When I was in school, I spent all this time studying international relations, immigration, border security. I was always reading about policy and economics, looking at all these complex academic ways of addressing this big unsolvable problem. When I made the decision to apply for this job, I had the idea that I’d see things in the patrol that would somehow unlock the border for me, you know? I thought I’d come up with all sorts of answers. And then working here, you see so much, you have all these experiences. But I don’t know how to put it into context, I don’t know where I fit in it all. I’ve got more questions than ever before.
I started reading Francisco Cantú’s The Line Becomes a River not sure if it was for me/if I would finish it, and I ended it with an entirely different perspective and a strong sense of emotional investment.
It’s a memoir of Cantú’s time as a Border Patrol agent, la migra, patrolling the US-Mexican border, including staking out traveling parties, rounding up and deporting illegal crossers, and often showing a sensitive, humanitarian side as he bandages feet blistered from walking the desert, acts as a translator, or just speaks kindly with many border crossers who weren’t expecting compassion.
After earning a degree in International Relations, he was drawn towards the border as a way of seeing international law enforcement in action and addressing certain questions and the big unsolvable problems mentioned above. Mingled with his stories of the job, and in the book’s second half, his life after border patrol work, is something about his family background and its place in this narrative. Cantú is the grandson of immigrants with mixed nationalities himself – his grandfather was Mexican and that identity, including its associated stereotypes, weighed heavily on his mother and clearly influenced him strongly too.
The work wears on him, inevitably – he’s sensitive and his mother, a former National Parks employee, is skeptical of this career choice from the start, and relieved when he leaves it. He works elsewhere in the same field, but away from the actual border patrolling, and eventually goes to graduate school pursuing his writing while working in a coffee shop. The gentler path seems to suit him, but fate doesn’t keep him away from the people and stories he’s been so affected by. Working in the coffee shop, he comes even closer to the long term experiences of illegal immigrants, with one in particular affecting him very personally.
Themes crop up in his writing, like dreams – literal dreams, addressed over and over by Francisco himself and others he interacts with, and the unspoken but always felt bigger life dreams – what people are seeking when they risk their lives and futures by illegally crossing to America.
Violence is the other big theme. Violence is inherent in the borderlands, there’s no escaping it no matter how humanly and gently he, as one person, responds. He even feels it in himself, it’s what he sees all around him and in those involved in the ugly business of border crossing, whatever their reasons are for doing so.
What cowardice has caused you to retreat from the ragged heart of the desert? Why not return to the border’s smoldering edges, why not inhabit the quiet chaos churning in your mind?…I’m afraid to come any closer, I wanted to whisper. I’m afraid the violence will no longer shake me.
The writing is gorgeous, with a dreamy quality. It skips from thought to idea, memory to recollected scene, quickly and often without connection. But it completely works somehow.
He includes some explorations of the concept of the border that are fascinating. He looks at the idea and significance of the US-Mexico border in both history and broader culture, emphasizing that the Rio Grande itself forms part of it, almost mocking the idea that clearly drawn lines are possible. He even swims this in-between-stretch, marveling at what it all means.
The book also provides some historical background and context about pivotal events like the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which helped shape US-Mexican borders and relations into what they are today. This is important, obviously, but sometimes were a bit dull stylistically, and since Cantú’s writing is so strong elsewhere, the difference was pronounced.
The second half, when Cantú is working quietly and writing, away from the world of the borderlands physically but not mentally, was phenomenally strong for me. The first half, as he’s actually carrying out his border duties, read as a little more dry and removed. Even though it did capture a lot about his feelings at that time, doing that work, and clearly there was some emotional remove in place, of necessity. It’s easy to see how affecting the work was, and more interesting to see how he processes it as he creates. His seeming feeling that certain wrongs need redressed and how those play out in his relationship with a onetime illegal crosser is one of the most affecting stories I’ve read in a long time.
A timely, important and emotionally powerful look at two cultures and countries, the physical barrier that divides the lands and people, and the weighty role that barrier has come to play. This book is appearing at such a crucial time, when so many seem to still believe that a wall is an answer. I can’t believe that after reading it anyone could continue to believe that.
My rating: 3.5/5
The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border
by Francisco Cantú
published February 6, 2018 by Riverhead (Penguin)
I received an advance copy from the publisher for unbiased review.