Francisco Cantu brings a unique perspective to his debut book, The Line Becomes A River, a nuanced exploration of the United States-Mexican border. In addition to being a third-generation Mexican-American who grew up near the border, Cantu studied international relations and border policy at American University, in Washington, D.C. After graduating with honors, he served in the United States Border Patrol from 2008 to 2012, working in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. More recently, in 2016, he earned an MFA in Nonfiction from the University of Arizona.
Given Cantu’s background and experience, he could have taken this book in many different directions; the route he chose, however, is that of a deeply personal memoir, described by reviewers as “heartfelt,” “lyrical,” “intimate,” “brutal,” and “heartbreaking.” It unfolds in three unnamed parts. Part one opens with Cantu attending training at the Border Patrol Academy, and it follows him during his initial field placements. While it includes numerous accounts of Cantu’s experiences with border crossers and fellow agents, part one is notably framed by two conversations with his mother, which establish the moral conflict at the heart of the entire narrative.
The first conversation occurs when Cantu is still in training at the academy. During her Christmas visit, Cantu’s mother struggles to understand why he wants to join the Border Patrol, which she refers to as “a paramilitary police force.” He responds: “I’m tired of studying, I’m tired of reading about the border in books. I want to be on the ground, out in the field . . . I don’t see any better way to truly understand the place.” His mother is clearly not convinced and is obviously worried about more than just his physical safety: “There are ways to learn these things that don’t put you at risk, she said, ways that let you help people instead of pitting you against them.”
The second conversation occurs at the end of part one, during a subsequent Christmas visit. When his mother asks if he likes the work and is learning what he wanted, he’s not up to having the conversation he knows she’s trying to initiate. And when she brings up “how a person can become lost in a job, how the soul can buckle when placed within a structure,” he cuts her off: “I was too exhausted to consider my passion or sense of purpose, too afraid to tell my mother about the dreams of dead bodies and crumbling teeth, . . . about my hands shaking at the wheel.”
By part two, Cantu has been promoted to doing intelligence work, first in Tucson, then in El Paso. Though he continues to recount his own experiences, his narrative increasingly focuses on the systemic violence haunting both sides of the border: the beheadings, massacres, and mass graves tied to drug cartels; and the kidnapping and ransoming of desperate border crossers by organized smuggling gangs capitalizing on stricter border enforcement. His teeth are a mess from constant grinding and his nightmares persist.
The narrative’s emotional climax occurs during part three. By this time, Cantu has quit the Border Patrol and returned to school, leaving his most intense stress behind. But completely outrunning the emotional trauma of border enforcement proves impossible. This time it affects Cantu personally, when agents detain his undocumented friend, Jose, who is trying to reenter the United States after visiting his dying mother in Mexico. Suddenly, Cantu is experiencing border enforcement from the perspective of the detainee, and the detainee’s family and friends. He does what he can to help Jose navigate the immigration and court systems, but current policies offer little recourse and his friend is deported.
In the third and final Christmas conversation with his mother, Cantu shares the pain, hurt, and conflict he feels over Jose’s situation: “I don’t know what to do, I confessed. I feel pain, I feel hurt, but it isn’t mine. . . . It’s like I never quit . . . It’s like I’m still a part of this thing that crushes.” His mother responds: “You can’t exist within a system for [four years] without being implicated, without absorbing its poison. . . 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.”
One gets the feeling this memoir—dedicated in part “to all those who risk their souls to traverse or patrol an unnatural divide”—may be one manifestation of Cantu’s effort to follow his mother’s advice.
Cantu, Francisco. The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border. New York: Riverhead, 2018.