Teaching Spanish America: From the Conquest to Contemporary Film

This semester at Kansas State I’m teaching a 500-level Spanish American Literature survey course, and I decided to experiment a bit with the way I structured the content. Survey-style courses are always challenging to design, given their vast scope — Spanish literature covers more than a millennium of texts produced in the Iberian peninsula; Spanish American literature covers well over 500 years and twenty countries spanning across two continents and the Caribbean.  For this course, rather than take a chronological approach to Spanish American literature like I did with Spanish literature last semester, I divided the course into four units: (1) Discourses of the Conquest, (2) Women’s Voices, (3) The Nation, Land, and People in Narrative, and  (4) 20th Century Poetry. The first four weeks have so far been dedicated to discussing the heterogeneity of Spanish America – in terms of culture, worldviews, and geography. I began the course on day one with Uruguayan artist Joaquín Torres García’s inverted map of South America – “America invertida” (1943) –  which has proven to be an excellent visual and touchstone for the course thus far.

America Invertida

América invertida (1943), by Joaquín Torres García (Uruguay).

After beginning the semester with selections of the Popol Vuh, nahuatl and quechua poetry, Christopher Columbus‘ letters, Bartolomé de Las Casas‘ chronicles, and Inca Garcilaso‘s “Commentaries,” I wanted students to understand the process of the Spanish Conquest and Colonization in terms of the lasting discourses they produced. After reading these varied texts, I assigned the 2010 film, También la lluvia (Even the Rain), hoping that the often difficult and seemingly antiquated texts of these early explorers would take on new relevance with a contemporary connection. I had seen this film a few years ago after it was released, and I thought it would be excellent for a Latin American Literature or culture course… whenever I might happen to teach one.  The entire film WAS available on Vimeo in Spanish, both with and without Spanish subtitles, which made it easy for my students to access it and view for homework. Unfortunately, as of January 2017 it’s no longer available, and I have still not found a free streaming version with English subtitles; the link below is to the US trailer, with Spanish subtitles.

The film is based on events that occurred in Bolivia between 1999-2000, and I wanted my class to understand the context of the events depicted before viewing the film. “The Water Wars”, or “La guerra de agua,” is the name given to the protests in Cochabomba, Bolivia’s third-largest city located high in the Andes mountains, after the takeover of the regional water supply by the San Francisco based Bechtel Corporation. The dramatic increase (300%) in water rates as a result of privatization sparked local protests that culminated in a civilian march of tens of thousands of citizens that led to violent confrontation with police. These “Water Wars” between this Bolivian city and the powerful Bechtel corporation are a feature of the 2002 Canadian documentary, The Corporationwhich explores the exploitation of human rights by powerful multinational corporations such as IBM, Coca-Cola, and Monsanto. Prior to their viewing the film, I required that my students conduct a brief search for information on the “guerra de agua” in Cochabomba, and I provided them with this 2002 Frontline article that details the events and their consequences. I also gave them a short English YouTube video that begins with this crisis in Bolivia and points to potential future disputes over water as a global commodity. [Update 2021: the video I used in 2016 is no longer available on YouTube; the below explanation, in Spanish, could be a useful substitute, though it only contains drawings and no actual images/footage].

To briefly summarize the plot: A Spanish film company is shooting a movie about the Spanish Conquest, or the “Discovery of the Americas,” in Cochabomba, Bolivia. They hire and cast local residents in order to save money and give an aura of “authenticity” to their film. While filming, the Bolivian extras launch a protest against the privatization of their water supply, and their modern-day protests parallel the Spanish conquest and exploitation of the New World… the precise historic event that the Spanish film company is attempting to recreate from a “new” perspective, more sympathetic to indigenous populations.

Tambien la lluvia_cartel

As part of their homework (link at the end of this post), students selected one of the main characters and analyzed their representation and evolution. It was a fairly even split between Costa, Sebastian, and Daniel (about 3-4-3).  I also asked that they select a scene that they found most thought-provoking or forceful. I have a small class of ten students, and several selected the scene in which indigenous women – working as extras who are paid only $2.00/day by the Spanish film company making a movie about the Spanish Conquest – are asked to “drown their children” in the river. Despite reassurance from the directors that the children will be replaced with dolls and that their babies will not be harmed, the women cannot even fathom experiencing anything as terrible as drowning their own children, even out of fear, desperation, or self-preservation. This is a powerful scene on many levels, especially given the uncomfortable way in which these 21st century Bolivian indigenous women are asked by foreign (Spanish) filmmakers to recreate a disturbing scene of subjugation and abuse that has come to form a part of their cultural conscience. It also serves as a point of convergence that helps communicate the parallels between the exploitation of both the 16th and 21st century indigenous populations by foreign nations (or companies) who value only their own economic gains.

As a film, También la lluvia is especially useful in a literature course because of its complex structure – particularly the staging of a “movie-within-a-movie.” This allows for more direct comparisons to literary narratives, and also serves to emphasize the parallels and similarities that exist between the exploitation of indigenous peoples by sixteenth century conquistadors and modern day foreign filmmakers and global corporations (like the scene with the women and children mentioned above). To identify the narrative structure, we drew a box-framework similar to that used in describing frame narratives – “cajas chinas” (Chinese boxes) or “cuentos intercalados” (interspersed stories). I drew the diagram on the board in class based on my students’ descriptions and analyses, and from there we were able to identify elements of each of these narratives – scenes, characters, language, props – that functioned to communicate the same narrative of exploitation as the initial Spanish Conquest within the various levels of the film. Below is an example of the chart we created and one of the parallels identified (in yellow).  For example, the “commodity” – or the item of economic value that allows the powerful to exploit the weak – that appears in each respective narrative is gold (16th century) and money (salaries) and water in the 21st.

narrative_tambien la lluvia

always improving my graphics…?!

My students also drew parallels between Sebastian/Costa (the fictional filmmakers and directors), Columbus/Las Casas, and the Bechtel Corporation and Bolivian politicians in the film, and we added these characters to their respective narratives.  The above “design” would work well as an in-class collaborative activity (worksheet), especially if you had time to dedicate more than one class to discussing and analyzing the film.  After having read samples of Columbus’ letters and selections of Las Casas’ chronicles, my students were able to easily follow the film’s historical references and consider the lasting effects of the Spanish Conquest on contemporary Spanish American nations – so they didn’t have any problems identifying obvious connections and, from there, considering more complicated or subtle points of convergence as a group. I will definitely use this film again, especially because my class genuinely seemed to enjoy it and none of them had heard of the Bolivian Water Wars (which makes sense, given most of the were barely 10 years old at the time!). In the future, as I mentioned, I think it would work well to dedicate the first class to discussing the film, the characters, and the narrative structure, and then use a second class for analyzing the composition of particular scenes (the staging, lighting, set, use of props, music, etc.)

Have you taught this film in a Latin American Literature, Culture, or film course? What other contemporary films or narratives function well in conjunction with the (often difficult) centuries-old chronicles of the Spanish conquest and subsequent colonization of the Americas?


Textbook: I’m using the 3rd edition of Voces de Hispanoamérica in my course this semester (since we will work with only about 1/4 of the textbook, I wanted to keep costs low by using the older edition. Many texts we will read this semester are not in Voces – especially women’s literature – and I provide students with these texts as PDFs as much as possible).


About Dr. Rebecca Bender

Spanish professor
This entry was posted in History, Literature, Pedagogy, Spanish America and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Teaching Spanish America: From the Conquest to Contemporary Film

  1. J'Leen Saeger says:

    What a great snippet of your course! I wonder if you wouldn’t mind sharing the guide you give your students to analyze poetry?

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