2018-10-11 / Opinions

Book Review

The Line Becomes a River

Son of a park ranger, Francisco Cantú was always aware of his Mexican heritage through his mother, but after college, he decided to learn firsthand about the situation on our southern border. When his mother learned that he was planning to work for the Border Patrol, she was distressed, telling him that he could do less dangerous work and do something where he could help people instead of pitting himself against them. Cantú is determined, nevertheless, to continue with his plan.

He is able to meet the challenges of training, which sounds very much like army boot camp. He likes his classmates and admires some of his instructors. After graduation from the academy, he is sent to the field in Arizona. His supervisor shows them how to look for footprints, kicked-over rocks, fibers snagged on branches. “Learn to read the dirt, he said, it’s your bread and butter.”

On his first walk into the mountains, they follow such a trail and soon find bundles of dope and backpacks abandoned, but not the traffickers. On another night, they spike the road and a truck driving without lights roars through. They find the truck containing marijuana and a rifle, but the men have fled. Cantú tells several stories about finding men and women lost in the desert. They had crossed the border looking for sanctuary or freedom, but were desperate for help before they died there.

Because he speaks Spanish and is sympathetic, Cantú had believed that he could obey orders and at the same time, help the immigrants. Soon, however, he begins to have nightmares and doubts. He feels that he is good at the job, but “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 set ablaze.”

As he relates his experiences, he also tells the history of this part of the world, going back to 1706 and before. He explains how the boundary between the United States and Mexico was defined and marked.

Cantú understands the people he is finding; he also understands the men he works with. He decides to leave the field and work in the office, but eventually leaves to go back to college for graduate work. While there, he meets and becomes good friends with José, an “illegal.” The last part of the book is the story of how he tries to help José and his family after he returns to Mexico for his mother’s funeral and is apprehended on his way back.

The individual stories are poignant; the history is fascinating; Francisco Cantú is a good writer. The Line Becomes a River is available at the Mary Willis Library.

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