Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Gringo: Coming of Age in Latin America by Chesa Boudin

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:
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 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:

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 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.


young vapire luke lestat said...

I finished reading the book Gringo: by Chesa Boudin
is a good memory of happy time for me.
I lived 8 years in Brazil, then exit to the world ...
I am Italian, German citizen
very good your blog ......

[]s Lukas Saksida

Sanjay said...

Hi Lotus, thank you for telling us about this interesting read. I am sure it helps inform the readers better than some media outlets do these days!
Just a few thoughts, not sure they make any sense. Following the era of dictatorships there has been a shift to the left and a more populist brand of leftists, I would say.
I don't know if I would call what is happening in Venezuela as being democracy reinvented. Don't you think it is more like being undermined?
Are you concerned about a bias from the author given that his background?
Does the author mention Brazil? It would be interesting if he did. Not sure if he was there during Lula's time. Not sure about now but back then Brazil's economy was doing pretty good. I wonder what he would think of that?
I found the part of miners in Bolivia to be very touching. It reminded me of the National geographic issue on gold link. It talk about miners in the Peruvian Andes, and after reading this piece and the interview on NPR with the authors, the true cost of gold becomes clear.
Sorry that was off topic.
Loved reading your review, and thank you for sharing your thoughts with us.

wordjunkie said...

Hi. Sounds like an interesting book. I just finished reading a collection of Alan Cheuse essays, called 'A Trnce after Breakfast' and one of them has a wonderful analysis of similar experiment in immersion in Mexico. Here's the link to my review:

Stefania said...

From your review this book seems to be very interesting, I'm eager to read it... especially the part on Venezuela and Chavez. Quoting from Sanjay's comment, "democracy being reiventend (or undermined)" is more or less what is happening in Italy as well, so I'd like to know what are the author's thoughts on Chavez, who's been legally elected like Italy's prime minister but is now trying to concentrate more and more power on himself, changing the laws that allow a country to be called a "democracy".
I'm always been fascinated with Latin America even though I didn't have the chance to travel in any of those countries.

I have a similar book on TBR pile, it's written by an Italian author, Emilio Rigatti, and it's called "Yo no soy gringo". It's a travelogue in Mexico, Colombia, Cuba and other Latin American countries. No idea if it has been translated to English, but I doubt so (unfortunately this happens more and more often with Italian books).

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Lucas!

Thank you for stopping by! I am so intrigued with Brazil and I do hope to travel there some day. Where do you live now?

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Sanjay,

I hope you don't tire of hearing me say how much I value your input, but honestly, I do!

About democracy being reinvented...the reason I used that word and not any other is because what Chavez practices may not be what we in Europe and North America know of as democracy, but that is not to say it is not democracy of a kind. Ne c'est pas? I mean, I really don't know a whole lot about politics, but I do know that his first term was all about setting policies and programs that would benefit the poor, who had been completely neglected by the people that lead Venezuela earlier. His second term is a little different ofcourse. And then we have Bolivia and Equador where the rights of Indigenous people were not even recognized...and now they are! I can hardly call that democracy undermined.

And yes, there is a whole chapter dedicated to Lula's rise to power...I think you might enjoy reading the book especially as you are so much more "in the know" than I am when it comes to World and LA politics!

Thank you for the links...I will definitely listen to the NPR program!!!

Lotus Reads said...

@Wordjunkie ~ THank you for your comment and especially for pointing me to your blog. You write some lovely reviews. I am completely sold on Alan Cheuse's new book...will have to place an order for it immediately. Thanks so much!!!

Lotus Reads said...

Hello Stefania!

Yes, it's sad (but almost inevitable) how power goes to people's heads. Many of them set out with the right intentions, but once they taste power, it seems to consume them! I did not read about SB trying to change Italian law, it seems like every time Silvio Berlusconi is in the news it has to do with his impending divorce or some gaffe that he has made...I blame the media, I wish they concentrated more on bringing us the stuff that really matters, rather than items that tend to be sensational and nothing else. *sigh*

"Yo no soy Gringo" sounds like a wonderful read! What a loss for the non-Italian speaking world that it hasn't been translated into other languages yet.

Lotus Reads said...

Stefania, I also wanted to say that there some very nice interviews with Chesa Boudin all over the net, listening to some of them will give you a good idea as to how and why he feels the way he does about Chavez and Venezuela.

Zibilee said...

I haven't read many books about Latin America, but I really liked the excerpt that you quoted from this book. It sounds like the author has a really conversational style and is able to relate his experiences in way that I would find interesting. I am going to see about picking this one up. Thanks!

young vapire luke lestat said...

Hi, live in Göttigen-De.
I am of the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen
Mathematica Computation ...

Juhi said...

Hi, thank you for another wonderful review.

What an education young Boudin must have obtained.

I have read heartrending accounts of Chile's past by Isabel Allende - would really like to read this book.

Lotus Reads said...

@Zibilee ~ You are welcome! Yes, Boudin is a very earnest writer and very passionate about his subject. That he tends to go off on a tangent about the politics of whichever country he's discussing would be my only quibble with his writing!

@Lukas ~ That's a great university! Hope you are enjoying your courses

@Juhi ~ Oh, yes, I think even my first exposure to Chile and all its political troubles came from reading Isabel Allende..what a brilliant and evocative writer she is!