11 MARCH 2018 | KAREN KAO
La migra is not a nice phrase in Mexico. People don’t want to know you if you’re one of them. La migra is the US border patrol. They are the enemy, no matter what side of the border you’re on.
Yet this is the life Francisco Cantú wants. Tired of school, he doesn’t want to read any more books about the border.
I want to be on the ground, out in the field, I want to see the realities of the border day in and day out. I know it might be ugly, I know it might be dangerous, but I don’t see any better way to truly understand the place.
The Line Becomes a River is a memoir by Francisco Cantú of his time as an agent of the US Border Patrol. Full disclosure: for a few months in 2013, Francisco Cantú and I were members of a critique group in Amsterdam. He was here on a Fulbright scholarship and we kept in touch after he left. So I think about this memoir as a book written by my friend Paco.
I can remember when Paco submitted a manuscript he had titled “The Vampire Village”. We all knew that he was writing creative non-fiction but I, for one, didn’t know what that meant. It was clear that Paco was writing about his life as a way to reckon with it.
It’s fun to find the vampire village in Part I. These are Paco’s early days on the border: at the academy, in a training unit, with journeymen agents. Finally, he strikes out on his own. A man flags him down. Adam and his family live in a place the agents call a vampire village. They don’t like the look of strangers who’ve shown up in their village.
The men at the door asked me for water, Adam’s wife continued, but they weren’t wearing backpacks, they didn’t look like normal crossers. How do you mean? I asked. We live twenty miles from the border, she explained, lost migrants pass through all the time. But these men were different, they didn’t seem lost. They weren’t tired, they weren’t afraid, you know?
Paco finds their van and runs the license plates. He drives deep into the desert all the while knowing that he’ll never find these men. But they’ll be back. Paco wants to tell Adam to move his young family
somewhere where his home would not be at the remote crossroads of drug routes and smuggling corridors.
Paco never tells the reader what’s a vampire village. But he told our critique group it’s a place where the inhabitants only come out at night.
Part II shows us Paco out of the field and into an air-conditioned basement in Tuscon, Arizona, collecting border intelligence. He longs to return to the field though he has nightmares, too. Historical fact, contemporary research and eyewitness accounts coalesce into a cogent case for demilitarizing the US-Mexico border.
For one thing, border crackdowns have made it lucrative to get into the people-smuggling business.
As border crossings became more difficult, traffickers increased their smuggling fees. In turn, as smuggling became more profitable, it was increasingly consolidated under the regional operations of the drug cartels. Every surge in border enforcement has brought a corresponding increase to the yield potential of each prospective migrant.
For another, we don’t talk about migrants dying in the desert. We use economic metaphors (cost, calculation or gamble), military phrases or simply speak of migrants
as animals, something hunted, the persecuted prey of smugglers, law enforcement agents, and military vigilantes.
These metaphors make it possible to talk about a wall without having to consider the human consequences. Those consequences are front and center in Part III, where we see the human cost of an intransigent border policy and the lack of a path to citizenship for long-term US residents. The New York Times says Part III
lays bare, in damning light, the casual brutality of the system, how unjust laws and private prisons and a militarized border have shattered families and mocked America’s myths about itself.
The Line Becomes a River has not been universally lauded. The first protest took place at an Austin, Texas bookstore on February 14, where Paco was scheduled to read. The protests come from
enraged immigration activists who say Cantú “exploits others’ stories of pain” and “profit[s] from families he’d helped rip apart” as a Border Patrol agent.
Paco was supposed to read in San Francisco. That event became a signing. The event in Oakland was cancelled. Paco sees the protests as a debate about who gets to speak and who doesn’t. In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Paco explains:
I’ve decided not to read and to cede that space. And moving forward, it feels like I almost shouldn’t be giving an event unless it’s with the participation of these other voices or of advocates and activists and members of the undocumented community or other writers.
But he’s also optimistic that the debate surrounding his book will eventually prove productive.
I think the hope of any writer is that by putting your writing into the world, you’re participating in a conversation, and you have the naive hope that your work can move the needle in the right direction. I think if people are debating and discussing a book instead of a tweet or some ridiculous policy proposal, I think that’s good. I’m happy that people are thinking critically about my book.
I’ve seen a review on Goodreads by someone who regretted having read this book in light of all the controversy. And another who complained about Paco being a poet taking liberties with a proper narrative arc. Both reviewers got it wrong.
The Line Becomes a River is composed of short vignettes, scenes that do not obviously link to what comes before or what follows. But this is not poetry. I think Paco is more like a painter. He can lay down two completely different swaths of color to trick the eye into seeing a third, unspoken color. Like the juxtaposition of Sara Uribe’s poem, the Juarez femicide and the concept of “moral injury.”
Since 1993, gangs have abducted women from the streets of Juarez. They take these women to safe houses and torture, rape and murder them. As final insult, they dump the bodies into empty lots, garbage dumps and mass graves.
Against this backdrop, Sara Uribe wrote Antígona González, a re-imagining of the Greek tragedy set in modern Mexico. But unlike the original Antigone, Antígona doesn’t have a body to mourn.
Count them all.
Name them so as to say: this body could be mine.
The body of one of my own.
So as not to forget that all the bodies without names are our lost bodies.
Moral injury afflicts soldiers returning from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. It looks like PTSD but it’s more subtle than that.
Moral injury is a learned behavior, learning to accept the things you know are wrong.
In an article for Territory, Paco writes about the maps he made as a Border Patrol agent to identify landmarks, hide-outs and favored routes. But the mission of Territory is to expose the failure of maps to capture the land. Instead, a map is
the naive dream of objectivity, and how we use the act of representation to both hide and broadcast our subjectivities.
In Clearly Marked Ghosts, Paco writes
More important than mapping the deaths of border crossers is preserving the names of those who have died and finding right ways of holding them in our minds, a way that allows us to rightly comprehend the spaces in which they have lost their lives. […] A worthwhile map of border deaths would cause us to feel something for each loss of life plotted upon it—it would cause us to feel necessarily overwhelmed by the amassing of red dots, by the accumulation of numbers and names, by stories with familiar and comprehensible details.
Paco is referring to the Lukeville Warning Poster, distributed along migrant routes to scare off would-be crossers. The online searchable version is known as the Arizona OpenGIS Institute for Deceased Migrants, a joint production of Humane Borders and the Pima County Medical Examiner in Arizona. Together, they strive to identify each deceased migrant by name and gender, date of discovery and cause of death.
Yet some bodies are so degraded by animals, the elements and other humans that they cannot be identified. The Pima County Medical Examiner and the New York Academy of Arts are now working to name them, too.
There is hope for them and for us, too. The Line Becomes a River tells us that a line on a map is more than a border.