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For Francisco Cantú the border is in the blood his mother a park ranger and daughter of a Mexican immigrant raised him in the scrublands of the Southwest Haunted by the landscape of his youth Cantú joins the Border Patrol He and his partners are posted to remote regions crisscrossed by drug routes and smuggling corridors where they learn to track other humans under blistering sun and through frigid nights They haul in the dead and deliver to detention those they find aliveCantú tries not to think where the stories go from there Plagued by nightmares he abandons the Patrol for civilian life But when an immigrant friend travels to Mexico to visit his dying mother and does not return Cantú discovers that the border has migrated with him and now he must know the whole story Searing and unforgettable The Line Becomes a River makes urgent and personal the violence our border wreaks on both sides of the line


10 thoughts on “The Line Becomes a River

  1. says:

    “There are 690000 official DACA registrants and the president sent over what amounts to be two and a half times that number to 18 million” Kelly said “The difference between 690000 and 18 million were the people that some would say were too afraid to sign up others would say were too lazy to get off their asses but they didn’t sign up”Immigration experts cite various reasons why people eligible for DACA’s protections do not apply These include lack of knowledge about the program a worry that participating will expose them to deportation and an inability to afford registration fees “I’m sorry for that characterization It doesn’t surprise me from Gen Kelly” No 2 Senate Democratic leader Richard Durbin of Illinois his party’s chief immigration negotiator said of the White House staff chief’s remarks Washington Post – February 6 20128 – by Alan Fram | APWouldn’t it be a wonderful thing to be able to talk about the challenges of immigration without the sort of ignorance and bigotry that is often brought to the discussion? A debate that considers cost and benefits not just in economic and political but in human terms would be a significant step forward Francisco Cantú an Arizona native was a college graduate with an interest in international relations particularly border issues He imagined a future in law or the foreign service but thought he might be best prepared if he had first hand experience of the border for himself So he joined the largest police force in the country the United States Border Patrol BP Although it is a police force the BP re imagined the agents’ uniforms in a military style in 2007 the better to reflect what was increasingly seen as a military mission The outdoors element of the job held particular appeal as his mom had been a National Parks ranger for many years giving him a taste for nature particularly the desert Francisco Cantú – image from Mother Jones – by Beowulf Sheehan Although The Line Becomes a River is divided into three parts two of the parts live on one side of a line and the final part lives and struggles on another Cantú writes of his training and early experiences in the BP where he served as a Border Patrol Agent BPA for four years Much of the work was watching and waiting responding to tripped sensors trying to track down those who had crossed sometimes helping the exhausted dehydrated andor injured and sometimes finding the remains of failed crossers Many perish in the attempt Don’t even think of trying to cross in the summer You learn about methods used by the BP to discourage migrants and the resulting conflicts one might have about employing methods that could be life threatening You will get some analysis on how the increase in US crackdowns at the border has pushed the crossing economy into the hands of drug cartels You will also learn some of the nuances of what various maimings by cartel operatives are intended to signal pick up some information on how much of the US side of the border is used and sometimes controlled by coyotes and their employers feel the eyes on your back as Cantú tells about the impressive cartel intelligence network in place on both sides of the border to manage the crossings and see how migrants are often held for ransom by coyotes with payments demanded of terrified relations sometimes even when the extortionists did not have the crosser Image from Wired MagazineThe third part of the book begins after Cantú has left the BP A couple of years in working as a barista in a local shopping center he is friends with Jose Martinez a fellow who does much of the cleaning there and who shares breakfast with Cantú most days Martinez is the most reliable and the best worker in the place according to the owner Lovely wife three kids church goer attentive father pillar of the community sort When he learns that his mother is in her last days he returns home to see her off Problem is mom is doing her crossing over from the southerly territory of the great state of Mexico And despite his many years in the USA despite his work ethic despite his enviable character Jose was and is an illegal immigrant and now has to deal with cartel organized coyotes to find his way back home and the US border machinery once he crosses The trials of this effort the support Jose receives from the community the assistance Cantú offers Jose and his family the details of what happens when an illegal is caught all combine to make this a very personal educational and moving storyBanner from FC’s siteCantú adds in dashes of regional history pertaining to the establishment and marking of the border and offers occasional writing about the often frightening beauty of the landThis is not a political screed Cantú is attempting to look past the rhetoric to the on the ground details of the crossing problem There is a cost to the BPAs as well as to those they apprehend Cantú’s mother worries that his soul will become deformed by containment within a government structure that his idealism will be used by the Border Patrol in ways he might not