Francisco Cantú, The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border (New York: Riverhead, 2018), 256 pp.
Ever since Gloria Anzaldúa’s 1987 Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza no book—with the possible exception of Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy—has traced the violent ambiguities of the Mexican-American border more poignantly and more rivetingly than Francisco Cantú’s fictionalized memoir The Lines Becomes a River. Like Anzaldúa’s classic account of the hybrid geo-political and cultural spaces of the American Southwest, Cantú’s memoir is also in itself a hybrid textual space where quotations from history books, academic studies, novels, and support letters written to document the integrity of defendants before court cross-fertilize with personal observation, authorial discourse, and even dreams. Though mostly autobiographical, The Line Becomes a River is not exclusively about Cantú’s personal experience; rather, as the subtitle “Dispatches from the Mexican Border” suggests, it carries a message that reaches way beyond the author’s own life and times. Taking his four years as a U.S. Border Patrol agent, from 2008 to 2012, as its point of departure, the book eventually tells a much larger story, one in which good and bad, right and wrong, Gringos and Mexicans incrementally blur to become one complex skein that is ever harder to unravel.
At the outset, Cantú even claims the existential space of the desert, where life and death are inextricably bound up, as his prime motif to join the U.S. Border Patrol. Against the explicit advice of his mother, he insists on getting an inside view of things, to learn firsthand how bad the situation at the Mexican-American border actually is, how the people in charge of enforcing rules and legislation—issued thousands of miles away in Washington—negotiate the innate ambiguities and often cruelty of border patrolling. Written against the backdrop of fierce political debates about ever more restrictive immigration policies that peaked with the Trump campaign pushing for a “wall” to ward off the nation from alleged waves of illegal immigrants from the South, Cantú’s narrative is more than timely. And yet, his author stubbornly refrains (mostly) from taking sides or indulging in political discourse; his is a broader interest in the psychological mechanisms that undergird many of these policies, how people, hither and thither of the border, deal with their incongruities and paradoxes. Yet far from being merely a detached observer, Cantú deliberately seeks to become involved—not just with the enforcers, the U.S. Border Patrol, but also, in a later chapter, with an illegal Mexican migrant worker who goes by the name of José. José’s three kids have all been born in the United States and thus carry U.S. passports, which makes it harder for him to hold his family together. When José finally re-crosses the border into Mexico to care for his dying mother, he forsakes his chances to ever return to his wife and children legally.
José’s story introduces a moment of empathy and human touch into this otherwise sobering and, given the many references to historiographic and scholarly sources, largely unemotional account of the Mexican-American borderlands. Using a technique well-known from Frederick Douglass’s famous Narrative of an American Slave (1845), José’s plight hits home with the reader, opening up new avenues for rethinking the suffering of many illegal immigrants and the often difficult moral choices they have to make. The more we are drawn into this subplot, the more we understand that much of the bad that happens in the borderlands is instigated not so much by human ill will but by the artificiality of the border itself. This becomes glaringly apparent in the intersections where Cantú repeatedly quotes from both historical and historiographic sources about the negotiating and drawing up of the Mexican-American borderline. Reading these paragraphs, one cannot but realize the artificiality of borders in general, of how policy-driven and ideologically loaded the idea of a “natural” border actually is. Thus, in an epilogue to the book, Cantú relates a hiking trip in Big Bend National Park where the (border-)line literally becomes a river. As he jumps in and, several times, criss-crosses the Rio Grande, he finds the artificial boundary of the border to eventually dissipate and morph into a natural, borderless utopian space: “I stood to walk along the adjacent shorelines, until finally, for one brief moment, I forgot in which country I stood” (247).
The Line Becomes a River also reveals that to a large extent the malaise of the borderlands—while also undeniably being a matter of misguided and racist policy decisions—is psychological. The scarce, truncated exchanges, say in a police car, a detention facility, or in the courthouse, between those who attempt to cross the border illegally and those who try to patrol the border and stop illegal immigration are rarely on a par with the complex cultural and historic forces that drive illegal immigration. Enthralled to laws and regulations that are made elsewhere, Border Patrol officers, such is the bleak quintessence of Cantú’s years of experience as an officer himself, are often unable to “see” the immigrants, to recognize their humanity, and thus to empathize with their deplorable fate. Significantly if also somewhat paradoxically, the very vigilance and attention they are drilled to muster towards the illegal alien from the South prevents them from seeing and understanding what is actually going on. Unable to reach out to a fellow human being in distress, Border Patrol officers—rather than deconstruct the negative force of the border itself—often engage in cynicism or, worse, the ethically dubious act of destroying the water supplies of immigrants, thereby willfully accepting their excruciatingly painful death while crossing the desert. At the end of the day, it is the border itself that blinds both parties, the suspect and the enforcer, and that pits both against each other in an ongoing battle for survival and power.
It should not go unnoticed, however, that Cantú’s dispatches from the border occasionally suffer from the author’s eagerness to embolden the narrative with para-textual commentary and numerous references to academic sources (including Judith Butler). Though all are pertinent to the major themes and issues in the book, they are also somewhat distracting. Similarly, the sheer range of topics—political, psychological, social—covered by this otherwise very personal story of the borderlands, makes it difficult to sort out the imperative from the peripheral. True, no narrative about the American-Mexican Southwest can avoid mentioning the violent politics of narco-trafficking, drug cartels, and mobsters. Yet the causes for the continuing havoc they wreak upon Mexican border towns and the unimagined brutality with which they pursue their malicious business objectives go deeper and are more complex than the— mostly socio-psychological—explanations offered in the book. That said, The Line Becomes a River is an extraordinarily stimulating and strikingly honest account of both the human and political disaster of decades if not centuries of failed immigration and border policies in the American Southwest.
Klaus Benesch (LMU München)