Writer Francisco Cantú on Shadowing the U.S./Mexico Border

Photo: Beowulf Sheehan; Courtesy Riverhead Books/Penguin Random House

The author and former Border Patrol agent on his new memoir, "The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches From the Border."

Between 2008 and 2012, Francisco Cantú, a third-generation Mexican American and native Arizonian, worked as a Border Patrol agent in the remote Sonoran Desert. Here, he tracked migrants making their way across the Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas borders. It was an unlikely calling—Cantú’s mother is the daughter of a Mexican immigrant—but one he felt compelled toward to understand the complex issues surrounding immigration. The book, based on his journals, is a heartfelt rumination dedicated to his mother and grandfather, and “all those who risk their souls to traverse or patrol an unnatural divide.” Mother Jones called The Line Becomes a River “the best book on immigration you will read this year”; the controversy surrounding it only solidifying its importance as cultural witness. Recently, we spoke with Cantú from his apartment in Tucson to discuss why he joined the Patrol, and how he still grapples with these experiences.

Did your heritage draw you to study immigration and the border?

I remember my dad telling me, “People are going to expect you to speak Spanish with that name.” (Francisco, but people call me Paco.) It wasn’t that I joined the Border Patrol because I wanted to understand the land my grandfather crossed. I had already set out on a path in undergrad studying immigration and border issues. But I felt I had to go back to Arizona, where I grew up, to really understand the border. There aren’t many ways to do this. If you want to view it 24-hours-a-day, not just volunteer on the weekends, you can either be an immigrant, a smuggler, or a Border Patrol agent. Those are the only people there day in and day out.

A lot of the work was disturbing. You wrote at one point you wondered if you were going insane.

To be honest, at the time it didn’t seem all that strange. Like any other law enforcement agency, or the military, Border Patrol is set-up to make the work seem not so jarring. You go to the B.P. Academy for three months, then another three if you don’t speak Spanish; by the time most get to the field, apprehending migrants and sending them back, it doesn’t seem crazy. When I left, I had just begun to have the inkling something wasn’t right. That’s why the book starts with a dream of a terrifying wolf. Dreams were the one thing in my life, other than my mom, sending me the message, “Everything's not alright. This isn’t normal. Your subconscious is internalizing this in some strange way that deserves to be looked at.” Like soldiers at war, you don’t discuss those concepts with your coworkers in a reflective way that explores vulnerability.

There’s a dichotomy in the book. You helped migrants, saving them from starvation or dehydration, but you also used words like “confess.” You “confessed” to mainly arresting those looking for a better life.

After leaving the patrol, I suddenly had space in my intellectual and emotional life to think about my complicity inside this institution, to look at those encounters differently. It’s not like I felt guilty, necessarily. But it did matter that the events became commonplace. In the third part of the book, I write about an undocumented friend. I see him cycle through the same system and structures I was part of. That felt intense. Here I was, staring at the other side of this encounter represented over and over in the first part of the book. That’s where the confession or redemption idea enters.

In the book, you discuss Ciudad Juárez and the femicides of the ’90s and early aughts. Can you explain why parts of Mexico became so violent?

I’m no expert, which is why I brought in outside research and voices. But I do think those women’s deaths were made acceptable to institutions in Mexico—and quite frankly the United States, and internationally. We accept certain deaths without inquiry and interrogation or outrage; you could say that about most subjugated groups. This year, the murder rate in Mexico is higher than ever. Somehow, we look at these deaths and think they’re not alarming; we accept the narrative that only those associated with the drug cartels are dying. People are crossing our border and dying; those deaths aren’t accounted for in the same ways deaths in Mexico aren’t accounted for. Thousands have died in the Arizona desert in the past ten years. I don’t think we’ve had a political or humanitarian reckoning with that.

 

How do you feel about the concept of the proposed U.S./ Mexico border wall?

I’m getting used to the idea people that will ask me my opinion and be interested in what I have to say on this, which is uncomfortable for a literary writer. I’m not a politician or an expert. I wrote the book to make sense of my own experiences. Part of what I hope it does is to complicate our discussion of the border; “the wall” is rhetoric that simplifies an enormously complex situation. We’re given a simplistic understanding of Dreamers, immigrants and refugees to feed this simple solution. “Build a wall” is so divorced from the complex reality.

 

Several times you bring up names and the act of naming. What’s dangerous about losing a name?

If my name were Richard Smith, I might not have been compelled to learn Spanish and study Mexico, to live and explore that part of my heritage. Names are important in accounting for people missing or dead. We owe it to those who lose their lives to remember them. There’s a reason the Vietnam Memorial, with inscribed names of all the soldiers who died, is such a powerful place. We don’t have something like that for those who have died crossing our borders. Mexico doesn’t have anything like that for those who’ve died in the drug wars. Politics encourages us not to see people as individuals because we’re looking for easy answers. As a writer, my job is to think about emotions and individuals and people—the scenes and encounters.