The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border

The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border

by Francisco Cantú


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The instant New York Times bestseller, "A must-read for anyone who thinks 'build a wall' is the answer to anything." —Esquire

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. Driven to understand the hard realities of the landscape he loves, Cantú joins the Border Patrol. He and his partners learn to track other humans under blistering sun and through frigid nights. They haul in the dead and deliver to detention those they find alive. Plagued by a growing awareness of his complicity in a dehumanizing enterprise, 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 full extent of the violence it wreaks, on both sides of the line.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780735217713
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/06/2018
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 626,920
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Francisco Cantú was 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, a 2017 Whiting Award, and a 2018 Art for Justice fellowship. His writing and translations have been featured in The New York Times, Best American Essays, Harper's, and Guernica, as well as on This American Life. He lives in Tucson and coordinates the Southwest Field Studies in Writing Program at the University of Arizona.

Read an Excerpt

At the station I was given the keys to a transport van and told to drive out to the reservation where two quitters had been seen wandering through the streets of a small village. When I arrived it was just after dark and I noticed few signs of life as I drove past the scattered homes, scanning for disheartened crossers. In the center of the village a small adobe church stood in an empty dirt lot, and I saw that the front door had been left ajar. I parked the van and left the headlights shining on the entrance. I walked to the heavy wooden door and leaned with all my weight to push it open, causing a loud and violent scraping to rise up and echo into the dim interior.

Inside the church, the light from my flashlight glinted off tiny strings of tinsel hanging from the ceiling. A large piece of fabric depicting the Virgin of Guadalupe was strung across the front wall, and beneath it I saw two figures lying on a blanket that had been spread out between the pews and the altar. As I approached, a man looked up at me and squinted, holding out his hand to block the light. We were resting a little, he said. It’s just that we are lost, muy desanimados. A woman huddled close to him, hiding her face. The man propped himself up on one elbow and told me that they had crossed four days ago, that their guide had left them behind on the first night when they’d failed to keep pace with the group. They were lost for days, he said, with nothing to drink but the filthy water from cattle tanks. Puede ser muy fea la frontera, I told him. The man shook his head. Pues sí, he replied, pero es aún más feo donde nosotros vivimos.

The man told me that they came from Morelos. My wife and I, we’re just coming to find work, he said. He rubbed his eyes in silence. I have fresh water for you, I told them. At the station there’s juice and crackers. The man looked at me and smiled weakly, then asked for a minute to gather their belongings. He stuffed some things into a backpack, then helped his wife to her feet. Her face was streaked with dried tears, and when she turned toward me I saw that she was pregnant. How many months are you? I asked. The woman looked away and the man answered for her. Seis meses. He smiled. My wife speaks perfect English, he said, shouldering the backpack. He stopped in front of the altar, bowing his head and making the sign of the cross. I waited at the door as he mumbled a prayer. Gracias, he whispered. Gracias.

Outside I looked at their faces in the glare of my headlights. The woman seemed young. Where did you learn English? I asked. Iowa, she told me quietly. I grew up there, she said, I even got my GED. She kept her head down and avoided my gaze as she talked, glancing up only briefly at my uniformed body. Why did you leave? I asked her. She told me that she had returned to Morelos to care for her younger siblings after their mother died. In Morelos I made some money teaching English at the kindergarten, she said, I even tutored the adults in my village, people preparing for the journey north. For a few seconds she seemed proud, and then she shook her head. But the money there, it isn’t enough. She glanced up at her husband. It was my idea to cross, she said. I wanted our child to have a life here, like I did.

The man took a moment to look at me in the light. Listen, he said, do you think you could bring us back to Mexico, como hermano? You could drive us down to the border, he pleaded, you could just leave us there, all' en la línea. Like a brother. I sighed and turned my head, squinting at the darkness beyond the church. I have to bring you in, I told him. It’s my job. The man took a deep breath and nodded and then climbed into the back of the transport van, holding out his arms to help his pregnant wife.

I gestured at a case of water bottles on the floor. You should drink, I told them. I grabbed the metal door of the cage and paused. What are your names? I asked. The man looked at me strangely and glanced at his wife. Then, as if it were nothing, they took turns introducing themselves. I repeated their names and I told them mine. Mucho gusto, I said. They replied with polite smiles. Igualmente. I turned my head and then bolted the cage and shut the door.

