MARCH 7, 2018
THE COVER ART for Francisco Cantú’s memoir The Line Becomes a River is a photograph of a wall on the US-Mexico border. Most of the newer sections were built after President George W. Bush signed the Secure Fence Act of 2006. The wall is discontinuous, but it covers about seven hundred miles, mostly in populated areas, where it knifes through backyards and border towns.
The cover photograph by the artist Richard Misrach is unexpectedly beautiful, an invitation to view the wall as an object of art similar to Donald Judd’s concrete installations outside of Marfa, Texas, or Richard Serra’s sheet metal sculptures. The political context of the wall is not erased; it’s just momentarily suppressed. Cantú’s book is also about ways of seeing, what goes unseen, and what structures our vision of the US-Mexico border.
Cantú worked for five years as an agent in the US Border Patrol stationed in the deserts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. Prior to that, he studied international relations and border policy at American University, but he suffered from a nagging sense that his course of study had overlooked some essential aspect of the border. He joined the agency in the hope of discovering it. “I’m tired of reading about the border in books,” he tells his mother, who’s appalled by his decision to become an agent. “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 don’t see any better way to truly understand.”
During his five-year stint, Cantú learns about drug-runners, coyotes, and the callousness of some of his fellow agents, but for the most part, he is charged with tracking and arresting migrants. He gives us glimpses of these individuals: people who are quickly shuttled into holding cells and immigration facilities, people whose stories are not told, people hidden from view. In one vignette, he tells of two teenage boys found waiting beside a dead body in the desert. It’s their uncle, and they’re reluctant to leave the body behind. They ask Cantú if they can accompany the body to a hospital or transport it back to Mexico. “As I explained the procedures,” Cantú writes,
I began to doubt, given what I knew from my short time on the border, whether they would actually see the consul, whether the consulate would actually arrange for the body to go back to Mexico, whether the boys would even receive a piece of paper to help explain to the dead man’s family.
To borrow a word from the memoir’s subtitle, these passages are “dispatches,” from the Spanish word despachar, to expedite, to accomplish without hindrance. The problem is that the reader needs to be hindered. Too many of these images pass by too quickly. Without some striking detail to transfix us, the vignettes remain merely anecdotal. This is especially true of the opening prologue, a short scene where Cantú and his mother travel to Juarez. We sense that the author is trying to freight these moments with meaning that their structure can’t bear.
A similar problem creeps into the writing. It’s a minor irony of desert lit that a landscape so sparse gives rise to a prose so lush. For the most part, Cantú resists the temptation, but he occasionally stares up at the stars and lapses into poeticisms about other “figures gazing up at the very same stars, toward barely discernible satellites barreling through the atmosphere, small bodies tenuously tethered to their orbits at the outermost limits of the earth.” I guess the point here is to draw attention to our common humanity; instead the prose draws attention to itself. The author is pressing too hard. He wants the moment to mean more than it does.
Even as Cantú’s “dispatches” fail to give us a moving portrayal of the migrants’ lives, he succeeds in showing us the limits of an agent’s “on the ground, in the field” perspective. These interactions are circumscribed by his role in the system, which is cursory and dehumanizing. He dispatches the migrants to the processing center. He forgets their names. Reports of drug violence begin to rattle him. He traces how, as his fear grows, he risks becoming desensitized to the suffering of these people. At the end of the section, his mother, the voice of wisdom throughout, gives him a word of warning: “I know how a person can become lost in a job, how the soul can buckle when placed within a structure.”
Despite the younger Cantú’s claim that you can’t “truly understand” the border by reading books, the author never fully relinquishes an academic viewpoint. In The Line Becomes a River, he weaves scholarly passages into his personal story, and the reader glimpses the desert’s long history of hope and hope thwarted. In 1892, a government party set out to resurvey the border, and they encountered hundreds of graves along the trail. The gold rush of the previous decades had spurred thousands of immigrants to risk the passage through the desert, and according to one of the commissioners of the party, “over 400 persons were said to have perished of thirst […] a record probably without a parallel in North America.” Cantú’s irony is subtle here. It goes without saying that this is no longer a record.