care for The cost to the crossers and their families is considerable immediate and often lifelongA view of the US Mexico border fence on the outskirts of Nogales Mexico – image from the NPR interviewCantú intersperses his narrative with recollection of dreams he began having while in the Border Patrol It may feel like a workshopped lit device at first until one learns the basis The first sign that the job was taking a toll for me came in the form of those nightmares of which I tried to describe a few in the book For years I would just ignore them Like in any enforcement or military job part of the training is designed to normalize these intense traumatic and often violent experiences that you’re expected to have In my waking life I totally did that I normalized the things I saw never thought about it I think the dreams rose up from that pushing asidenormalizing not normal happenings When I started to realize that and the reason I write about them is that there was a recurring dream I was always having I was wearing my teeth out grinding the enamel off my molars That was the first time my dream world manifested in my waking life That was the point at which I had to pay attention to my dreams They were shaking me from the Mother Jones interviewA Border Patrol vehicle drives in front of a mural in Tecate Mexico just beyond a border structure in Tecate Calif – image from Nieman Storyboard by Gregory BullAssociated PressThere are many moving moments in this book Cantú talked with NPR’s Steve Inskeep about one woman who had been caught crossing I remember sort of bandaging her feet and cleaning her wounds which is this very you know direct tangible way of helping someone I think it's almost biblical in a sense to clean someone's feet And I remember her looking down at me just kind of like very tenderly and thanking me And I felt like Don't thank me At the end of the day I'm taking you back to a cell and I'm sending you on your way to be sent back to this place that you're literally risking your life to flee And so yes it's true that the Border Patrol does good work and rescues people and saves lives but there's tension there There is no legislative agenda here Francisco Cantú does not offer specific solutions to the real uestions of how to regulate immigration It is certainly clear that he is sympathetic to many he encountered both while wearing a badge and while pulling shots But his sympathies and empathies are shared with all sides He knows what it is to be a BPA and is sensitive to the challenges of the job and to the toll it can take He is aware of the physical perils police face having to contend with cartel based operations and the emotional cost of constantly having to cope with desperate people The Line Becomes a River offers a very human face to what is often a very inhuman conversation Will it change anyone’s mind? I doubt that many who are opposed to immigration will bother reading it The ideological barrier around fixed perspectives can be far unbreachable than any physical wall But for those seeking a human response to a humanitarian crisis this would be a good place to gain a bit of perspective image from KPBSorg I'll never forget as a Border Patrol agent bringing this guy into my station part of a group that I apprehended and I was rolling his fingerprints and putting him into you know the database to be shipped back to Mexico And I remember him just kind of like looking around while I was asking him these formulaic uestions And he's like Hey I know there's a couple hours before the bus comes is there anything that I can do? Can I take out the trash? Can I clean the cells? I want to show you that I'm here to workIt changed things for me to have someone in front of me and say that to me And so those are the kind of things that I carry with me I think there's nothing as powerful as an individual story and I think we need to listen to the people who have those stories right now from NPR interviewReview posted – February 9 2018Publication date – February 6 2018In the summer of 2019 GR reduced the allowable review size by 25% from 20000 to 15000 characters In order to accommodate the text beyond that I have moved it to comment #1 below


  2. says:

    35 STARSFrancisco Cantú grew up on the US Mexican border where his mother a second generation Mexican American was a park ranger Francisco loved the landscape the national parks and desert landscapes and living in close proximity to the border ignited a curiosity in him to learn about border control He decided to pursue a degree in border relations and although his studies provided some insight into the problems he needed to see how things worked in the real world and became a field agent with Border ControlThis is Cantú's personal account of what really happens from both the perspective of the agents and also the immigrants themselves Regardless of one's opinions on the subject of immigration it's clear that there's no right or wrong no black or white these are human beings each with their own story their own hopes dreams and fears Cantú shows great compassion for the people he encounters but essentially the system appears flawed and there's little he can do on a personal level he's simply there to enforce immigration lawsI found the first part of the book to be uite disjointed and there were lots of facts and figures to absorb and although I realise these were important I found it heavy going at times There were some distressing scenes regarding drugs cartels and those dealing in human trafficking they were heartbreaking to read but it would have been wrong to omit these because these are the facts laid bare and there's no way of skirting round themThis is an informed and honest look at something that everyone has an opinion on Cantú uses a blank canvas to paint us a picture but it's a picture you wouldn't want to stand and admire I doubt you'll find a crucial read regarding immigration and border control than this oneThank you to Random House UK Vintage Publishing for my ARC in exchange for an honest review