In the driver’s seat I turned to look at the couple through the plexiglass. The man held his wife and gently whispered to her, cradling her head. Just before I started the engine I could hear the soft sound of her sobbing. As I drove through the unmarked streets of the village, trying to find my way to the highway, I felt for a moment that I had become lost. Beyond the last house, I saw a white dog in the darkness at the edge of my headlights, staring into the night.

At the station, I sorted through their things with them, discarding perishables and sharp objects. I had them remove their belts and their shoelaces and I tagged their backpacks and handed them a claim ticket. I counted and took note of their money, in pesos and in dollars, and then handed it back to them, telling them to keep it close. Inside the processing center I filled out their voluntary return papers and entered their names into the computer. Before leaving them in their cell I wished them luck on their journey and asked them to be safe, to always think of their child.

Later that night, as I sat in the transport van listening to the calls come out over the radio, I realized I had forgotten their names.

Reading Group Guide

1. “[T]he reality of the border is one of enforcement. I might not agree with every aspect of U.S. border policy, but there is power in understanding the realities it creates. Maybe after three or four years I’ll go back to school to study law, maybe I’ll work to shape new policies. If I become an immigration lawyer or a policy maker, imagine the unique knowledge I’ll bring.” Thus Cantú explains his decision to join the Border Patrol. He also says, “At least if I’m the one apprehending [border crossers], I can offer them some small comfort by speaking with them in their own language, by talking to them with knowledge of their home.” What do you think of these motivations? In retrospect, do they seem naive or overly idealistic? How are Cantú’s hopes and expectations changed by his experience?

2. “[S]tepping into a system doesn’t mean that the system becomes you,” Cantú insists to his mother in Part I of The Line Becomes a River. How does his time in the Border Patrol challenge that assertion? In what ways does “the system” determine, influence, and limit the behavior of the individuals within its ranks?

3. In interviews as well as in the author’s note to the paperback, Cantú has claimed that our border policy weaponizes the landscape. He writes, “It is a landscape often written off as a wasteland that is inherently ‘hostile’—without recognition that it has, in fact, been made to be hostile. Violence does not grow organically in our deserts or at our borders. It has arrived there through policy.” What does he mean by this, and how do we see this weaponization on display in The Line Becomes a River?

4. How is violence normalized along the border? What is the relationship between the casual, daily instances of violence Cantú witnesses and sometimes partakes in during his field work, the violence of the drug cartels in which he immerses himself when he gets promoted to a desk job, and, as he writes in the author’s note, “the threat that hovers ceaselessly over migrants, even long after they establish lives in a new country—a threat always poised to come knocking at the door”? How does one type of violence fuel the others? Do they receive different kinds of media attention? Different levels of empathy from the public? Why?

5. Consider the fact that José’s children never crossed the border. How was the border thrust into their lives, even though they are all U.S. citizens? Consider other ways the border is thrust into people’s lives, even after they cross it and settle into lives in the interior of the country.

6. “In places, commission reports remarked upon the ‘arbitrarily chosen’ nature of the boundary line and the ‘impracticable’ nature of their work,” Cantú writes, referring to those originally tasked with creating the U.S.-Mexican border. What geographical and political purposes does the border serve? What are the consequences of different kinds of demarcation (i.e., stone monuments vs. militarized walls)? How might we reframe the discussion around borders?

7. Cantú’s mother is a recurrent figure in the book. What role does she play in the narrative? How does her own life experience shape her perspective?

8. Cantú rarely tells us what he thinks or feels about the events he describes. Why do you think he makes that choice? What means does he use to create emotional and moral tension in the narrative? What is their effect?

9. During his time in the Border Patrol, Cantú watched countless people get deported, their names and details blurring in his mind, their stories incomplete. He encounters José after he has left the Patrol. Why do you think Cantú chose to include his story, and to end the book in the voice of José himself? What can the stories of individuals teach us about an issue, and how can we harness their power? Whose stories get amplified, and why? What can we do to amplify more voices, both at an individual and institutional level?

10. In his author’s note, Cantú acknowledges the ways he came to participate in a violent system/institution. Do you think Cantú bears any culpability for the work that he did? If so, does writing this book atone for any of it? What are concrete ways to “reject a culture of violence,” and how can we each take steps to “refuse to participate in it, and refuse to partake in its normalization?”

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