Ever since high school, Tucson-based author Francisco Cantú has been obsessed with the U.S.-Mexico border.
Growing up in Prescott, his first job was busing for an Italian restaurant where the kitchen staff was made up mostly of undocumented workers from the same village in Guanajuato, Mexico. For them, the border was a meek division between them and their families. Yet the border always seemed stirred in social and political discussions of war, drugs and crime. This fascinated Cantú.
“During college I was learning about the border and investigating it in every way I could think of — dreaming about it, reading about it, visiting it, traveling there whenever I had the chance, and all of that had filled me with questions,” said Cantú. “By the time I was getting ready to graduate I felt like the only way to answer those questions was to go to the border myself.”
Seeking answers, Cantú joined the U.S. Border Patrol and served from 2008 to 2012 as an agent in the deserts of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. His new memoir, “The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches From the Border,” reflects on his time spent as a field agent and intelligence officer and later as citizen and coffee-shop worker, weaving together disturbing dreams, traumatic recollections and a troubling history of the border.
POWER AND POLITIC
“I think the very first signs that I ever had that the job was taking a toll on me did come in the form of these nightmares,” said Cantú.
Carl Gustav Jung, the Swiss psychiatric and psychoanalyst whose work has become pivotal in the field of analytical psychology said, “The dream shows the inner truth and reality of the patient as it really is: not as I conjecture it to be, and not as he would like it to be, but as it is.”
What does it mean to dream of tracking faceless men through the desert or of being surrounded by dismembered body parts, faceless and nameless? What does it mean to have dreams of teeth fall out or, one even, of shooting a child? Cantú’s dreams, which he laces throughout his memoir, are gothic and grotesque, vividly depicting a mind filled with violence and helplessness.
In his search to understand the border, Cantú loses an understanding of himself, questioning why he joined the patrol and if what he had done during his time had actually served to help anyone. Despite his knowledge of Mexico and the border and his ability to speak Spanish, despite his EMT and weapon training and despite his own desire to do good, Cantú sees the systems of power and politics surrounding the border as an endangering force, a “thing that crushes,” as he explained in the book.
“The people in the border patrol do really amazing humanitarian things,” he said. “But I still see it as a structure that is inherently violent and one that is endangering people’s lives.”
WAR ON THE BORDER
The reality of the violence that transpires along the U.S.-Mexico border is one softened by distance. In many ways, issues surrounding the border seem intangible because most of us do not feel its effects. Few of us are subjected to or expected to participate in violent or abnormal acts that are inherently normal for a border patrol agent.
“Part of the training to become a border patrol agent, or to do any sort of military or law enforcement work, is conditioning yourself to accept these abnormal situations, often violent or traumatic situations, as being somehow normal or somehow part of the day-to-day realities of your job, which they are,” said the author. “You’re sort of conditioned to not think of them as something out of the ordinary.”
Using historical background, discussions and reporting such as Sergio González Rodríguez's piece on the "femicide" in Ciudad Juárez, Cantú presents a border steeped in violence and war. These interludes punctuate Cantú’s violent vignettes, themselves steeped in something unholy and harrowing, as something not limited to his own perception, but a phenomenon largely brought on by something as seemingly insignificant, yet wholly symbolic, as a border wall. While its symbolism leaves much to the imagination, its effects have real consequences, and those consequences range from keeping an honest father from seeing his wife and sons after visiting his dying grandmother to subjecting innocent people to the brutal violence of the drug cartel.
“We don’t acknowledge the people who die there. We don’t name their bodies or tell their stories or mourn their deaths, and to me that’s unacceptable. I think about that a lot. And I think about all the ways we fail to see these statistics as being comprised of individual lives. In that way that feels like a war.”
The war to which Cantú refers is not a rhetorical one. It is one of human emotion, suffering and casualty.
SHAKEN BY VIOLENCE
Moral injury, penned by David Woods as "learning to accept the things you know are wrong," clings to the heart of Cantú’s memoir. He paints us, the immigrants he sent back to Mexico, agents of the Border Patrol and victims of the cartel as having suffered from moral injury. Our sense of humanity erodes in the face of the horrendous happenings of what is considered the daily routine. What does it mean when violence no longer shakes you?
“When you cease to become jarred by violence you’ve lost something really essential,” said Cantú. “I think that being shaken by violence is one of the essential things that make us human or that makes us the kind of humans that we want to be.”
In “The Line Becomes a River,” Cantú recalls experiences with his mother, other field agents, immigrants and friends attempting to cross the border and immigration lawyers, all of whom seem disenchanted, angry or unmoved by the complexities of the border, the dichotomy of it being both immovable and barely even there.
Laws may exist, the border may expand and the desert may stew with dreadful heat and freeze with bitter cold, but “no matter what version of hell we present someone with, I think that what we’ve seen these past decades is that people will endure whatever you put in front of them to reunite with their families,” said Cantú.
Cantú begins his story with a quest for answers, but he leaves with larger questions and even deeper unresolved issues that are explored within his disturbing and important memoir.
"The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches From the Border" is available at Bright Side Bookshop and through Riverhead Books. For more information about Francisco Cantú, visit www.franciscocantu.us