Gringo

A Coming of Age in Latin America

By Chesa Boudin
Simon & Schuster. 240 pp. $25
May 24, 2009


Chapter One

Border Crossings

The rugged handmade wooden canoe fitted with a powerful outboard motor pushed up against the dirt shore of Lake Petén Itzá where the town's first houses nestled the beach. There was no "Welcome to San Andrés" sign. A handful of chickens clucked around, a few pigs rooted in the dirt, and the sweet smell of burning plastic garbage filled the air. San Andrés, with its rapidly growing population of five thousand, covered the steep hill leading up from the lake and back toward a lush tropical jungle where an ancient civilization had reached its peak some six hundred years ago. Mayan stone cities and temples, long abandoned, were the region's primary attraction for foreigners.

On the journey across the lake from the triple city of Flores-San Benito-Santa Elena, with its few tens of thousands of people, I had sat in the rear of the boat near the loud motor and intense fumes: being the gringo and a first-time visitor, I had no way of knowing better. Riding in the back, I had the additional disadvantage of waiting while the rest of the passengers - all Guatemalans - disembarked. A group of young men with neatly pressed school uniforms and meticulously gelled straight black hair got out first. Next, an old woman with an impossibly large bag was helped ashore; then a younger woman with an infant at her breast and two smaller ones following behind with sacks balanced on their heads. A couple of men carried machetes and wore muddy knee-high rubber boots - workers in the fields or the jungle.

As the people in front of me climbed onto the dirt embankment, I looked down the beach and saw small groups of young women and girls washing clothes by hand and carrying water in plastic tubs. On the other side of the beach, heading away from town toward more trees and unsettled jungle between the villages dotting the lakefront, partially clothed families bathed and splashed in the shallows of the cool water. "Oye gringo!" Hey gringo, time to go. The boatman, no more than twenty with a thin mustache and sneakers well cared for but far past their prime, wanted me off his boat. Sporting new, sturdy boots and a big hiking bag that was strapped, unnecessarily secure, to my back, I jumped out onto the wet ground and started walking up the hill. I passed one-story cinder-block and wood houses on narrow, partially paved streets and footpaths. The sun burned down, scorching everything it touched, and the people I passed stayed in the shadows while children played and ran freely. A few blocks up, climbing steeply, I stumbled on Eco-Escuela. It was a one-room language school built on stilts out over the hill. The back wall was cut away to provide a panoramic view of the lake.

This was to be my new school but I didn't stop there. Instead I continued farther up the hill to the small wooden house of Doña Eugenia, which was where I had arranged to stay for my two-month-long visit. I was to share my new home with Doña Eugenia's only daughter, Delia, and, when he got back from working in the jungle, her quiet, amiable husband, Jesús. Doña Eugenia had short hair and was one of the only married women in town with just one child - an oddity in a community where contraception was rarely used. Her daughter was sixteen, with a squat frame and feet more used to flip-flops than shoes. The women were both tiny, coming up no higher than my chest. It would be a week or more before I met Jesús. He had a warm smile, and like most men in town who worked in the fields or the jungle, carried a machete wherever he went. I wasn't the first gringo they had hosted, so my Birkenstocks, headlamp, and wide array of sunscreens came as no surprise.

Dinner on my first night at their house was handmade corn tortillas fried into tostadas and covered with cabbage and grated cheese. While I ate hungrily, I tried out the various getting-to-know-you one-liners I remembered from Spanish class in high school. Soy de Chicago; tengo dieciocho años; me llamo Chesa: C-H-E-S-A. ¿Cómo estás? We struggled to get to know one another, but my Spanish was a severe limitation, often slowing conversation to a total halt. While on my third or fourth tostada Doña Eugenia asked me ¿Qué hacen sus padres? Small talk about what her exchange students' parents did was probably a safe ice-breaking question for most of the gringos Doña Eugenia had hosted in the past. But her question left me with a dilemma.

I've been open and matter-of-fact about my family situation since before I can remember - as a kid I just took it for granted that it was as normal as saying my parents were doctors or teachers; eventually, I even preferred my whole class to know at the beginning of the year rather than lying or worrying about who knew what - and I didn't see why I should hide it now. But what were the words for jail or adoption in Spanish anyway? "Tengo cuatro padres." That part was easy, but I saw the puzzled look on Doña Eugenia's and Delia's faces.

"¿Cómo así? ¿Son divorciados?" came the inevitable reply. No, they were not divorced. They were ... I had to rely on my pocket dictionary for this one ... encarcelados. If I thought having parents in prison was going to give me street credibility in San Andrés, the distraught look that passed between my hosts dispelled that misconception immediately. They were worried. I started talking fast, making up the words I didn't know. Bebé, padres, crimen, tres muertos, político, negros, imperialismo, Nueva York.

