PBS's Latino Connection

Series offers a thought-provoking view of Latin American societies

SO close and yet so far.

The countries and cultures of contemporary Latin America are trading partners with the United States and our nearest neighbors. More than a half billion people inhabit the 33 nations of Central and South America and the Caribbean. By the year 2000, Hispanics from all over the Americas and their descendants will collectively make up the largest minority among US citizens.

Yet most people in this country know little about the variety of Latino cultures. A 10-part series beginning on PBS this week, "Americas: An Insider Perspective on Contemporary Latin American and Caribbean Society," is meant to open the doors to the viewer's sympathies, imagination, and understanding of Latino cultures. It is also meant to wake the viewer to the fact that what happens among our neighbors affects us.

The series is narrated with conviction and intelligence by Puerto Rican actor Raul Julia ("The Addams Family," "Kiss of the Spider Woman"). His distinguished presence is a unifying force among interviews with right-wing generals, left-wing labor leaders, politicians of all stripes, housewives, feminists, businessmen, priests, and others from every class and race.

A complex and fascinating view of contemporary Latin American and Caribbean cultures emerges as the various modern histories come together. Economic development, patterns of migration, the arts, religion, the changing role of women, racial conflict and identity, revolutions, ethnic diversity, and problems of national sovereignty are brought into perspective.

The tone of the series is always even, never overwrought or overtly didactic. Both sides of the issues are presented by those who figure in the various dramas. Wealthy landowners complain about the change in workers' attitudes after the unions took hold in Argentina. Right-wing, middle-class women complain about not having enough yarn to make baby clothes when Salvador Allende took power in Chile, while poor women weep over the disappearance of their children after the military coup.

It is chilling to listen to a Brazilian general explain and excuse "disappearings" and torture without remorse in one program, and in a later program to hear from a woman doctor who suffered unspeakable torture merely for having opposed the military regime. After several programs, what takes shape is a picture of great suffering and great endurance, of cultures struggling for and against social justice while trying to make economic progress under harsh conditions. Many of their stories are similar: unrea listic economic policies, foreign debt, the left and the right reacting against each other.

ONE segment, "The Garden of Forking Paths," tells the modern history of Argentina. It barely scratches the surface of repression during the "dirty war" against civilians in the 1970s, but it gives a succinct chronology of the events that made one of the wealthiest nations in the world 60 years ago a poor nation today. The program's second half, "Capital Sins," goes to Brazil to look at that nation's struggle for democracy and economic stability.

"Mirrors of the Heart" takes up the problem of racial and ethnic diversity in Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti. The prejudices that have arisen in the US and other countries and the resistance of many people to stereotypes and bigotry is troubling and illuminating. "The Americans" looks at Puerto Rican culture in New York, Mexican-American culture in Los Angeles, and Cuban culture in Miami. As social consciousness rises, so does the power to make changes.

But the most riveting and difficult of all the programs I've seen is "In Women's Hands." This show takes up the changing role of women in Chile (and by implication, in other Latin American countries). We hear from women of every social class. Those who supported the military junta and those who suffered at its hands. A woman who organized a communal kitchen to keep herself and her neighbors alive, a seamstress, a doctor imprisoned and tortured, a mother of 13 children, a leader of the suffragist movement , among others, describe how they keep their families together and their hope alive.

The entire series tries to do so much, yet the viewer can't help but feel large chunks of information have been left out. Among the five programs I saw, there was relatively little analysis of cultural factors - religion, philosophy, tradition - that might contribute to the many problems depicted, though one of the programs does fully describe the Roman Catholic Church's involvement with Liberation Theology.

As a whole, the dense material of "Americas" is meaningfully arranged and ultimately thought-provoking. Ten years in the making, "Americas" answers many questions, stimulates others, and generally ignites curiosity.

* The second program in the "Americas" series airs tonight in some areas; the next one on Jan. 19. Succeeding shows air weekly. Please check local listings.

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