Of all the timely and necessary and powerful books being written about the issues of our time, one of the most beautifully rendered is Francisco Cantú’s The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches From the Border. After studying US-Mexico relations in college, Cantú joined the US Border Patrol hoping to find answers. Instead, during his five years as an Agent, he only found more questions — and plenty of violence.
The Line Becomes a River is part-memoir, part-reportage, part-other genres based on Cantú’s personal experience with the Border Patrol. Moving and factual, the book shows the hauntingly human aspect of the border and the historical timeline that has brought us to where we are now. Having been born and raised in a border state myself, I was instantly drawn to the content, but upon reading it, I realized every single person in this country — near borderlands or not — should read this book, and realize that immigration cannot be solved with a single policy. It must be met with compassion and a willingness to help.
I was honored to speak with Francisco Cantú over the phone, where we discussed his initial interest in the border, and how his mom helped him see the light during his Border Patrol days.
How did you get interested in the border?
My first job in high school was as a busboy in an Italian restaurant where I grew up, in Arizona. I was just far enough away from the border that it wasn’t hyper-present in my life, but close enough that it wasn’t a completely abstract thing for me. All of the kitchen staff at this job was Mexican.
Later on I’d come to find out, one way or another, that they were all undocumented. And they were all from the same village in Mexico. I was learning Spanish in high school, and I was increasingly able to communicate with these guys, and slowly developed a friendship with them. In my freshman year of college, I took my first big trip through Mexico. And I was going to pass through my friends’ village. When I told them, they said their brother was getting married that same weekend, and I should go!
When I showed up, it was a small town, and people knew who I was. It was the first time the border was presented to me as, in a way, so small. It was shrunken down for me, being in that village, meeting people who had been in my hometown, had even worked in the restaurant I worked in before getting deported. So, I started to see this tension: the border was so tiny, and simultaneously it was a huge, impassable obstacle. That fascination stayed with me.
I’m always trying to learn about issues that are important to the country, and to humanity. And because I’m a white book critic, I was cognizant of the fact that this book will be received differently by different demographics. What are your thoughts and hopes about how this book will be received?
I was thinking about an interaction I had with a reader who came up to me, and she expressed how important it was to her to have this story being told by someone who was Mexican-American. It surprised me a bit, because it was the first time in my writing life that I had someone approach me as being a Mexican-American writer. I grew up very white; I didn’t grow up speaking Spanish, my Mexican grandfather lived far away… besides the Hispanic name I have, I kind of pass as white. The book is not so much focused on the question of race as on interrogating how we talk about the border as a society and as a country. There are those of us for whom the border is hyper-present in our lives, and for whom the border will always have a grip on their lives.
We’ve settled into these black and white ways of looking at this huge, nuanced issue. If we’re going to have any meaningful conversation about immigration reform, and border policy, it has to start from a place that recognizes this as a deeply, deeply complex issue, regardless of race. I’m someone who was attracted to the border as a way of getting answers to all these questions I had, but after all these years, I only have more questions. I think as white people, or as Americans, or as people who live far from the border region, allowing the border to be this place where we aren’t going to find the answers is important. It’s important to ask the questions and then just grapple with them. Something meaningful can happen with that grappling.
After I read your book, I grew conflicted about the Border Patrol Agents, especially because you portrayed them as kind and intelligent and compassionate people. I think a lot of people will be surprised that many are Hispanic, too. Now that you’ve been away from the job for a while, and you hear stories of Border Patrol Agents carrying out acts like dumping water left in the desert, etc., how do you react?
Something that I struggle with is who do we hold accountable? Do we place blame on individuals who comprise these larger structures, and how do we hold those people accountable? And when does that become a distraction from talking about the structure or institutions that put that person there? For me, it has become impossible to look at police officers, or Border Patrol Agents, and say that they are all bad. Not only because I was an Agent, but because of all the people that I knew, and still know. I think that when you know someone, and you see them as a person, you begin to see them as distinct from the label that is put on them, distinct from the uniform. Of course, I also understand how the job can take a mental and spiritual toll on someone, how agents internalize and externalize its violence in all sorts of ways.
