Riverhead Books, 2018. 256 pages. ISBN: 978-0735217713
By Robert Hunsberger
“I want to be on the ground,” Francisco Cantú explained to his mother. “Out in the field, I want to see the realities of the border day in and day out. I know it might be ugly, I know it might be dangerous, but I don’t see any better way to truly understand the place.”
His mother, the daughter of a Mexican immigrant, would resist his rationale, arguing there were better ways to learn about a place than by patrolling it. Seeing that Francisco had his mind made up, she offered a word of warning to her son. “Fine,” she said. “Fine. But you must understand you are stepping into a system, an institution with little regard for people.”
Francisco Cantú’s timely memoir, The Line Becomes a River, recounts Cantú’s time as a Border Patrol Agent working in the vast and varied expanse that divides the United States from Mexico.
Told in three parts, Cantú’s memoir examines the moral and psychological toll exacted by his work on the Border Patrol. He writes in sharply focused vignettes, piecing together his memories and his dreams with the history of the border to build a kind of personal mythology that pits migrant against machine in an unforgiving desert landscape. His writing is straightforward and unflinching with the occasional lyrical swell. His recollections are honest and raw. Cantú passes no judgement, makes no excuses, and manages to avoid political rhetoric. Instead, his treatment of the complex issues in The Line Becomes a River is notably and refreshingly human.
The first part of The Line Becomes a River focuses on Cantú’s training and field work. He learns how to read the landscape, how to track people down. He recalls slashing water bottles, tearing through stockpiles of food and belongings, and leaving them to be “crushed and pissed on and stepped over, strewn across the desert and set ablaze.” He describes the intention of those acts, “And Christ, it sounds terrible, and maybe it is, but the idea is that when they come out from their hiding places, when they regroup and return to find their stockpiles ransacked and stripped, they’ll realize their situation, that they’re fucked, that it’s hopeless to continue.” Cantú’s candor, especially in these uglier moments, is what makes this memoir so valuable.
In part two, Cantú has transferred out of the field and into an intelligence position where he combs through daily reports, emails, and photos of bodies brutalized by the desert, as well as by the cartels. He wrote extensive reports on the illegal border traffic, and at the request of his boss, he was careful to distinguish between real criminals and “plain old wets,” an ethnic epithet primarily used to describe undocumented migrants from Central and South America. It is in this second part that Cantú’s moral crisis begins to truly surface. In one vignette, a prairie falcon is staring into the lens of a surveillance camera, Cantú recalls the bird’s “interrogating gaze.” It seemed to ask, “What cowardice has caused you to retreat from the desert? Why not return to the border’s smoldering edges, why not inhabit the quiet chaos churning in your mind?” Cantú approaches the bird on the screen. “I’m afraid to come any closer, I wanted to whisper. I’m afraid the violence will no longer shake me.”
In the third part, Francisco has left the Border Patrol in favor of continuing his education. He works at a coffee shop, where he quickly befriends an undocumented maintenance worker named José. When José’s mother falls ill, he travels to Mexico to be with her and is picked up by the Border Patrol attempting to re-enter the country. Now, Cantú is able to glimpse life from the other side of the badge. He works with José’s wife and children to build a case for his friend, but the task seems impossibly large and the odds hopelessly long. He writes, “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.”
The last several pages of Cantú’s memoir are told from José’s perspective. José is able to represent himself as he shares his fears and his hopes and his motivations with the reader. Coming from a system that works so diligently to dehumanize migrants, Cantú’s decision to inhabit José’s voice is a significant gesture. It is, perhaps, his only suggestion as to how to combat this dehumanization moving forward. These final pages serve to pull José out of that abstract dimension where he is one face among countless others, a single digit in an infinite sum; here he can be seen as José Martínez from Oaxaca, Mexico— a father, a son, a husband, a friend.
The Line Becomes a River grants access and insight into one man’s experience working along the border. Cantú’s frank tone and earnest exploration paint a poignant picture of a profoundly broken system. This memoir is a glimpse into a moral conflict, one that blurs the line between duty and culpability. It is a somber study of the exposure to, and normalization of violence on an individual, institutional, and societal level. And, ultimately, The Line Becomes a River is a lamentation over a system designed to wrest the humanity from the chests of millions.