  3. says:

    I really enjoyed this book and don’t understand at all the venom being directed at the author a former US Border Patrol Agent Looking at some of the reviews of this book it’s pretty clear the most vitriolic reviewers never read the book at all or read only a portion of it I think Cantu presents a pretty balanced and fair view of US and Mexico border issues and the impact policy has on lives on both sides of the borderCantu earned a degree in International Relations and learned a lot about the border through policy and history which he shares throughout the course of the book He decided he wanted to be on the ground and in the field to see the realities of what he had been studying so he took a job in 2008 as a Border Patrol Agent in Arizona The first section of the book covers his early days in the field reacting to sensors in the desert triggered by activity in the trails and mountains around the border Cantu paints a painful picture – a mix of desperate people trying to cross the border to join family in the US andor trying to escape drug cartel violence or economic chaos as well as ruthless and crafty criminals trying to get their drug loads into the US Cantu doesn’t sugar coat the border patrol side of it – there are cowboys rednecks and racists in the border patrol but there are also compassionate and upstanding agents who are trying to do their job in the most humane way they can It’s a tough job with a high turnover rate The agents find people lost and abandoned in the deserts by their coyotes human smugglers on the verge of death There are dead bodies to be dealt with There are people captured trying to cross the border who have to be gathered up and processed for deportation The stress of the field job leads to the second section of the book where Cantu accepts a job in section headuarters in Tucson where he does intelligence work and reporting and removes himself from the field He tracks drug violence and activity in Mexico because cartel activity plays a big part in border issues Many migrants who survive their border journey and get into the US get shepherded into drop houses in the suburbs where they are held and beaten until they provide their captors with the phone numbers of relatives in the US The relatives are then contacted and a ransom is demanded As border crossings have become difficult Cantu reveals the law of unintended conseuences traffickers increase smuggling fees the “business” of human smuggling becomes profitable consolidates under drug cartels and the migrants become a commodityCantu once returns to field work; this time in El Paso as part of a task force across the border from Juarez one of the most violent and cruel places on earth Cantu’s intelligence work has filled his mind with violence He traces Juarez’s history as a peaceful vacation destination when crossing the border across the Rio Grande was no big deal to the 1990’s as femicide central where women are raped tortured and murdered at stag parties and orgies and then dumped like garbage to 2008 where it is now the city where EVERYONE dies It all becomes too much for Cantu and he leaves the Border Patrol entirely after four yearsIn last section of the book Cantu is working at a coffee bar in a Mercado in Arizona He befriends the maintenance worker Jose who comes from Oaxaca in Mexico Jose returns to Mexico to see his dying mother and finds he is unable to cross back into the US Crossing the border as an illegal alien is very different from his first entry into the US Cantu describes the efforts to keep Jose from being deported and when unsuccessful Jose’s subseuent efforts to rejoin his family in Arizona Does he pay money to a coyote to smuggle him across? Does he become a mule for the cartel to get across? Neither are good options for a good and decent man who just wants to rejoin his loved onesThe last chapter is Jose’s which is both poignant and illuminating Here’s the crux of it the US border policy is based upon the belief that if the father or mother is deported the family will follow Jose maintains that the mothers and fathers with the best family values WANT their family to remain in the US where they are safe and have the best chance for a better life It’s a broken system – I think we all know that – and one with no easy fixes I thought Cantu did an excellent job of presenting both sides and the very real human toll of policyThe reading experience is a little clumsy as Cantu intersperses history policy and his own story but it worked for me As with most good books this one will stay with me I feel a little bit changed and clearer eyed for having read this Whatever your grievances may be with the Border Patrol or US immigration policy give this book a chance before trashing it And for God’s sake don’t write a review until you have read the book in its entirety


