gringo" and "Christopher Unborn," will narrate Spanish and English versions of the program, scheduled to air in the United States in late 1991 and 1992. The joint production of the Smithsonian Institution and a consortium of Spanish investors will be seen all over the world.
The final episode will focus on Latinos in the United States. "It'll explore the past and present of Hispanics in the United States, and some of the challenges and some of the achievements of today," explained Peggy Liss, the program's historical consultant.
The series as a whole, she said, will illustrate Fuentes' concept of the evolution and continuity of the Latino cultures of the Americas.
"What we want to do is focus on the meaning and significance of 1492 and 1992, not on Columbus himself," Liss said.
Coincidentally, the coming quincentennial is what sets "Christopher Unborn" (previously in Spanish, an English version was recently published in the United States) in motion. In the book, two characters conceive a son in hopes of winning a contest for the first boy born on the 500th anniversary of Columbus' arrival.
The book is narrated--from the womb--by the growing fetus, to be named Christopher Palomar.
Fuentes imagines the worst in the satiric novel, set in 1992: Mexico City's population has climbed to 30 million and is so polluted that the sun never appears; the Yucatan Peninsula has been sold to Club Med; the national debt continues to multiply; U.S. Marines are invading, apparently with the blessing of the ruling party; a zone 100 miles north and south of the U.S.-Mexican border has become a lawless no man's land called Mexamerica.
"I hope that by mentioning all these horrors I will be able to exorcise them, and I hope it doesn't become a prophesy," Fuentes said in a telephone interview. "I don't want it to become a prophesy, but it could."
Fuentes sees hope that Mexico is moving toward a multiparty system. In last year's elections, the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (known as the PRI) won the presidency with the smallest margin in its 60-year history. Earlier this year, the PRI lost its first governorship.
"I think the elections . . . were a fundamental event signaling a new direction in Mexican life and politics," Fuentes said. Ironically, he added, he believes this new direction has its roots in the devastating Mexico City earthquake of 1985. When the government proved ineffectual in responding to the disaster, city residents led their own rescue and recovery efforts.
"I think the people discovered they had their own power, the power to mobilize socially without practically any help from the government," Fuentes said.
There is a pivotal scene in "The Old Gringo," both the book and the recently released film: Tomas Arroyo, a revolutionary general and the illegitimate son of a wealthy landowner, has captured the hacienda of his youth and leads his peasant followers into a great room of mirrors to gaze upon themselves.
The revolution "made us realize who we were," Fuentes said. "We thought we could imitate Europe or imitate the United States and then become happy and prosperous. When this failed, we were forced to look at ourselves and say, 'Hey, this is what we are. . . . ' It was a fundamental act of a whole people, of a whole nation, to look at themselves, to look at their past and see it, warts and all."
But the revolution's promise has gone unfulfilled, Fuentes said. "The people today, (who) have been educated by the government of the revolution since 1920, say, 'Hey, I want this. You promised me democracy and social justice,' "Fuentes said. "They're fighting for it politically today."