Monday, April 20, 2009

Off The Radical Shelf-- Chesa Boudin, Gringo: A Coming-Of-Age In Latin America (Scribners: 2009), $25.00. 226 pp.

Chesa Boudin's first solo trip to the southern hemisphere was in 1999, an immersion visit to the colonia of San Andres, Guatemala, during his senior year in high school. The trip launched a passion for travel, and for seeing the swift political changes sweeping the global south first hand.

Over the course of the next ten years, Boudin would return repeatedly, visiting almost every country in Latin and Central America. He observed, and sometimes participated in, an evolving socialist political movement during a period in which neoliberal policies promoted by the United States and its allies at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund first wrecked economies and, eventually, country by country, inspired political change. Boudin, a Rhodes scholar who studied at Oxford and is now a law student at Yale, was in the right place at a lot of right times. In February 2002, he arrived in Buenos Aires in time to see the collapse of the Argentinian economy; and in chapters 5 and 6 he describes an extended stay in Venezuela, where he worked for Hugo Chavez. Subsequently, he observed the 2006 Venezuelan election, where Chavez was re-elected but the referendum that would have allowed Chavez to serve for life was defeated. This, for Boudin, is an important lesson about the possibilities for true socialist democracy: I hope this is true, although that story is far from over.

It's a winning book for many reasons, although I labored through some pedantic stretches that, since I am a faithful reader of the New York Times and The Nation, as well as of selected scholarly literature in Latin American history, felt too basic and pre-digested. The more personal parts, where the reader gets to observe the ordinary people whose lives are shaped by poverty and struggle, are most evocative of a region in transformation. The lighter touches about Boudin's own early naivete and learning processes will also resonate for scholars, organizers and travelers of all kinds who have made awkward cultural crossings in a sincere attempt to learn from others. Boudin practiced what is known in the student touring trade as "rough travel" - avoiding amenities and facilities designed to make North Americans comfortable, taking often bone-jarring bus trips from place to place, and digging deeply into the places he lived and worked. His growing sense of competence as a traveler and a learner is also worth following, as are his occasional references to the fear that attends being a conspicuous stranger in places one doesn't belong. One trip Boudin took on a river boat caused me to recall that mix of confidence and terror inspired during a day trip of my own in Chiapas, Mexico, where I realized to my great joy that I had learned enough about hitching rides in the beds of communal trucks to be fairly certain I could make it to the US border on my own if necessary. A few minutes later, a drunken scuffle next to me escalated into a knife fight, making me realize that such a trip would be, as my friend Sekou Sundiata once memorably wrote, a hard bop.

And Boudin's life has been a hard bop, leavened, as he points out, by access to some of the finest educational institutions in the world and by membership in a blended family of interesting and committed radicals who raised him to have the non-violent left politics he has. Brief references to his four Weatherman parents (a subject I don't want to rehash here) and their struggles against American imperialism and war back in the 1970s and early 1980s link Boudin to a longer radical past that is both his honor, and I suspect his cross, to bear. Why some people choose to beat him over the head with this I don't know, except one suspects a certain envy -- Boudin's productivity (he has participated in four books in about six years, although this is the first as sole author) would be excellent for any university scholar, and his name alone gives him the capacity to command attention in a way few young people can.

A theme that I wish Boudin had developed more in this book, without necessarily being more revealing about his family, are his lifetime "crossings" between two worlds: one, where he was the privileged son of one pair of upper-middle class intellectual celebrities; and the other, where he waited in line to be searched, along with the children of the poor and forgotten, to visit his incarcerated birth parents. These crossings, he suggests, may well have led to a lifetime of seeking in-betweenness. Traveling back and forth between the overdeveloped and underdeveloped worlds may be part of that desire to be in perpetual motion. I am hoping that as Boudin acquires distance, and the time for reflection, he digs more deeply into his own personal journey; feels less compelled, in his own work, to create links between his parents' generation and his own; and marks out a clearer agenda for a new political generation that, in its desire for change in the last election cycle, did not a political left make, whatever David Brooks and Fox News say. Instead, these progressive young people created the energy and organization necessary to revive, in the form of the path-breaking Obama presidency, a twenty-first century version of what Arthur Schlesinger once called "the vital center."

This issue -- calling a Newer Left into being -- may be the answer to my one great uncertainty about the book: who is it for? In part, I bought and read it because a friend suggested that I do so. However, I was also interested because I teach in a hemispheric American Studies program, and am constantly in search of politically engaged books that can help my students think critically about hemispheric politics and their positioning as workers and consumers in a neoliberal economic framework. And yet as I said, the book lectures a bit more than I would like, and necessarily perhaps, touches lightly on the specifics of NAFTA as it narrates the effects of trade policies on the lives of ordinary people. It attends less critically than I would like to why some regimes -- principally Mexico, where Boudin appears not to have traveled much at all -- embraced neoliberalism as a development strategy. And it does not address at all the ways in which people in Latin and Central America are often in struggle with each other, at the level of the community, over what they want from economic development, land ownership and religion. In fact, the biggest recent political phenomenon the book leaves out is the explosion in evangelical Protestantism in the hemisphere, and the wrenching -- often murderous -- conflict that has provoked over the past two decades.

My best guess, and this requires pinning this book together with Boudin's co-authored book on the Venezuelan Revolution (actually, there are two) and the co-edited collection, Letters From Young Activists, is that Boudin is indeed trying to call a new generation of the political left into being with his books. It is a worthy task and he is undoubtedly one of the people who could do it. The Boudin family is, whatever else you think about its historical legacy, a left-wing political dynasty, and Chesa Boudin's work to date suggests that he has taken up that work and carried it into the next century with sincerity, brains and passion.

Buy Chesa Boudin's Gringo here.