  4. says:

    I dream in the night that I am grinding my teeth out spitting the crumbled pieces into my palms and holding them in my cupped hands searching for someone to show them to someone who can see what is happeningThis book is INTENSEI cannot imagine being a border patrol officer anywhere let alone an area with so much historical significance and fraught with as much difficulty as the USMexico borderI think it would be soul destroying I believe that most people become officers with the best intentions that they feel they have something to offer to possibly change the system and make a difference to people's lives with how illegal immigrants are treated and processed This is the impression I have of Francisco Cantú the writer of this bookThis is such a brutal honest and tough read But I couldn't leave it once I'd started I felt a deep sense of hollowness and sadness reading Francisco Cantú's account of his time as a US Border Patrol Officer This is written in a haunting manner as if you are his shadow and are viewing events through his eyes The things he has seen cannot be unseen and remain imprinted on his memory and in turn yoursNot only are there people crossing the border to seek a better life but also the people smugglers and drug cartels Both the hopeful and very ugly side of human nature are displayed The human cost is immense I dream that I am not dreaming that I am truly clenching my teeth until they shatter in my mouth I am desperate to stop myself desperate for help This is real I think to myself The other dreams were different this one is realI shared the bewilderment of Francisco as he grew increasingly disillusioned in his role as a frontline officer His inability to sleep and the disturbing dreams that interrupt his restI don't know what the answer is This is a tough topic and a harsh reality handled with humanityAn absolute must read


  5. says:

    This book seems too small for all it accomplishes The uiet watchfulness and introspection of the Prologue tamps down opinion before it develops We are here to listen to understand It is such a uiet read immediately alert to the tension inherent in a grandson of immigrants policing the borderThis is a beautiful book a beautiful physical object Riverhead Books formatted the inside to be a kind of art using gray pages to separate the sections and lines to guide our eye delineate our thoughts We recognize we are privileged to see what an American thinks of the border an American with reason to care about the migrants who shares our history and theirs The real terror that migrants bring or flee is not hidden; it is one of the first things the border guards encounter A drug capture is a feather in one’s cap The people ferrying the drugs are not as important; they are allowed to struggle back to where they came from or continue onward if they dare Not much thought is expended in their directionBefore long Cantú becomes aware of his own muted muffled response to the hideousness of the choices facing his human captures The job itself appears to be a reason why he cannot envision himself in their place Then we discover Cantú’s stress is coming out by a grinding of his teeth when at rest He dreams of captures—his response and theirs—and how it could be differentHe moves to a different job a different state He watches in a computer lab movements in the border area He researches reasons for population movement drug dealing gang murders a capture’s history This knowledge does not abate his nighttime fears He starts to try to imagine the humanity behind the statistics uoting the historian Timothy Snyder “Each record of death suggests but cannot supply a uniue lifeit is for humanists to turn these deaths back into people”He goes back to El Paso and the Rio Grande and finds himself confused than ever “studyingand readinginternational affairsI had the idea thatthe patrolwould somehow unlock the border for mebutI have uestions than ever before” Exposure to the violence of the border region gave him a kind of moral injury “Moral injury is a learned behavior learning to accept the things you know are wrong” In contemplating the migration of individuals from Mexico and Central America to North America Cantú must examine the horror facing those migrants in their own countries He gives us a taste of it leading us to uestion our own understanding of government laws fairness money profit coercion protection We realize we do not know the answers to the uestions these migrants raise How are we to live? What do we have to lose?Cantú leaves the border patrol to think write read study In trying to make sense of his own history his recent past and his future he takes a job in which he meets a man who becomes his friend That man it turns out is what Americans call an illegal though he has lived and worked than thirty years in the United States All the understanding Cantú learned at the border is put into practice now as he couples his sensitivity and sensibility with experience This gorgeous thoughtful read is replete with references to poets and novelists as well as to those who write history philosophy international affairs Cantú took time and had the resources to assimilate his feelings about illegal border crossing—the indignity the futility of it—and he is elouent in his expression of it What I came away with putting financially motivated drug traffic aside was that the movement of individuals is migration something that is not going to stop because we disapprove When things get bad enough people move Cantú’s title alludes to the water like uality of the stream and the possibilities for growth Flood We and the people of other great nations should think about restructuring our attitudes to accept the reality of a world in crisis and how that affects us whether we want it to or not We must look at ourselves and the world ourselves in the world to see what we need to do to keep ourselves from moral injury


