Arts & Culture

The Big Jewcy: Chesa Boudin – Left Wing Scion

In the 2004 book Family Circle, Susan Braudy referred to Boudin family as “The aristocracy of the left,” but the family life experienced by Chesa Boudin growing up, was far too sprawling and complex to be so easily summed up. Read More

By / June 13, 2011
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In the 2004 book Family Circle, Susan Braudy referred to Boudin family as “The aristocracy of the left,” but the family life experienced by Chesa Boudin growing up, was far too sprawling and complex to be so easily summed up.  Chesa’s biological mother, Kathy Boudin was a Bryn Mawr graduate and the daughter of an exceedingly famous and prestigious American civil liberties lawyer, Leonard Boudin.  After college, Kathy became an active member of The Weather Underground, an activist group responsible for numerous bombings in protest of American injustices — such as the Vietnam War.  After the Weathermen disbanded, Kathy became associated with a radical equal rights group known as The Black Liberation Army, and in 1981, fourteen months after Chesa’s birth, both Kathy and Chesa’s father David Gilbert were involved as unarmed drivers of a getaway car in a Brinks truck robbery in Nyack, New York, which resulted in the deaths of two police officers and a security guard.  Chesa’s parents, Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert were sentenced to 20 years to life and 75 years to life, respectively.  Subsequently, Bernadine Dohrn and Bill Ayers, both friends of his parents’ and former members of the Weather Underground, adopted Chesa.  For as long as he’s been conscious, this has been Chesa Boudin’s story and for nearly that long, he’s chosen to always be up front and honest about it with the people he meets.

“I don’t’ have a prepared explanation but it’s a conversation that I’ve become pretty fluent in, because I’ve had it so many times.  Any time we tell our stories, whatever our stories are, there’s almost infinite variations on which facts we present and how we present them.  I’ve gotten pretty familiar with doing a basic background quickly.”

In 2002 after Chesa was granted the prestigious Rhodes scholarship, The New York Times ran a profile on him entitled “From a Radical Background, A Rhodes scholar Emerges.”   The article began by describing how Chesa would be unable to break the news to his mom and dad due to their inability to receive phone calls or emails in prison.  The profile goes on to describe how Chesa went from being an angry child who had trouble learning to read, to a master student.

Talking with Chesa, he’s quick to attribute a great deal of his success to a supportive family that strived to broaden Chesa’s awareness of the world around him.  Chesa explains that his adoptive family fostered an environment of open political discussion and “politics at the dinner table,” but it wasn’t until he began travelling to Latin America, that his political beliefs began to solidify.

Having visited every Spanish speaking country in the Western Hemisphere, Chesa chronicled his experiences in the 2009 Scribner book Gringo and has also been involved in translating, writing and editing numerous books on Latin American politics and the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela.

All in all, Chesa, a name derived from the Swahili word meaning, “dancing feet,” has landed quite nicely.  Now 30 years old and newly graduated from Yale Law School and reunited with his biological mother, who was paroled in 2003, Chesa looks forward to a bright future somewhere within the legal stratosphere.  Tall and broad shouldered, with a voice that’s somehow both thunderous and vulnerable, Chesa’s intelligence is immediately striking, his speech cogent yet considerate and his mannerisms polite, but there’s a sort of wildness about him.  In short, Chesa is a big and interesting guy destined to achieve big and interesting things.  Here’s our discussion with Chesa Boudin.

During the 2008 election, your adoptive father Bill Ayers was suddenly thrust back into the spotlight and subject to great scrutiny, can you tell me a bit about what this experience was like?

It was a bit surreal and I of coursed experienced it from some distance. From my perspective the stupidity of the whole affair hinged not just on the demonization and the ridiculous caricature of my dad, but more seriously that everyone in the media at least seemed to take for granted: that guilt by association is real, that sharing a board room, or a neighborhood, or a cup of coffee with someone means that you are responsible for each others politics and histories. That, of course, is absurd in a democracy.

What incited your interest in Latin American politics?

I went to Latin America for the first time when I was 18 because I wanted to learn Spanish.  I had studied Spanish in school, but I hadn’t made much progress, so I wanted the immersion experience, I wanted the opportunity to force myself to learn the language. I quickly fell in love with not only Latin American Culture and Spanish but also with travelling, and I was eager to go back to Latin America at the next opportunity.  One trip led to the next and now I’ve made More than a dozen separate trips to Latin America.

While I was living abroad it seemed easier, it seemed neater and cleaner to try to make sense of politics in a foreign country where, naively perhaps, the issues seemed more 2 dimensional to me as an outsider.  I think in the US, where I’ve lived my whole life, that the issues are more personal.  So, being a young person coming of age, spending time in Latin America trying to make sense of the politics there, was easier and tremendously informative in terms of the way that I think of US politics today.

People can become politicized regardless of what their political orientation is. People can become politicized through a range of life experiences. For many people of my parents’ generation, watching the Freedom Riders go down to the South to try to integrate buses and lunch counters and getting brutalized, was a politicization process.  For people a little bit younger, watching the lies and the horrors and bloodshed of the Vietnam War was a politicization process.   So I think that people can find politics all around them if it’s something that they’re open to.  The historic moment we live in may well determine what experiences can shock our consciousness enough to wake us up to a poltical reality.

Going abroad and living in a community with no running water and desperate poverty all around was something I had to experience, to have any context for understanding the politics that I’d heard about, read about and seen in the US growing up, and it forced me to complicate my understanding.  Going into Guatemala I had a naïve sense from my relatively privileged childhood growing up in the US that poor people in places like Guatemala would have a kind of left wing critique of imperialism and, for example, of the role of the CIA in supporting the coup in Guatemala in 1954. In reality most of the people I met there were apolitical and would rather watch Mexican Telenovela’s on their 13 inch black and white TV, if they could only get electricity.  So living with families in those circumstances was really eye opening for me in terms of all these issues.

What’s your general opinion regarding property destruction as a form of protest?

Most people would agree that property destruction as direct action is acceptable in some circumstances – think the Boston Tea Party, the uprisings in Auschwitz, or the Arab Spring. However determining what circumstances are acceptable is always easier in retrospect than in real time.

You went from having difficulty in school as a kid to succeeding academically to such a degree, can you tell me about this process?  Was there a moment where it all just clicked for you?

There definitely wasn’t a single moment; it was a long, slow, steady progression. It was not just about learning but also behavior, learning to control my temper and my anger and my hurt about my family being torn apart by crime and incarceration.  I worked hard in school and I had a tremendous amount of support. The combination was really crucial.  I don’t think that anyone can do it alone; we all rely on friends on colleagues on loved ones on mentors and tutors whether formally or informally.  If more people had the kind of opportunities I’ve had we’d see more success stories.

What’s next for you?

I just graduated from law school and I will spend next year working for a federal judge as a law clerk.  It’s a bit like a 4th year of law school, its’ a rare opportunity to work closely with a federal judge and have them serve a mentor to me as I continue to learn about the law in practice, not just in the classroom.  I hope to build a career that will include practice at the intersection between criminal law and immigration law.  Ultimately I may spend some time teaching, I’ve really enjoyed teaching at Yale College in the past three years and I’ve really enjoyed writing. I may look for a role that blends advocacy and legal practice with teaching and publishing.