The Line Becomes a River by Francisco Cantú

The Line Becomes a River by Francisco Cantú

The Line Becomes a River.jpg

The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border
by Francisco Cantú
Riverhead Books (February 6, 2018)
247 pages
Advance copy provided by the publisher

A native Texan, I have visited several areas along the Texas-Mexico border: Brownsville/Matamoros; McAllen/Reynosa; Laughlin Air Force Base, near the Rio Grande; Big Bend National Park; and El Paso/Ciudad Juarez. For several years, my father was a partner in a land lease for deer hunting; he would leave home (Beaumont), head west on I-10, and travel for what seemed like, from childhood memories, forever

The rancher explained how he used to get calls from men who said they wanted to buy land to ranch on. They would buy up property but they wouldn’t ranch it, he said, they knew nothing about ranching. They wanted the land so that they could hunt people along the border. They moved in and welcomed other men to join them, men with assault rifles and night-vision goggles and bullet-proof vests.

My father had a friend with a daughter my age and about once per year, during the winter deer season, we would travel with them to West Texas; I remember it being cold, requiring many layers of clothing, and thinking of the trip as an adventure. The memory that stands out to me most is that of an evening when we were walking outside and I noticed some movement down below, through the brush, and some faint lights. I asked my father about it and he said, "oh, that's just the wetbacks, trying to cross the border at night so that they don't get caught." 

What brings you to El Paso? he asked. My mother smiled. My son is researching the border, she said. The border? The man looked at us over the top of his glasses. I’ll tell you about the border. He pointed beyond the glass doors of the motel to a grassy hillside at the parking lot’s edge. You see out there? Used to be I would watch that grass move every night. Wasn’t long before I realized it wasn’t wind moving the grass, it was wetbacks sneaking across the line. The man smirked. But the grass hardly moves anymore, if you know what I mean. You don’t see wets in people’s yards these days.

Too afraid to ask my father for the meaning of the term, it would be years before I fully understood the meaning of "wetback;" I think this is where my love of the culture and people of Mexico began, and it led to further study during my undergraduate and graduate school years as well as a six month term in Guadalajara in 2005, the year before newly-elected President Felipe Calderón took office and declared "guerra contra el narcotráfico en México" - war against the drug cartels in Mexico. 

The number of border deaths, just like the number of drug war homicides, or the numbers that measure the death toll of the Mexican Revolution or the War of Independence, do little to account for all the ways that violence rips and ripples through a society, through the lives and minds of its inhabitants.

From this information, you might gather that I have strong feelings about immigration reform; I think that author Francisco Cantú has included them all in The Line Becomes a River. There is nothing political about this book - there are only two, very brief, mentions of "President Obama's executive order" and only in relation to one particular migrant - but he poetically showcases the humanity of immigration and how he first tried to avoid it, during his time as a U.S. Border Patrol agent, and then embraced it in order to acknowledge his personal conflicts and help those around him. 

What cowardice has caused you to retreat from the ragged heart of the desert? Why not return to the border’s smoldering edges, why not inhabit the quiet chaos churning in your mind? [...] I’m afraid to come any closer, I wanted to whisper. I’m afraid the violence will no longer shake me.

Both thought-provoking and heartbreaking, Cantú's work does not read like nonfiction; you also do not need to have knowledge of Mexican history, or border crossings, to enjoy this book. Alternating between personal reflections, stories from experience in law enforcement and recent research findings, Cantú offers a beautiful perspective on a harsh reality. 

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