One part political report, one part self-confident travelogue, Gringo: A Coming of Age in Latin America (Scribner, April) is Chesa Boudin’s sensitive and elegantly written memoir about his near-decade-long personal journey through Central and South America between 1999 and 2007.
The author is the son of incarcerated political activists David Gilbert and Kathy Boudin (Boudin was freed in 2003 after serving 22 years in prison for felony murder associated with armed robbery), and the adopted son of Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn – former Weather Underground members known for their antiwar bombings in 1969 and the early ’70s.
During his travels, Chesa Boudin encountered myriad complications merging his ideals and gringo identity.
Crossing more than 25 Latin American national borders – polishing his Spanish and Portuguese and strengthening his stomach with diets made up of only local cuisine – the teenager-cum-Rhodes scholar balanced his ivory tower education with practical experience.
To be clear, Boudin takes no offense to the gringo moniker. While often perceived as pejorative slang, Boudin has been called a “gringo” with affection more often than not. His use of the word in the title and throughout the book speaks to his comfort as a white ally – albeit one not easily recognizable from his skin color and sometimes halting speech – among native Spanish speakers. Repeatedly acknowledging his white privilege and the gray area between international solidarity and political tourism, he recognizes that the word, in fact, describes perfectly his itinerant existence on the continent.
From the beginning, Boudin situates himself between his race and class privilege, and his desire to expand his global understanding. What could be seen as cavalier moves by a naïve white boy were actually calculated attempts to experience a culture on the ground, with everyday people.
Boudin writes that choosing to travel by bus and live in the barrios served only to enhance the authenticity of his experience. While it is unlikely he would have made the same choices if he were a solo female traveler, his adventures are captivating in their detail.
Traveling in parts of the world completely removed from Hyde Park – the upper-middle-class Chicago neighborhood in which he was raised – Boudin learned valuable lessons about the value of privacy, the luxury of space, the body’s tolerance for physical discomfort, and the difference between “need” and “want.”
He writes that he quickly came to understand how to discern between being lonely and being alone. On the road, he found, he was rarely alone.
Romance also blossomed for the young adventurer, though after several unsuccessful years of attempting to maintain a long-distance relationship with his girlfriend in Brazil, the two agreed to remain friends and allies.
Boudin’s coming-of-age travels coincided with some of the most dramatic events in 21st century Latin America.
His first trip to Central America – to Guatemala in 1999, at age 18 – set the stage for his burgeoning curiosity about world economics, as he learned firsthand from his Guatemalan acquaintances about corrupt corporate tax loopholes and imbalanced exchange rates.
Boudin lived in Argentina in 2002, during the country’s massive economic collapse, and witnessed Venezuela’s enthusiastic re-election of President Hugo Chávez in 2006. He absorbed how these crises and victories affected everyday citizens.
He also writes insightfully about living in Chile on Sept. 11, 2001, where he encountered a mix of annual anti-Gen. Pinochet protests and received word from home about the attacks on U.S. soil.
Boudin chronicles the difficulty he had contributing to a community as an outsider.
As his language skills improved, he was able to work as a text and verbal translator, but in everyday life, he remained stifled. Confronting the complexities of direct charity, he mangled an attempt to buy groceries for street children in Argentina.
Supportive of fair labor practices, he witnessed the challenges facing Brazil’s Landless Worker’s Movement.
In many of his experiences, no matter his excellent intentions or how deep his empathy for those he met, his gringo status remained the final hurdle.
Most consistently, Boudin encountered Washington’s harmful policies.
For readers unfamiliar with institutions like the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (formerly known as the School of the Americas) or the basic concepts outlined in Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, Boudin provides an accessible, personalized account of the imperialist economic policies that the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have inflicted on economically failing countries in the last 40 years. Each chapter serves as a condensed national history – at turns educational and entertaining.
Boudin’s continued linguistic improvements led him to public speeches by world leaders, including Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and Bolivian President Evo Morales. He writes that his ability to absorb their words without additional help was a personal victory.
Boudin’s descriptions of floating down the Amazon or riding buses across borders have drawn comparisons with Che Guevara’s The Motorcycle Diaries.
Visiting resettlement “humanitarian zones” in Colombia – weaponless spaces now reclaimed by indigenous people who were previously chased away by violent paramilitaries in the late ’90s – Boudin was struck by the strength of displaced people, laboring under unrelenting oppression.
Perhaps more than other socially conscious tourists to the region, Boudin often had particular empathy for families torn apart by war, members disappeared or murdered. He writes that while maintaining a close relationship with his imprisoned parents is different, his fractured familial background provided him with unique compassion for others.
Boudin’s greatest strength is his respectful understanding to not use his privilege to speak for his comrades. In fact, this awareness of being an outsider reflected humility. And as his awareness grew during his travels, so, too, did the book’s analysis and detail.
By the end, the reader is left a bit intoxicated by Boudin’s romantic optimism, while also being more in tune with the difficulties that the most well-intentioned allies face.
Boudin puts a beautiful human face on the tragic stories he encounters – including his own.