How could I, with only the most basic Spanish, articulate to my now concerned hosts that in October 1981, when I was just fourteen months old, my biological parents, Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, had left their Manhattan apartment and dropped me off at my Dominican babysitter's house, only to head off into a tragedy? How could I explain that, while I played and fussed as an infant, my parents made a terrible mistake, the worst of their lives? They had waited in a U-Haul in Nyack, New York, as a couple of miles away, members of a radical armed group of black nationalists robbed a Brinks truck of $1.6 million. Tragically bungled, the Brinks robbery left three men dead and an entire community traumatized. By the time my mother and father received a twenty-years-to-life sentence and a seventy-five-years-to-life sentence, respectively, friends of theirs, Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, had taken me into their family and become my other parents. How could I explain to Delia what the political turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s had been about, or how my parents, white Jews, got involved in antiracist and antiwar activism and ultimately armed robbery?

For more than a decade before I was born, all four of my parents had lived on the run from the FBI as members of the militant political group called the Weather Underground; they had a common history. In 1980, after the Underground had fallen apart, Bill and Bernardine surfaced, and voluntarily turned themselves in to the authorities - the most serious charges against both of them had been dismissed because of illegal activities, including wiretaps, break-ins, and mail interceptions, initiated by the attorney general and an FBI assistant director. Bernardine was given three years probation for charges stemming from a protest. When I landed in my new household, Bill and Bernardine already had two sons: Zayd and Malik became my older brothers. With the support of my new family, through visits, letters, and phone calls, before I can even remember, I began to build relationships with my other parents from the distance incarceration creates. Somewhere in the gray area between collective family memory and where my own recollections start, I grew accustomed to going through a metal detector and steel gates every time I wanted to give my biological parents a hug.

As I grew up, my four parents' group efforts made feasible the transitions between the mostly white, middle-class, private school day-today and the mostly poor, black, and Latino prison system that was a constant thread in my life. I lived in parallel worlds. My family taught me radical politics from the beginning, but I also learned to prove myself in elite institutions. Brought up with the privileges and opportunities the United States offers some people, and a political line that condemned the very existence of an elite, I lived a contradiction. Life's incongruities were not merely between theory and practice. Much of the left-wing politics took root, despite the exclusive networks and institutions, because prisons can be a great equalizer. The line for the metal detector at Attica Correctional Facility didn't move any faster for me because I attended the same private school where Nobel Prize winners and billionaires sent their kids.

With one hand cuffed to a barely visible abyss of poverty and incarceration, and the other grasped in the confident handshakes of those accustomed to privilege and comfort, I learned to move freely between different universes. Almost miraculously these existences came to complement each other. Each served as a lens through which life could be viewed and understood, a bridge to reach out and connect with people around the planet in the most unlikely places. Metal detectors, languages, planes, and buses have come to serve as portals between my different worlds.

There was no way I could articulate all this with the little Spanish I knew at the time of arrival in San Andrés, and my fifth tostada was getting cold while I fumbled with my dictionary. Even looking up every word I could barely explain to Doña Eugenia and Delia that my parents were kind, generous, well-meaning people, buenas personas, that we loved one another with the complexity of any strong family, mucho amor, that their crime had been politically motivated, crimen político, that despite their incarceration I had grown up in a stable, middle-class family, familia estable. Their tight faces suggested confusion, concern, maybe even fear. I didn't want them to be scared to have me in their home, but the more I tried to explain in broken Spanish and infinitive verbs plucked straight out of the dictionary, the more confused I seemed to make them. I wanted them to see me as a friend, to articulate a self-portrait of a good gringo, an ally, but I wasn't so sure who I was myself.

While I was in Doña Eugenia's kitchen, in January 1999, my classmates were beginning the last semester of senior year of high school. I had finished my credits early and decided I would see how well Mr. Fuentes's intensive Spanish class could serve me during an immersion experience in rural Guatemala. It was my first trip to Latin America and my first-ever journey outside the United States without my family.

In Venezuela, a few hours flying south from San Andrés, Hugo Chávez was being sworn in as president and would soon begin shaking up the region. Later that year, at the Battle in Seattle, a burgeoning global protest movement would target institutions like the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank that propagated neoliberal policies - classical liberal economic policies with the goal of transferring control of the economy from the public to the private sector. By the 1990s, neoliberal economic and social policies had become the norm throughout Latin America, though politicians advocating them openly were rarely elected democratically.

