Featured photo credit — Beowulf Sheehan
A nation’s geographical border can define its identity as much as its politics. No book is as much an examination of this idea as Francisco Cantú’s The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border. A memoir that is primarily journalistic but also deeply personal, the narrative provides a series of snapshots into Cantú’s work as a U.S. Border Patrol Agent in the deserts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, while also drawing from Cantú’s own academic background in U.S.-Mexico relations.
Yet the central idea of The Line Becomes a River does not address immigration policy, but the humans that are directly impacted by it. Throughout the book, Cantú emphasizes that the border serves as a microcosm for greater economic, racial, and human issues—issues that manifest themselves in the interactions along the geographical boundary of the United States and Mexico.
A vulnerability is present in Cantú’s writing that lends itself to his setting. Cantú is struck by the almost surreal quality of the landscape, juxtaposed with the very real violence that occurs there; the duality is one that Cantú will explore throughout the memoir.
Much can be explored regarding the function of Cantú’s own character as aggressor and advocate; at first, it is revealed that he joins the border as a real-life application of his academic knowledge. Yet, as Cantú ruminates on his time at the border, it appears that the decision to become a Border Patrol Agent was motivated by a desire to reconcile with his third-generation Mexican-American identity. By bearing witness to what occurs at the border, he begins to recognize that there is an inevitable connection between himself and those he has been taught to view as “other.”
It is at this intersection of a tangible geographical border and a figurative linguistic one that Cantú starts to understand the complexity of the situation. It is not just a matter of lines, but those on each side. Life and death are as compounded by human factors as they are by political ones. Those with the most deportations, Cantú says, become criminals in the eyes of the American government. But it’s this insistence on crossing for opportunity that reveals the commitment to family values—what is perhaps the primary facet of American identity.
Throughout his time on the border, Cantú struggles with the idea that his work as a Border Patrol Agent is defeating and destroying the migrants’ hope. At the same time, he believes that he is saving them from further pain. So when the agents “slash [the migrants’] bottles and drain their water into the dry earth, dump their backpacks and pile their food and clothes to be crushed and pissed on and stepped over, strewn across the desert and set ablaze,” they are actions of love. The reader witnesses the toll this takes on Cantú’s physical and mental health; he begins to grind his teeth. His dreams consist entirely of ferocious wolves and faceless men. Cantú’s mother, a former Park Ranger, is no stranger to the implications of Cantú’s role on the border for both the migrants and himself:
You spent nearly four years on the border, she said. You weren’t just observing a reality, you were participating in it. You can’t exist within a system for that long without being implicated, without absorbing its poison. And let me tell you, it isn’t something that’s just going to slowly go away. It’s part of who you’ve become. So what will you do? All you can do is try to find a place to hold it, a way to not lose some purpose for it all.
When Cantú addresses the institution, it is through the lens of an academic. He quotes the psychologist Carl Jung, saying that it had become “a political and social duty” to perceive “the other as the very devil, so as to fascinate the outward eye and prevent it from looking at the individual life within.” What he refers to here is the transformation of all migrants into “other,” but the fact that they are the same, all of them Americans. These migrants, Cantú states, were born into different circumstances, but they are just as human.
Towards the end of the book, Cantú focuses on the specific case of his undocumented coworker José, who is deported and unable to return to the United States after visiting Mexico for his mother’s funeral. This is a moment of clarity in Cantú’s life when he realizes that what occurs at the border has a ripple effect away from it; the implications of an action on the border are far-reaching and evident in the separation of families. It is a startling reminder that deportations are not just occuring along the line between the United States and Mexico, but in our own communities.
The book does not directly seek to address the economic implications of illegal immigration, nor does it enforce a political stance. Instead, it chooses to display the raw, human side of what occurs along the border. The line is defined not so much as its geographical boundaries as the people it represents. By prioritizing stories over statistics, Cantú allows his readers to develop their own relationship with the people on the other side. It is in fact this acknowledgement of migrants as humans that creates a basis for empathy, a means of solidarity that is paradoxically both universal and specific.
For Cantú, this realization of boundaries being imaginary occurs when he stops to fully acknowledge his surroundings as not a “border” but a bridge and river. “As I swam toward a bend in the canyon, the river became increasingly shallow…I stood to walk along the adjacent shoreline, crossing the river time and time again as each bank came to an end, until finally, for one brief moment, I forgot in which country I stood,” he writes. “All around me the landscape trembled and breathed as one.”
As Cantú emphasizes, there is no textbook way to solve the issue of the border. It is not an issue of policy so much as it is the reasoning behind policy; the ability to perceive these immigrants as human beings is what informs our policies. Translation of the immigration experience does not occur through headlines and harmful rhetoric. It occurs through empathy, which speaks to all.