Scribner, April 2009
Hardcover, 240 pages
I remember myself at 18...all I wanted to do was to explore the world and then to write of my discoveries, but back then, growing up in India, it really wasn't the thing to do, instead, it was the time to focus on finishing university and to concentrate getting a well-paying job. How different things were for American student Chesa Boudin. When he turned 18 in 1999 he enrolled in a Spanish immersion class in rural Guatemala...not finished with his South American experiment he applied for a Rotary International Ambassadorial S'ship which sent him to Chile in 2001. From there he traveled to Argentina at the height of their financial meltdown; to Venezuela where he worked in the Presidential Palace; to the jungles of Colombia on a human rights mission, and the mines of Bolivia. He also traveled steerage on a riverboat along the length of the Amazon. This voyage is documented in his fine book Gringo: A Coming-of-Age in Latin America.
Before I go further you should know that this young man is the child of former members of the radical political group Weather Underground, Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, so it is not unusual to see him detailing leftist political shifts in Latin America as they happened in the '90's...but always running parallel to this political commentary is Boudin's own personal journey as he comes of age in Latin America.
Perhaps one of the most profound accounts in the book comes from his time in Bolivia when he visits a mine worked by Bolivians desperate for the scraps that the Spanish conquistadores left behind:
I also enjoyed his keen political insights into Venenzuela and the era of Chavez. While one gets the impression that Boudain approves of Chavez overall, he has some criticisms as well. As he said in an interview:These miners, and how many thousands more like them, were working under conditions that couldn't have improved much since the Spanish colonial era. There were no bathrooms, no drinking water, no food. And at the shaft opening where they dumped tons of mineral slag every day for sorting, I had seen plenty of young boys hard at work-- age is difficult to estimate when in a different country but they were prepubescent, of that I was sure. My own physical discomfort began to seem paltry in comparison with their daily trauma. I was appalled. Sitting in the mine shaft that day I couldn't understand how anyone could subject themselves, much less their young sons to this suicidal work. And for what? A starvation wage? The dream of finding a few ounces of silver the Spanish left behind? I began to regret going to the mines at all. Maybe my being there only added to the workers' humiliation. They had generously invited me into their hellish world, deep inside the earth. All I could offer them in exchange was a cheap present of a few sticks of dynamite.
I have criticisms of the Chavez government that the Chavistas don’t welcome. There is a lot of corruption in Venezuela and a lot of crime in the streets. The government has not made genuine progress in those two areas, and recently Chavez devoted a lot of time and energy to reforming the Constitution so he could stay in office longer, legally. I thought they should have spent more time developing new leadership.
Why should you read this book? After a decade of dictatorships in the '80's, Latin America is now experimenting with democracy... people at the grassroots level are learning to participate in the political process and bringing to power, in a big way, socialist leaders who have promised to make life better for its downtrodden citizens and to a large extent they have kept their word. Democracy is being reinvented in Bolivia, Venezuela and elsewhere. Ecuador isn’t as far along in its own process but it’s coming along. All over the continent there is more grass roots participation in political movements than there has been for a very long time. What better time then to read about and be aware of the countries that makeup the continent to the south of us?
Boudin has attempted a very earnest and readable book on his time in South America...it is a travelogue but reads more like socio-political commentary. Either way, it's a very enjoyable read and recommend to any and all with an interest in South America.