Chesa Boudin, Gringo: A Coming of Age in Latin America, 240 pages, Scribner (April 2009).
Chesa Boudin’s South American travel memoir and coming of age story Gringo is good and useful on several levels. It’s a poetically personal On the Road for a new generation and a vivid primer in the human cost of neo-liberal policy. It also serves as a stirring encouragement to the global left and a handbook for socially conscious travel in the third world.
Deploying his political commitments, evident charisma, radical family background, and some uncanny timing, he threads through the major arteries of epoch-changing places and moments in Latin America. Through the last decade, often in breaks from his schooling (including a Rhodes scholarship), he visited the jungle villages in the vanguard of the indigenous struggles in Ecuador, found himself in the midst of the currency collapse in Buenos Aires, and spent a day with radical union leaders inside a Bolivian silver mine. Most strikingly, after less than a week in Venezuela, he landed a job translating in Chavez’s presidential palace.
Throughout the book, Chesa maintains a critical eye on how his inescapable role as “gringo” transforms his experience of every situation. I loved his introduction of the phrase “the gringo wild card” to describe the special privileges that a white North American traveler intuitively understands and expects when traveling the third world, which divide his experience from that of his hosts. I’ve traveled extensively as a musician, and the Gringo wild card has saved my ass everywhere from a midnight police checkpoint in Gambia to a nightclub entrance in Rio.
One of the most complex aspects of third world travel for a gringo is navigating human relationships across a great divide of privilege. In one of my first travel experiences, when I was studying Hindustani music in Varanasi, I befriended a young man who invited me to his home to meet his family and play chess on his roof below the fighting kites of the neighborhood’s children. After a long and enlightening conversation, he asked me if I could help him get to the United States. My first reaction was disappointment; his request somehow made the friendship feel less “pure.” On reflection I eventually realized the injustice of that judgment. After all, just the fact that I was there, in India, meant that I had the money for a plane ticket that cost probably four times what this man made in a year. His request was totally natural and took nothing away from our genuine interest in each other. But I often speak to young people returned from third world “adventures” who are dismayed that everyone they met seemed to want something from them. Chesa confronts these issues with a disarming honesty and compassion, and creates many genuine friendships that straddle these lines. For this reason alone I would recommend the book to any one traveling to the third world for the first time.
Boudin looks unflinchingly at how his racial and class background conditions his experience of South America and what he can, in time, guess of how he was perceived — but his sense of personal responsibility is neither fetishized nor precious. His persistent self examination serves to locate and authenticate his remarkable firsthand journalistic observations of everything from the Venezuelan public’s reaction to Chavez’s second election to the devastating attacks on subsistence farmers by Colombian Paramilitary in the process of consolidating land for U.S. export agribusiness.
As travel writing, the book is full of striking details that reveal the author’s personality as well as his politics. From his love of sweet plantains to his affectionate and in one instance hilarious portraits of the various “Chicken Buses” on which he crisscrossed South America, the book has the texture of daily life, even as it kindles one’s hope for a better world.