I don’t think that absolves anyone, though. This is where it gets complicated for me. As much understanding and compassion as I have for the difficulty of the job, for what the job requires of you, now I think: here is an institution that is an inherently violent. The policy of Prevention Through Deterrence is literally asking people to risk their lives, and has created a crisis — that’s why people are putting water in the desert, and its inexcusable for agents to destroy humanitarian aid.
When I think back on my own time, I think about myself and all the other individuals working for an institution like this and how we’re basically little battery packs that help power the State. Each individual that works there is asked to lend some percentage of their identity to this violent institution. It’s the same for military, or law enforcement, and it becomes hard to extract the individual from the institution.
I know you studied US-Mexico relations in undergrad, and then you stumbled upon a Homeland Security table at a job fair, which is how you found your way to the Border Patrol. What was the thought process behind joining?
I really thought that by joining, I would find answers to all the questions I had after studying. I thought the work would expose to me that which was hidden from most everyone else. I thought I would go there, get all the answers, and then maybe go on to be an immigration lawyer, or do policy work. Of course, I only came away with more questions. I really see my work now — writing, and literature, and art — as a more honest way of exploring these complexities. In this line of work, we get to ask lots of questions and it’s okay to not answer them, to instead reflect them back onto the reader.
Is that why you were inspired to pursue your MFA after leaving the job in 2012?
Yeah. Writing was really a compulsion for me after I left the job. It was a way for me to investigate my individual experience. I was trying to understand the normalization of violence in my life, and spinning out from that, it was a way to compile of all the reading and thinking and researching I was doing around that theme. It started with dream psychology, and then expanded from that. That’s why the second section of the book is full of these disparate fields of journalism, poetry, history, and philosophy.
Speaking of history, I was really startled by the fact-heavy history sections that start appearing in the book. They explained the timeline of all the Border States meeting and forming committees to create an actual “line” for the border between places. And really quickly, I came to appreciate and crave these sections. What was your thinking for inserting these history sections into such a personal narration?
I was sort of given permission to do that by my editor. I hesitated about including these sections in early drafts of the manuscript, not knowing if veering away from the personal narrative would be accepted, but after I was encouraged down that path, I was so relieved, and could tell it was right.
The title speaks to this — when we think about boundaries, and borders, there are those that feel natural, and there are those that feel very imposed. The history I focused on was the history of that boundary commission that established and demarcated what we now accept as our border. In places where it strayed from a natural separation, like a river, they literally erected a series of obelisks!
We live in this world now where we just take for granted this border. The further we live from it, we just accept it as this thing that has always been there, and should be there. But part of living in the Borderlands, you begin to see the ways that the border does not exist. Culture exists outside of that border, free from it. So the construction of that physical boundary is very unnatural, and I was attracted to how surreal that process was, how strange this idea of a barrier really is.
I loved all the anecdotes about your mom in the book. She was clearly a large influence on your interest in this work, and also in your decision to leave the Patrol. How does she feel about this experience, and the book itself?
My mom is very proud, and very supportive. She was such a big character in the book because during that time, she was the only person in my life that held me accountable. She kept calling my attention back to who I was before I joined the Border Patrol, and all those things I hoped to get out of the experience.
At the time, of course, it was burdensome and annoying, and it felt like she was nagging me. I was just trying to do my job! Really, besides those dreams that began to shake me, my mom was the only force acting as a tether connecting me to who I was outside of the Patrol. She had a very visceral fear of me becoming lost, and that fear was not misplaced. I could see a path that would make it so easy to get lost in that work, to continue down and not come back. But thank God for moms, right? She called me back to who I was.
Even all these years later, the border still holds me so close. And there’s so much still left to be interrogated. It represents this microcosm of all of these environmental, social justice, and humanitarian issues that we’re struggling with as a global society. I’m still here, I live close to border, and I don’t plan on going anywhere.
The Line Becomes a River by Francisco Cantú
Published February 6, 2018
Francisco Cantú served as an agent for the United States Border Patrol from 2008 to 2012, working in the deserts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. A former Fulbright fellow, he is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize and a 2017 Whiting Award. His writing and translations have been featured in Best American Essays, Harper’s, n+1, Orion, and Guernica, as well as on This American Life. He lives in Tucson.
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