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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Francisco Cantu's memoir offers a rare insight into working on the Mexican border

Cantu worked for the Border Patrol from 2008 to 2012 in the deserts of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, and his memoir offers a rare insight into what it is like on the front lines

The Line Becomes A River by Francisco Cantú published by Bodley Head. Courtesy Penguin UK
The Line Becomes A River by Francisco Cantú published by Bodley Head. Courtesy Penguin UK

When Francisco Cantu wrote his book about his four years as a Border Patrol agent, he expected protests from the right calling him a traitor. Instead, his book signings attracted angry protests from left-wing groups and Latinos who called the Mexican American a “vendido”, meaning sell-out.

The surprising response shows how sensitive the subject is at a time when US President Donald Trump has stoked racial tensions with his hardline policies on immigration. Cantu believes that his book, The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches From The Border, can heal some of those divisions.

A rare insight into the front lines

Cantu worked for the Border Patrol from 2008 to 2012 in the deserts of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, and his memoir offers a rare insight into what it is like on the front lines. He has described the book as an attempt to “grapple with my own culpability” with a book that sometimes soars with an understated lyricism which dwells on the strange beauty of the desert.

Speaking to The National, Cantu says that his style came through his own “personal fixation” with the border that he believes was a result of his mother working as a park ranger. He said: “My sense of the desert as a place of beauty was important to me.

“In so much border writing the desert is presented as a violent place, but the desert is a beautiful landscape. The plants and animals are perfectly adapted to it.

“The violence comes from our policies and this policy of enforcement through deterrence … that has served to weaponise the landscape.”

Cantu, who was raised near the border in Arizona where he studied immigration policy at college, signed up to the Border Patrol at the age of 23.

In a conversation with his mother in the book, he says he was tired of sitting at a desk all day and talks loftily of a “power in understanding the realities” or wanting to help immigrants by speaking their language and having a knowledge of their homeland, Mexico.

The Border Patrol is a “paramilitary police force”

It seems idealistic at best and hopelessly naive at worst; his mother warns him the Border Patrol is a “paramilitary police force” that will corrupt him.

She tells him: “You can’t exist within a system for that long without being implicated, without absorbing its poison”.

Speaking by phone from London where he is promoting the book, Cantu, who is now 32, agrees with her. He says that the Border Patrol was designed to “break down your idea of who you are as individual and rebuild you in the image of a law enforcement person”.

He says: “I went into the job thinking I would be able to see what was going on and remain unchanged and to do good within the agency, but when you step into an institution it’s designed to make you participate and use you as an individual in order to perpetuate its goals.

“That’s the most jarring thing, when I look back I very quickly set aside a lot of those questions I entered with.”

The first part of the book follows Cantu’s training and induction into the Border Patrol, where much of the work is mundane like checking dirt tracks for marks every shift.

“You don’t want to bring in any bodies with your dope"

One supervisor tells Cantu: “You don’t want to bring in any bodies with your dope if you can help it” – to avoid the paperwork.

As the book progresses, Cantu becomes increasingly conflicted and has nightmares about wolves, grinding his teeth out until they burst.

Describing his duties, he writes: “It’s true that we slash their bottles and drain their water into the dry earth, that we dump their backpacks and pile their food and clothes to be crushed and pissed on and stepped over, strewn across the desert and set ablaze.

“It sounds terrible, and maybe it is.”

Cantu is moved to an intelligence unit in El Paso, where he spends his days staring at surveillance footage and compiling reports, his turmoil growing ever deeper.

His bosses stop him when he pulls his hair out at work and at one point asks himself: “Am I going insane?”

Cantu’s writing style is to intersperse his memoir with musings about wider issues like a history of the US border with Mexico.

The language used to describe migrant deaths

Sometimes his language captures a sense of wonder at the vast, empty landscapes on the border. He talks about the philosopher Carl Jung and discusses a revealing study about the language used to describe migrant deaths which shows they are subtly blamed for their own demise.

Sometimes, these asides are effective like the menacing story about how a dog he is watching savages a neighbour’s dog, a riff on the violence he sees in his day job. Other times it leaves the reader frustrated.

There are few books by former Border Patrol guards and it would have been more revealing to learn more about the mechanics of his job, although Cantu says that you can find this in other books.

“I really wanted the reader to inhabit the consciousness of the narrator ... when you sit down to look back at something you’ve participated in there’s this urge to give sense to it and editorialise and explain with the benefit of you hindsight,” he says. “Bringing in pieces of info in a fragmentary way, that was the most honest way to do it and let the reader make their own conclusions. The hope is that they internalise those conclusions more because they’ve done a bit more work to arrive there more.”

The final chapter

The third and final chapter in the book is after Cantu has left the agency and is a barista studying for his master’s degree. A co-worker called José is arrested by the Border Patrol as he tries to get back into America after going home to Mexico to see his dying mother. His case becomes a bureaucratic nightmare and José’s wife cannot visit him for fear she will be arrested.

The chapter explores how Cantu tries to help him and grows frustrated with a system that seems designed to discourage and reject migrants.

The book finishes with 10 pages written by José in which he speaks with dignity and courage. He says: “I would rather be in prison in the US and see my boys once a week through the glass than stay here and be separated from my family”.

Cantu’s book has been lauded by critics in the US with glowing reviews in The New York Times and New Yorker.

Last year, he won the Whiting Award for young writers, which came with $50,000 (Dh183,500) prize money, which helps him with his day-to-day work as a literary translator.

Cantu said that he agreed with the protests from the left and said that he hoped people would focus on the migrants, not him.

He told The National: “All these people are saying that the people who have been begging to be heard and listened to are the migrants themselves.

“They are the people who are risking their lives to cross the border and living with the daily fear of deportation in American cities and existing at the margins.

“The media world covering this has been lifting my voice up, but the voices that really need to be lifted up are the voices of people who are dir­ectly affected by this.”

The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches From the Border is published by The Bodley Head

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