Chesa Boudin's Latin American diaries.
By Brittany Shoot
April 30, 2009
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 Dohrnformer Weather
Underground members known for their antiwar bombings in 1969 and the
During his travels, Chesa Boudin encountered myriad complications
merging his ideals and gringo identity.
Crossing more than 25 Latin American national borderspolishing his
Spanish and Portuguese and strengthening his stomach with diets made
up of only local cuisinethe 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
allyalbeit one not easily recognizable from his skin color and
sometimes halting speechamong 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
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 naive 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 Parkthe
upper-middle-class Chicago neighborhood in which he was raisedBoudin
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 Americato Guatemala in 1999, at age 18set
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 historyat 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
Visiting resettlement "humanitarian zones" in Colombiaweaponless
spaces now reclaimed by indigenous people who were previously chased
away by violent paramilitaries in the late '90sBoudin 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
encountersincluding his own.