Reviewed: Gringo: A Coming-of-Age in Latin America, by Chesa Boudin, 240 pages, Scribner, 2009.
In Gringo: A Coming-of-Age in Latin America, Chesa Boudin writes of sleeping in a hammock on his way up the Amazon River on a 200 foot boat, working as a translator in Hugo Chavez’s presidential palace, witnessing the rise of President Lula in Brazil and traveling through Argentina during the country’s economic crisis. His reflections and reportage on such experiences provide an exciting road trip through pivotal moments in Latin America’s recent history.
Activist and writer Boudin is a former Rhodes Scholar and the translator of Understanding the Bolivarian Revolution, the co-author of The Venezuelan Revolution, and the co-editer of Letters From Young Activists.
In Gringo, Boudin’s writing places the reader in his shoes by peppering his stories with striking details and anecdotes from Chile to Guatemala. On one bus ride in Honduras, he writes, “the driver stopped an hour into a three-hour itinerary so he could visit at his girlfriends’ house for forty-five minutes, leaving those of us on board to sweat in the afternoon heat.”
The book is populated by the people Boudin meets in buses and living rooms across Latin America. He brings these characters to life on the page with descriptions such as this one, of Colombian farmer Enrique Echeverría: “His hands, clearly those of a man who has worked every day of his life, carried a machete, which he kept in a leather scabbard on his belt.”
Boudin contextualizes the journey with reporting and illuminating interviews. In Ecuador, he quotes Magdalena who says, “Many of us had to sell or abandon our land in favor of work in the informal sector or in flower export companies. Our ancestors have been farming the mountains for thousands of years but these days you’ve got to have faith to farm.”
In Colombia, he writes of the thousands of people displaced from paramilitary and military violence. While on a human rights delegation to the country, he tries to put to use advice he heard from Zapatistas in Chiapas years earlier: “If you have come to help us, please go home; if you have come to join us, welcome. Pick up a shovel or a machete and get busy.” In Colombia, he writes, “my digital camera would be more useful than a machete: the solidarity we showed by joining the community and documenting the paramilitary activity were key steps in their strategy to reclaim control of their land.”
As the title of the book suggests, Boudin regularly contemplates his identity as a gringo in a foreign land, at one point writing of the complicated “struggle to build honest, equal relationships with people, not just relationships based on financial support.” But he does establish many friendships on the road, creating a community of comrades, a broad network that spans the hemisphere.
Interspersed throughout the book are the author’s reflections on the fact that when he was just 14 months old his biological parents, members of the radical Weather Underground group, were sent to jail for their involvement in a bank robbery that left three men dead. Boudin’s father, David Gilbert is still in jail while his mother, Kathy Boudin was released in 2003.
The robbery and subsequent imprisonment of his parents is often brought up by Boudin alongside his political and social observations in Latin America. The experiences, friendships and freedom he encounters in his travels are described in contrast to the jail time served by both his parents.
“Part of the point of travel was to appreciate the passage of time,” Boudin writes, “quite the opposite of time spent, for example, in prison where passing time quickly is an imperative, every minute on the road counts and should be dragged out, savored.”
From the politics of bus travel in Central America to 21st century socialism in Venezuela, Boudin’s colorful introduction to some of the most dramatic and hopeful years in Latin American history is itself a journey to savor.
Benjamin Dangl is the editor of TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events and UpsideDownWorld.org, a website on activism and politics in Latin America. He is the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia (AK Press) and the forthcoming book Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America (AK Press).