Caught by the River

The Line Becomes a River

Will Burns | 10th March 2018

Will Burns passes judgement on Francisco Cantú’s The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border, a recollection of the author’s life as a US/Mexico Border Guard:

Sometimes it’s hard to keep up with the president of the United States of America. Buried amongst any given week’s violence (real or threatened), idiocy and cronyism there will inevitably also be the usual belligerence regarding some previous gaffe or false promise or exposed lie. A couple of days prior to writing this, tentative plans for a Washington visit from Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto have been shelved because of President Trump’s refusal to publicly budge on his plans for a border wall between the two countries. Months of goodwill apparently blown in one telephone conversation. Like I say, easy to miss some things in a week like the last one, dominated by yet another school massacre and the prospect of a teenage rebellion. In some respects, this is the grain at the very centre of Franciso Cantú’s book, The Line Becomes a River — that it is somehow all too easy to forget the issues around the border between Mexico and the U.S.A.. Forgetting, though, is not quite right. It’s a sort of invisibility in the imagination. Thousands of dead men, women and children. Countless acts of casual brutality. The destruction of family lives,  or whole communities, all along the border. Towns. The landscape itself. The humanity of the Border Patrol agents. And yet the conversation never seems to get loud enough, either in America itself, or more widely.

Cantú has written his book after four years working as a Border Patrol agent. Prior to that he studied the border at university and his childhood was spent learning about the land along the border and its animals and birds from his mother. She was a park ranger and of Mexican descent and is, at first, doubtful her son’s chosen career. She is worried the work will change him. Cantú believes that what he has committed to is not that different from the work his mother did in the Park Services. He needs to be outdoors, he tells her, to understand the border, something he ‘can’t look away from.’ As he admits, it may be something to do with the two cultures he and his mother ‘carry inside’. But the tension for anyone living or working along the border is also frighteningly, violently, external. Cantú quickly comes into contact with the true nature of the illegal crossings from Mexico into America. Young boys dying of thirst in the desert, teenagers caught with the body of their dead uncle, separated from their original group, desperate, traumatised. These lives haunt Cantú’s dreams, and the beautiful poetic sections that crop up describing his nightmares bring home the impact of his work as he struggles to prevent the border doing exactly what his mother fears — changing him utterly.

There are also excursions into the border’s history, placing it conceptually, and its subsequent practical impossibility, in its colonial context, and therefore also in the history of Western capitalism. Through these articulate, intelligent segments, alongside the very human story of Cantú’s progress through and eventual departure from the Border Patrol and return to civilian life, the book establishes a vital connection between the border as pure idea, as a fault line running through the theory of globalism and in a physical sense separating the lucky beneficiaries of an unequal system from those exploited by it. The drugs, the death, the weaponisation of the land itself (Cantú’s own phrase) undermine all those old arguments about capitalism ‘working’. This is land that will bankrupt you, the book (and border) says, this is land that will make you rich, this is land that will kill you. Throughout the book, one gets a sense of Cantú having to live outside of his own experiences in order to get through. Take his time in Juarez: ‘In news, in academic texts, in literature and art, the city was perpetually presented as a landscape of maquiladoras, narcos, sicarios, delinquents, military, police, poverty, femicide, rape, kidnapping, disappearance, homicide, massacres, shootings, turf wars, mass graves, corruption, decay, and erosion — a laboratory of social and economic horror.’ But  life goes on, as it must in the city, even for Cantú, who, ‘suspending knowledge and concern about what happened there’, finds, somewhat disconcertingly, that he can.

The border is a demonstration of the illogic that is property ownership. How can money move more freely around the world than human beings? Wendell Berry wrote, ‘To the industrial mind, a machine is not merely an instrument for doing work or amusing ourselves or making war; it is an explanation of the world and of life.’ The relationship between borders and colony is the same, for people who see the world, the earth, soil, topography as property to be owned, traded, exploited, set in opposition to ‘elsewhere’ cannot see it for what it truly is — an earth to be lived through, fellow creatures to be lived with. A common earth. It is a logical misstep which has not just reaped thousands of years of human misery, and which we are still apparently unable to work through, but is the fundamental cause of our impending ecological crisis.

Cantú’s book talks to all of this. The viciousness of human action upon one another, played out across racialised views of crime, terror and security, the bureaucracy that comes with seeing the earth as something we can somehow administer, but also of the powerful sensations that come from experience and observation of wild places. There are deft and lovingly rendered descriptions throughout of the land that Cantú so obviously knows and cares for, ‘I looked out across black rocks glistening as if wet in the afternoon sun, rocks pockmarked from when the earth had melted and simmered between erupting volcanoes, a molten crust cracking and shifting as it cooled.’ The weight of the earth’s true history lies behind passages like this. The border means nothing to the volcano.

In the latter part of the book, Cantú has given up his career in the Border Patrol and is studying and working in a coffee shop. A friend he meets through this new work travels back to Mexico and is stopped coming when coming back. Cantú becomes involved in his legal case in a neat reversal of his previous experience. The border is still haunting him, affecting and ruining lives, changing the very make-up of the social relations that make up communities.

This is a vital and timely book, but that much should be obvious. As important is its originality as a piece of art concerned with the land. It refuses absolutely any nostalgia, is sharply political and socially-conscious, and yet it also reads as a book whose messages land softly. Reading it one senses the assertions of the author’s experiences, of his ideas. One feels the deep tension between the human and the non-human worlds, but also that a sense of these as oppositions, through the wrongheadedness of that sense, is the original sin of our culture, is the deep wound we must find a way to heal.


The Line Becomes a River is published in hardback by Bodley Head. Buy a copy here.