  6. says:

    This memoir by Francisco Cantú covers his time in the US Border Patrol and his thoughts dreams and associations to that work It brings in family friends co workers and considerations of how he approached his work I wondered for a long time whether he would change the job or whether the job would change him Now I knowCantú’s Mexican heritage has a significant impact on his work as an agent for the United States Border Patrol from 2008 to 2012 working in the deserts of Arizona New Mexico and Texas As he becomes informed about his ancestors it affects his work As he becomes informed about all the mechanisms of border security and immigration control it eventually stresses his ability to do his jobThe book moves steadily through his thoughts interactions and dreams There is a nice mix of the practical and the mystical We get an increasing sense of who this man is and what he wantsOne of the great strengths of the book is also one of its great challenges Cantú provides many facts and includes material on the history of the border and the daily activities of the Border Patrol and among other things the nature of the process for illegal immigrants who are caught and the incarceration system run by private enterprise You have to assimilate all of this; you have to decide what was really meant in a conversation; you have to decide who is believable; and you have to eventually evaluate what you have learned from Cantú’s bookMy recently acuired edition has an important epilogue So I want to delete the paragraph in brackets and uote from that epilogueIf our understanding of violence and death along the border can become something visceral then we may begin to feel deep within ourselves no matter how far we live from the border that what happens there is profoundly unnatural “‘Naturalizing’ the conditions of a particular territory” Valencia warns “leads to mystification and leaves us in an acritical and resigned position negating the possibility that our actions might re shape that supposedly essential ‘nature’ of the place” By collapsing the distance that separates us from the border we might push back against the idea of its inherent violence against the unceasing negation of its culture and people against its continual transformation into a hellscape designed to repel migrantsI was a bit disappointed that the book ends where it does Cantú takes us on his journey from his formal education and educational degrees through his practical education with the Border Patrol to his experiential period as a citizen living close to the border As the last portion of the book concentrates on his experiences with the actual struggles engendered by the USA’s border policies and practices it is a significant point of view But I would like him to voice explicitly how he would address the ills caused by our attitudes and actions I guess I was hoping for a way to tie up the many loose ends while realizing that this current border situation can’t be resolved so easily


  7. says:

    The Line Becomes A River Hardcover by Francisco Cantú is a very emotional book I was angry depressed sad but I don't think I was happy once in the book The guy of the story his mother was a ranger and he grew up loving the outdoors and near the border He has Mexican heritage Interested in the politics of the border he takes classes in college and gets a degree but still he wants to be up close and know He becomes a border guard and describes the training and what it was like He also talks about the job He doesn't stay with it and moves to something else It gets very personal when he befriends someone For three years he talks with person daily and doesn't know he is illegal until that guy goes south to see his dying mother and gets caught coming back The guy had been in the country over 30 years and has kids and a wife here Now what? Very emotional roller coaster ride all the way through the book Got this from the library


  8. says:

