The Line Becomes a River by Francis Cantu (2018)


Written somewhat poetically much like Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers,  Francis Cantu attempts to help us (and himself) understand what it’s like to work on the border patrol.  With a degree in international relations, he enlists after college to get a better understanding of border issues, but he quickly finds out he’s one of the few educated agents trying to better understand the complexities: many agents care little about the larger issue of migration. Cantu takes on this serious topic by presenting it in moments, thoughts–snippets of the overall experience.  He brings us along with him as he encounters wayward migrants suffering in the desert as well as his encounters destroying the food and supplies of drug traffickers who go into hiding out once they know they’re being followed (and who will likely return to Mexico when they have no food, water, or supplies left). This has the feel of a cathartic story–like he’s trying to make emotional and psychological sense of his time on the border patrol: his guilt for being part of an often racist and violent group of thugs and his satisfaction at having helped some families get safely out of the brutal desert. Throughout the story, he visits and talks with his mom, a former ranger for the Park Service, who discourages him from pursuing this work, feeling it will harden him as a person.  She says, “I know how a person can become lost in a job, how the soul can buckle when placed within a structure…You see, the government took my passion and bent it to its own purpose. I don’t want that for you” (76). Cantu struggles with his mother’s wisdom, evading the truth of what the job does to him.


The last third of the book seems to switch into a different style and story, and I liked it even better.  In this section, he’s left the border patrol and is working in a coffee shop where he befriends Jose, an older man who  works in a nearby mercado and gets high praise from the owner. He’s from Oaxaca, Mexico but has been in the US for 30 years.  When he finds out his mother is dying, he travels across the border to be with her, and the next 75 pages of the book help us understand the heartbreak when someone like Jose becomes separated from his family and his job and cannot return to either one.  This part of the book feels more personal, bringing us closer to understanding that immigration is truly a complex issue–not the simple black and white solution we are often led to believe. This is an excellent and moving book.


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