On the flight south I had read Stephen Schlesinger's and Stephen Kinzer's Bitter Fruit: The Untold Story of the American Coup in Guatemala, which described the role of the United States government in overthrowing Guatemala's democracy back in 1954. It was one of a number of books my parents had suggested to help me understand the role North American companies and the CIA played in Guatemala's tragic history of poverty and civil war. Che Guevara happened to be living in Guatemala City at the time of the coup; the events the young Argentine witnessed would forever change his life and with it pan-American history.

The CIA-sponsored 1954 Guatemalan coup, justified in the name of fighting communism, was followed closely by brutal military dictatorships and a thirty-six-year-long bloody civil war that ravaged the country. Dictators and death squads left an estimated 200,000 dead, mostly unarmed indigenous civilians, and the country deep within the United States policy fold. But when I flew into Guatemala for the first time I only had the vaguest idea of what a neoliberal policy was, let alone what it would look like on the ground.

From Chicago I had signed up to study at a language school in the sparsely populated northern region of Guatemala called the Petén, and it was through the school that I was assigned to live with Doña Eugenia. My school tuition of $150 a week included four hours of one-on-one classes per day, and a home stay with all my meals included. The school had an inviting, progressive-sounding name, Eco-Escuela. A family friend who had studied there recommended it.

After collecting my new backpack from the baggage claim in Guatemala City's international airport, I wandered over to the airport information desk. A woman in a light green dress suit who was working there spoke more English than I did Spanish. She said that I had two basic choices for getting to the Petén: I could board a one-hour flight for $65 or I could take a twelve-hour bus ride for about $9. In a decision that would foreshadow much of my travel over the next decade I decided that a plane ride was too expensive and straightforward. Nervous though I was, I wanted to get into the mix and travel like a Guatemalan: the bus it was.

A taxi driver charged me $4.30 for a ride to the private coach terminal of a passenger bus company called Fuente del Norte, Fountain of the North. It wasn't until I stepped out of the taxi into the sun and smog of downtown Guatemala City that I realized what I had thought to be perfect low-key travel gear - Timberland boots, khaki cargo pants, and oversized photojournalist vest with twenty-three pockets (I counted them, though I could never figure out what the little mesh pouch on top of the left breast pocket was for), along with my stuffed backpack that had more straps and hooks and snaps than could possibly be useful - was conspicuous against the dirty gray central city. There were several rows of seats in the open-air waiting area just off the busy street where the cab left me. In one corner a few men in short-sleeve button-down shirts and thick jeans ate fried chicken and drank Gallo beers. One row of seats was occupied by a family of six with bags, parcels, bundles, and boxes of all sizes spread out around them. Several other travelers sat on duffel bags up against the back wall and kids played on the floor. A steady stream of travelers walked in and out of the terminal from the narrow sidewalks. I realized I was stepping, uninvited, into a new world that I understood practically nothing about and I wasn't at all sure that I was welcome. In my mind's eye I regarded myself as a comrade in arms with the downtrodden guatemaltecos I had read about. But how were the dozens of people in the bus station to know that? I had the uncomfortable feeling, standing there in my new gear, that I looked like another rich white tourist dropping into a foreign reality for exotic thrills and narcissistic self-exploration.

I made my way to the ticket office, a dirty Plexiglas cubicle in one corner of the room, and bought a $9 ticket that was handwritten on a recycled paper template. The bus would leave in an hour. I didn't want to wander around the center city, known for street crime, with a bag that could easily be confused for Santa's sack by any of the handful of street kids I saw sitting on the sidewalks. So I found a seat in one of the rows of empty blue chairs and took in my surroundings.

People all over were selling junk food, magazines, pens, watches, hairclips, and sunglasses. A young Mayan girl, a toddler, tried to sell me a newspaper. I started talking to a chubby-cheeked young woman but we didn't get far because my Spanish wasn't up to it. I managed to figure out that she was seventeen and married, which seemed to me, at eighteen, an unfortunate state of affairs. Her husband, a powerfullooking man with black eyes and strong jaw, showed up carrying a large machete. I relaxed after he shared a smile. They were as helpful as my Spanish permitted them to be.

Eventually, with the assistance of the young couple, I figured out that my bus was starting to board. The attendant who took my ticket made me check my big backpack. I worried about it disappearing and resolved to look out the window every time we stopped to make sure it wasn't being offloaded along with someone else's belongings. After boarding, I squeezed down the aisle, maneuvering around large sacks of potatoes and live chickens tied together in a bunch by their legs. Many of the seats were broken and the bus was filthy. There was no bathroom and I regretted not having visited the one in the bus station.

(Continues...)



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