The US Border Patrol has recorded 6,915 migrant deaths along the border between 1998 and 2016, but humanitarian groups and journalists argue that such figures are grossly underestimated. Local authorities do not have to report migrant deaths, and many bodies are never found. A study by the National Foundation of American Policy estimates that a migrant crossing the border today is now “five times more likely to die in the attempt than 18 years ago.” Cantú attributes the increase to a change in US border policy. By walling off urban border areas, the Border Patrol intentionally steers migrants deeper into the desert, and the land itself becomes a weapon used to deter them — though it often kills them instead.
In another passage, Cantú gives us a brief treatise on the economics of immigration, how the business of human trafficking has largely been taken over by drug cartels. “[A]ccording to U.S. and Mexican police,” he writes, the shift was in part
an unintended consequence of a border crackdown.” As border crossing 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.
Drug cartels maximize the value of this new commodity by holding the migrants hostage in drop houses, torturing them, and extorting their families for money.
Cantú also wants to draw our attention to cold phrases like “yield potential,” or “[t]he alien becomes a commodity.” In one passage, the author references a study of the metaphors most frequently used by journalists writing about migrant deaths. “Economic metaphors were predominant, characterizing migrant deaths as a ‘cost,’ a ‘calculation,’ or a ‘gamble.’ Death is a price that is paid, a toll collected by the desert.” These phrases place the specter of death — and questions of responsibility — at a safe remove; they conceive of the migrants’ lives as a mere matter of dollars and cents.
The statistics too can only show us so much. The figures that we wield to explain the scope of the immigration problem, usually fail to give us any sense of its depth. More than 175,000 people have been murdered in Mexico in the last decade, with some 281,000 more displaced due to drug violence. In 2017 alone, 75,000 families were arrested trying to cross the border to a better life in the United States. But as Cantú knows, “it is difficult […] to conceive of such numbers in any tangible and appropriate way.” Yet, that’s the task that the author has set for himself here, or to put it the words of Timothy Snyder, a historian of genocide who Cantú quotes at length, “It is for us as scholars to seek these numbers and to put them into perspective. It is for us as humanists to turn the numbers back into people.”
In the final section of the book, Cantú gives us a more sustained attempt to shift our way of looking at illegal immigration. Haunted by the violence of the border and his role as an agent, he leaves the border patrol and begins to work at a cafe in Tucson. It’s there that he befriends José, an undocumented immigrant who works as the cafe’s maintenance man. After José travels to Oaxaca to see his dying mother, he is arrested trying to cross the border. The rest of the book traces Cantú’s relationship with the family as he helps them navigate the US immigration system.
While thinking about this section, I recalled a quote from the German novelist W. G. Sebald, of all people. In an interview, he talks about the difficulty of writing about mass violence in a way that, to use Snyder’s words, turns “the numbers back into people.” Sebald argues that writing directly about the “main scenes of horror” does not work because images of concentration camps, or in our case, victims of cartel violence “militate against our capacity for discursive thinking, for reflecting upon these things. And also paralyze, as it were, our moral capacity. So the only way in which one can approach these things, in my view, is obliquely, tangentially.”
It goes without saying that Cantú and Sebald are very different writers, but their projects are not so different. They both hope to shift our way of looking at institutional violence, to reveal the human suffering at the heart of it, and refresh our moral capacities. Cantú is most successful at doing this when he too approaches things more “obliquely, tangentially.” On a visit to the detention center where José is being held, we hear “the call of a morning dove lilting up from somewhere on the roof of the prison.” In another scene, we glimpse José’s boys chasing each other. The younger one suffers from a limp. He will never play soccer the way that his older brother does, but he’s a curious and sensitive observer of the world. At the entrance to the prison, he puts his hand up to block the sun and tells Cantú, “I feel like I’ve been here before […] like maybe in a dream.”
In these passages, we’re able to feel what is at stake here: a father severed from his sons by a policy. In the final pages, the book completes its shift in perspective by sliding into José’s voice. “[T]here is nothing that can keep me from crossing. My boys are not dogs to be abandoned in the street. I will walk through the desert for five days, eight days, ten days, whatever it takes to be with them. I’ll eat grass, I’ll eat bushes, I’ll eat cactus.” Gripped by his story, all we want is for José to make it across, and so, it turns out, there’s a kind of hope for us too. The wall that separates us is high and wide, but as Cantú’s memoir shows us, there is still a way around it.