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From 2008 to 2012, Tucson-based author Francisco Cantú served as an agent in the United States Border Patrol, working in the deserts of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. In his new memoir The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border, published by Riverhead Books, Cantú recounts his experiences on and off duty, revealing deep insights into the significance of and the violence that occurs on the U.S.-Mexico border.

A few days before his book release on Feb. 6, FlagLive! sat down with Cantú to talk about the border, his new book and the normalization of violence.

Gabriel Granillo: When you enlisted as a border patrol agent in 2008 did you know you wanted to write a memoir about your experiences?

Francisco Cantú: No, I didn’t. When I first joined the border patrol I was looking for a way to really get this on-the-ground understanding of the border to the fullest extent. I thought the border patrol would give me answers to all these questions I had, but, obviously, I never really found those answers. I only came away with more questions.

As I was thinking about leaving the border patrol, kind of dealing with all of these questions that had become more complicated, writing really seemed like the only way to start to make sense of my experiences.

For some people, especially here in Flagstaff where we’re certainly not a border town, the border can seem intangible or like a distant problem we don’t have to worry about. What was it about the border that made you want to write about it?

Growing up in Prescott, my first job was working as a bus boy at this Italian restaurant, and all of the kitchen staff was from Mexico. All of them, as far as I know, were undocumented, and they were all literally from the same village in Guanajuato. I think my freshman year in college I made my first extended trip to Mexico and I went through Guanajuato. Before I left for that trip the dishwasher gave me the phone number for his brother. When I was in Guanajuato I called his brother and it just so happened he was getting married that weekend (laughs). So he invited me to the wedding and all of a sudden I was in the village and everybody knew who I was, knew that I worked with these guys.

So that was the first time I had an understanding of the way the border shrinks distances and the way communities can exist across the border. I think that was when the border became introduced to me as something that was simultaneously huge and impassable and also nothing, if that makes sense. Also, in another way, barely present. I think I became fascinated by that dichotomy and that tension.

Is there anything about the border you find people tend to misunderstand?

I think right now we hear a lot about building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, and I think that a lot of people don’t understand that there is actually already a lot of walls and fencing along the border. I think there’s something like 700 miles of fencing.

To me that whole notion of the wall, as someone who has worked along the border and has seen how ineffectual it is, it’s just something that sounds good and sounds simple. When we’re talking about the border it’s so huge and complex that people really gobble up these simple answers, because they sound good and they make sense to them.

A lot of what you talk about in the book is a loss of humanity, in the way the cartel would kill and dismember people, using their body to give messages, in how members of the patrol agency dealt with those trying to cross the border and even in you. There was a sort of normalization of violence.

I mean, that was a big undercurrent in this book. That became something that I was really trying to work through. I was interested in that on all sorts of different scales. There was the personal, individual scale of the way I had begun to normalize violence in my own life, and then there were also the ways I saw violence being normalized on a broader level, looking at the drug war in Mexico, the cartel violence, all the ways that people living along the border accepted these horrendous, abnormal happenings as part of their day-to-day lives. And I think there is a real erosion of humanity that I was interrogating and investigating in writing this book.

Ultimately, what was your goal with this book?

I hope the book is one that asks the reader to look at the human complexity of the border and the human costs of our policy. I think when we talk about immigration reform we have to address the fact that people are dying in this desert, and no matter how much more difficult we make that crossing, 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. I think we have to be conscious of that. I think that we also have to be OK with not solving or answering these things, because I think they’re unsolvable and unanswerable, and I think there’s a lot of power in recognizing that and accepting that.

The Line Becomes a River is available at Bright Side Bookshop in downtown Flagstaff and through Riverhead Books.

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