    Slim and beautifully written The Line Becomes a River is a powerful deeply humane piece of nonfiction about the lives of Border Patrol agents and desperate migrants on the frontier between the US and Mexico This is a hybrid work part memoir part meditation part expository piece Richly allusive it refers to the works of many writers on immigration history politics and psychology Aspects of Mexico’s geography—its flora and fauna its culture and history its wars of independence and revolution as well as its ongoing catastrophic drug wars—in which thousands of innocents have been murdered and innumerable crimes against humanity have been committed—are all touched upon Other topics are addressed including the cartels whose stranglehold on human smuggling only grew as the US government cracked down on the border and hardened the policy related to it mass graves well over a hundred throughout Mexico a number of them along the border and femicide No this is not cheerful stuffThe first half of the book focuses on Cantú‘s 2008 2012 training field and intelligence work for the US Border Patrol—mostly in Arizona His decision to join this agency greatly concerns his mother the granddaughter of a Mexican immigrant a former National Park ranger someone who proclaims herself to be “not an enforcement minded person” As she sees it the Border Patrol is “a paramilitary police force” “You must understand” she tells her son “you are stepping into a system an institution with little regard for people” However Cantú has determined that he will gain real world experience with the border he’s spent the last few years studying in his international relations program in Washington DC A number of the men he meets during his training grew up on the border are bilingual and have even attended college; they’ve joined because the agency represents an opportunity for service stability and financial security The lessons the rules come swift and hard “Your body is a tool” says a trainer; batons tasers and guns mean nothing compared to the body and a person must not give in when it tires You must learn to read the dirt when you “cut the sign”—ie follow a migrant trail—you must keep the sun in front of you never at your back so that the sign catches the light Don’t track drug smugglers you’re only asking for “a hell of a lot of paperwork” and a double shift to write it all up When you discover “lay up spots”—where rations and water are stashed—piss on crush or burn the stuff to encourage migrants to uit and return Be sure to carry Vicks VapoRub; you’ll need it when you come upon the dead bodiesIt isn’t long before Cantú feels the effects of his work “I have nightmares visions of them migrants staggering through the desert men lost and wandering without food or water dying slowly as they look for some road some village some way out” The nightmares intensify a wolf is a recurrent character and sometimes Cantú’s teeth break in these dreams A dentist he visits during this period supplies the reason Cantú is wearing down his tooth enamel with nighttime grinding When his uncle asks about his job Cantú wants to tell the older man that he can hardly sleep his mind is “so filled with violence” that he can no longer perceive the beauty of a landscape he was once so sensitive to There is a term for what has happened to him moral injury—“a subtle wound than PTSD characterized not by flashbacks or a startle complex but by ‘sorrow remorse grief shame bitterness and moral confusion’” It is learned behaviour “learning to accept things you know are wrong” Cantú tells his supervisor Hayward—who greatly values him that he needs to leave What he cannot tell Hayward is that “it’s not the work for me”The second part of The Line Becomes a River concerns itself with Cantu’s life after the Border Patrol when he is working as a barista and becomes friends with Jose Martinez a hardworking undocumented Mexican employed as the mercado’s custodian Every morning at 10 am Jose sits down to share a burrito with Cantu who prepares him coffee with vanilla in return A father of three sons all born in America one mentally disabled; one slightly lame after being hit by a car Jose has a wife who is is also an illegal When the dedicated Jose doesn’t show up for work one morning Diane—the owner of the mercado—informs Cantú that her best worker has returned to Mexico to see his dying mother Two weeks later in late 2015 he is caught trying to illegally cross back into the US where he has lived for 30 years since the age of 11 and is scheduled for deportation Cantú attempts to aid the Martinez family as a sort of interpreter and shepherd through a justice system that he himself knows little about Because Lupe Martinez is also illegal it is Cantu who accompanies the Martinez sons to the prison facility where their father is being held Through these experiences the author sees what happens to illegals on the other side of arrests of the kind he carried out as a Border Patrol agentI have watched my fair share of TV news stories on the plight of Mexican and Central American migrants and I have read some children’s literature that portrays their experience However it is Cantú’s understated book that has brought the issues home for me The Line Becomes a River is a powerful exceptional work about an ongoing tragedy I hope we will be hearing from Cantú


  9. says:

