In the summer of 2006, I boarded a flight with several other students and very dear professor for Lima, Peru. Our purpose was to study Human Rights and Democracy in Peru. For those of you who don't know the history, Peru was embattled in a brutal civil war between the Marxist-Lenninist-Maoist rebels known as the Shining Path, and the government throughout the 80s and 90s. The president during the 90s, Alberto Fujimori who was initially democratically elected, eventually established a quasi-dicatorship and set out on a brutal assault against the rebels, which resulted in the massacre of entire villages (mostly indigenous).
The country has since undergone massive political changes, and a return to democracy, aided by the implementation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
For a bunch of middle class American kids, we were about to step into a world we could hardly fathom, and from which we would all take great lessons.
However, tragic, Peru's story is one of the many that make up the fabric of Latin American history.
As a result of my time spent in Peru and now Mexico, Latin America has captivated me, so you can imagine my excitement when I had the opportunity to review the book Gringo: A Coming-of-Age in Latin America by Chesa Boudin. I was also lucky enough to snag and interview with the young author. Enjoy!
Me: How does it feel to have your book compared to books like Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London, and the Che's Motorcycle Diaries?
For people who can't afford to travel around the world (be it because of time or money) how do you suggest they become better activists or learn to empathize with people they've never met and hardly understand?
Travel closer to home can broaden your horizons too. Our country is amazingly diverse and there are multiple worlds, communities, classes, cultures within a bus ride from where most every person in the United
How do you think your perception of Latin American (or for that matter your desire to see the world) would have been altered had you had parents who were less politically active and less progressive in their politics?
My parents encouraged me to travel and see the world. Their politics influenced the background and assumptions I brought to my travels. Some people grow up with politics, others have experiences that politicize them. I can only imagine that if I hadn't been raised in apolitically conscious household I would have found politics on the road.
I like how you mention the "gringo wild card" throughout the book. Having lived in Mexico and Peru, I know exactly what you're talking about. For those who haven't read the book, and perhaps haven't travelled in Latin America, could you explain the "gringo wild card"? How did you balance using this to your advantage and going against your own personal morality?
The Gringo Wild Card is the phrase I use to describe the perks, privileges and special treatment that come with being a white gringo in Latin America. Of course sometimes it works the other way around and you get charged extra or ripped off because you are visibly a wealthy outsider. The Gringo Wild Card saved me from more than a few
uncomfortable, and dangerous situations and for that I will always be thankful. But I avoid using it whenever it comes at someone else's
How did your time in Latin America change (if at all) your relationship to or perception of the USA and other gringos (or more broadly, the global north)?
It was impossible for me to fully appreciate what it meant to be from the US or what the US represents until I had some basis for comparison. Spending time overseas made me appreciate the amazing aspects of my country and my culture but it also taught me to learn from and respect other ways of life.
You mention that Latin America taught you the difference between need and want. Can you please explain that more in-depth?
Need might be one of the most over used words in the English language. All too often I hear myself saying, "I need...." And almost no matter what follows it is not likely to be something I truly need. People who
are living without access to basic nutrition or health care, without civil or human rights have unmet needs that I have been privileged enough to never confront in my own life.
I felt one of the strongest chapters in the book was that which talked about Internally Displaced Peoples in Colombia. To me it's a story that isn't often told. In this chapter you also mention the relationship between cash crops (some of which produce ethanol), paramilitaries, and narco-trafficking. How do you feel issues of trafficking, be it human or illicit drugs, should be addressed?
Decriminalizing drugs would take the profit out of the industry and leave the armed groups responsible for so much violence without resources to buy weapons. It would also save hundreds of billions of dollars we spend on interdiction and incarceration in the US.
There is incredible irony in the way the United States deals with leaders of the region. Men like Hugo Chavez, are demonized while men like Alvaro Uribe are supported. How do you suggest the average American see through the propaganda and develop a balanced sense of the political and economic realities of the region?
Read more and read more widely. If we depend on the same few sources for all our information, no matter which sources we choose, our perspective will be limited. No matter what (or how much) news one relies on, learning to read between the lines is a crucial skill.
You purposely did not discuss travel in Mexico, Nicaragua, and Cuba, but you mention you will save those for another time. Why? When can we hope to hear these stories?
I want to go back to each of those countries and spend more time living, working or traveling before I write about them. Hopefully after law school I will make time to do that.
Do you have any trips planned in the near future? If so, where and for what purpose?
I'm now on my way to S. Africa to spend the summer working for the constitutional court.
What 5 books would you recommend to anyone wanting to learn a little about Latin America?
1. Eduardo Galeano's Open Veins of Latin America (or any of his other books)
2. Che's Motorcycle diaries
3. Greg Grandin's Empire's Workshop
4. Amaranta Wright's Ripped and Torn
5. Andres Openheimer's Saving the Americas
Many other suggestions I would normally have are country specific rather than covering the whole region.