Book Review: THE LINE BECOMES A RIVER by Francisco Cantú

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Francisco Cantú grew up in west Texas, where his mother worked as a park ranger in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park. He is a US citizen, fluent in both Spanish and English.

He studied international relations in Washington DC but wanted to get experience, not just classroom theory, and so he joined the US Border Patrol for four years, 2008 to 2012, rising from field agent to mid-level supervisor.

Most Mexican immigrants used to enter in through cities like San Diego or El Paso, but as their numbers grew, more and more were turned away, and many would risk crossing into US through desert wilderness areas. Often they traveled in groups, guided by professional smugglers who charged large sums, and often left stragglers behind if they became too weak to keep up. Border Patrol agents often had to rescue people who were without water or food, lost in trackless wilderness. But those who were genuine refugees fleeing death threats or gangs back home often had no choice. Border Patrol teams carried food and water, but still took their captives to deportation centers.

Border Patrol trainees are armed and physically fit. Some have had previous police or military training. Of the 49 who enlisted along with Francisco seven failed to qualify. “There are days when I feel I am becoming good at what I do. And then I wonder what it means to be good at this? When they scatter into the brush, and we destroy the water jugs and backpacks of food and clothing they had to leave behind? The idea is to convince them it’s hopeless to go on. But I have dreams of my searching for them and finding them lying face down on the ground, dead on the desert floor.”

Not long after he was allowed to patrol alone at night, he had a call to look for two people wandering around a small village. The whole town was quiet and dark, but he noticed the village church door standing ajar. Investigating, he found a man and woman asleep on a blanket. He awoke them; they were a man and his pregnant wife, who had been unable to keep up with their group. The wife spoke perfect English; she grew up in Iowa, but had gone back to Mexico to take care of her widowed grandmother. “It was my idea to cross,” she said. “We are looking for work. I wanted our child to have a life here, like I did.” Her husband asked if they could just be taken back to the border. “I have to take you in,” I said. “It’s my job.”

Months later, six of us were detailed to the new intel center at Tucson. You’ll keep track of significant events from all the stations -- agent-involved shootings, dead bodies, big-time dope siezures, apprehension of known gang and cartel members . . . There’ll be plenty of sector brass moving in and out too, so keep your boots polished and mind your sirs and ma’ams.,”

He writes in a different style, no quotation marks, no chapters, not always translating brief Spanish remarks, but very readable. The book is in three parts: field agent out in the desert along the border; then at sector intelligence in Tucson, and finally working in a small coffee shop in a border town along the Rio Grande after resigning from the Patrol. Sometimes a little disorienting, but always readable, often thought-provoking.

Especially so when he develops a close friendship with an “illegal alien”, who shares the early morning shift at the coffee shop with him, whose three young children are all US citizens, having been born in USA. But Jose and his wife Lupe are both illegals. Jose has gone back to Mexico to see his dying mother and is arrested by the Border Patrol on re-entry. It’s his second offense, and despite many character testimonials he is deported.

Francisco Cantú writes, It’s like I have been circling beneath a giant, my eyes on its foot resting on the ground. But now, I’m starting to crane my head upward, like I’m finally seeing the thing that crushes.

Jose, frantic to see his wife and three boys, crossed the border again several times, was caught and deported. This book does not have a solution to the border crisis, but provides context from which the reader can ponder the problems of hundreds of thousands of people from countries south of the border wanting to cross into USA, for a variety of reasons, some evil but most because of fear, poverty, or desire for a better life.

One fault may lie within us Americans, when we expect that America’s future always proceeds toward improvement. It doesn’t always. Those in Washington, DC who make the decisions sometimes make the wrong ones. So do we ordinary citizens. The author says his book does not try to make sense of the politics or the results; but seeks to be literature for the soul. A book well-worth reading.

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