    Winner of the Whiting Award for Nonfiction 2017 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 uestions than ever before This uote from the book is part of a conversation Francisco Cantú the author of this memoir had with one of his fellow Border Patrol agents After graduating with a BA in International Relations Cantú decided to experience the realities of law enforcement at the Mexico United States border for himself much to the dismay of his concerned mother a former Arizona park ranger You grew up near the border living with me in the deserts and national parks The border is in our blood for Christ's sake your great grandparents brought my father across the border from Mexico when he was just a little boyAs a grandson of immigrants Cantú was now directly confronted with the plight of migrants seeking a better life many of them dying during their dangerous passage through the desert the cartels trafficking drugs and people the local inhabitants and farmers who are fearing both cartel violence and raids by hungry and desperate migrants and the psychological toll the dangerous work of patrolling the unnatural divide takes on his colleagues and him Faced with a multitude of dangerous and bloody stories the big unsolvable problem of the border starts to weigh Cantú down Instead of making peace with the wolf as his patron saint Francis of Assisi after whom his mother named him did a wolf starts to haunt Cantú's dreams I dreamed of a cave littered with body parts a landscape devoid of color and light I saw a wolf circling in the darkness and felt its paws heavy on my chest its breath hot on my face I awoke Then for several minutes I stared into the mirror trying to recognize myselfWhat makes this text so strong is that Cantú manages to give a nuanced account presenting the factual and the emotional without getting carried away on neither side He puts all of his knowledge to work in order to make sense of the border as a concept and as an actual phenomenon His family background the historical sociological and psychological research on the impact of the border and the violence that occurs there as well as his experiences as a border patrol agent and as a friend of a deported Mexican On the level of language factual accounts stories studies and highly poetic bits are intertwined and the change of style and tone add to the depiction of the border as a contradictory and multi layered reality that can be encircled but never fully grasped Cantú left the Border Patrol and got an MFA in Creative Writing The title The Line Becomes River hints at the fact that the Rio Grande forms part of the Mexico United States border the fluidity of the water somehow mocking the character of the border as a fixed barrier As I swam toward a bend in the canyon the river became increasingly shallow In a patch of sunlight two longnose gars relics of the Paleozoic era hovered in the silted water I stood to walk along the adjacent shorelines crossing the river time and again as each bank came to an end until finally for one brief moment I forgot in which country I stood All around me the landscape trembled and breathed as oneFrancisco Cantú already won the 2017 Whiting Award for Nonfiction for this book and it is pretty easy to see why Cantú does not only discuss a very current topic and shatters disgusting racist stereotypes he also does not fall into the trap of turning his memoir into a pamphlet against the madman in the White House who is not mentioned with one syllable throughout the whole text It is the factuality and nuance of the book that make this account credible and moving


  10. says:

    Francisco Cantú was a US Border Patrol agent in Arizona and Texas for four years Agents tracked illegals using the same skills with which hunters stalk their prey Once captured the would be immigrants were detained processed and deported Days in the field were full of smuggled drugs cached belongings and corpses of those who’d tried to cross in inhospitable conditions Even when Cantú was transferred to a desk job he couldn’t escape news of Mexican drug cartels and ritual mutilation of traitors’ corpses Dreams of wolves and of his teeth breaking and falling out revealed that this was a stressful career than he ever realized Cantú worried that he was becoming inured to the violence he encountered daily – was he using his position “as a tool for destruction or as one of safekeeping”?Impressionistic rather than journalistic the book is a loosely thematic scrapbook that uses no speech marks so macho banter with colleagues blends into introspection memories and stories Cantú inserts snippets of US–Mexico history including the establishment of the border and uotes from and discusses other primary and secondary texts He also adds in fragments of his family’s history His ancestors left Mexico during the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s but there’s no doubt his Latino name and features made him a friendly face for illegal immigrants He was often called upon to translate for those in custody I felt that even if the overall policy was problematic it was good to have someone compassionate in his jobThe final third of the book represents a change of gears Cantú left law enforcement to be a Fulbright scholar and then embarked on an MFA in creative writing at the University of Arizona During those years of study he worked as a barista at a food court and every day he chatted and shared food with another worker José Martínez from Oaxaca When José went back to Mexico to visit his dying mother and settle her estate he was refused reentry to the United States for not having the proper papers Cantú drew on his contacts in Border Patrol to find out when José’s hearing would be helped his wife to gather character witness letters and took José’s sons to visit him in the detention center during his continuance and civil trial There’s a particularly wrenching recreated monologue from José himselfIt is as if for the first time Cantú could see the human scale of US immigration policy what his mother a former national park ranger had described as “an institution with little regard for people” No longer could he be blasé about the way things are It was also he recognized an attempt to atone for the heartless deportations he had conducted as a Border agent “All these years” he said to his mother “it’s like I’ve been circling beneath a giant my gaze fixed upon its foot resting at the ground But now I said it’s like I’m starting to crane my head upward like I’m finally seeing the thing that crushes” As he uotes from Holocaust historian Timothy Snyder “It is for us as humanists to turn the numbers back into people” That’s just what this remarkable memoir does In giving faces to an abstract struggle it passionately argues that people should not be divided by walls but united in common humanityOriginally published with images on my blog Bookish Beck