A Review of Francisco Cantú’s The Line Becomes a River
June 11, 2018 § 1 Comment
By Emilio Carrero
On a soccer field I met my childhood best friend. Our elementary school was mostly white, and we were the only Spanish kids standing on the field that day. We were the last two picked.
As a kid I never realized this fact: the two of us were oddities, a brown Puerto Rican and a white Mexican roaming the hallways. We were familiar to each other—the both of us quiet, hardworking, and stumbling to navigate between our Spanish cultures and American culture. But we were also different. I was better than Pepe at soccer and I spoke better English. I knew this, as a kid, because the white kids were nicer to me. They eventually picked me regularly to be on their team.
I remember resenting Pepe for not speaking better English, for embarrassing me around the other kids to the point that I distanced myself from him. Before and after school, as we all sat on the red school benches, I pretended I didn’t know him. We’d make fun of his paprika-colored hair and joke about how his parents couldn’t speak English. But he’d never get upset; he’d just smile at me, as if happy for me. Through luck or talent or some insight, I’d managed to blend in, adapt, assimilate. For Pepe, he was stuck where he was.
I couldn’t have understood our friendship back then, and even now it’s hard to explain how we felt both divided from each other and together. But as I read Francisco Cantú’s The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border, I thought about my friendship with Pepe, its porousness and its boundaries.
In the book, Cantú recounts his experiences working in the border patrol. The narrative tracks his psychological deterioration as a border patrol agent and his subsequent departure into civilian life.
From early on, it’s clear what Cantú is in for. His training officer shows him an “image of a cattle truck with twelve dead bodies stacked in the back, all of them blindfolded and shot execution-style.” A few moments later, he warns him: “This is what you’re up against…this is what’s coming.”
By the time Cantú is out in the field however, much of the violence comes at the hands of the border patrol agents. His fellow officers slice water bottles and ransack immigrants’ belongings. He recounts watching them as they “ripped and tore at the clothing” and “pissed on a pile of ransacked belongings.”
In moments like these, Cantú is hauntingly quiet about what’s happening. Reminiscent of Michael Herr’s Dispatches, the book reads almost as an extended dream—fragmented, nightmarish, and unable to explain itself.
But there is an acute attention paid to the body throughout, specifically his own body and what’s happening to it. He remembers wondering, early on, if his fellow agent “thought of [their] body as a tool for destruction or as one of safekeeping.” Then he moves to himself: “I wondered, too, about my body, about what sort of tool it was becoming.” This type of interior thinking is spare, and it is mostly in Cantú’s nightmares that we see how his service is destroying him.
He dreams at night that he is “grinding [his] teeth out, spitting the crumbled pieces into my palms and holding them in my cupped hands” and wishes that there is “someone to show them to, someone who can see what is happening.”
But while his dreams show his deterioration, it’s in the things he reads that we see him in search for answers to this deterioration. Searching for explanations, one of the books he reads is Dolerse, by Cristina Rivera Garza, who’s quoted as saying “[p]ain not only destroys, but produces reality.” A reality, Rivera Garza argues, that is infused in the languages we speak, socially and politically. And these are the “languages in which bodies decipher their power relationships with other bodies.”
Juxtaposed against these violent realities of the border are detailed and lyrical descriptions of the border as a place. Memories of violence are intermixed with memories of “watching storms roll across the moonlit desert” and “lightning appeared like a line of hot neon, illuminating the desert in a shuddering white light.”
We follow Cantú as he moves through different perspectives and landscapes. He traverses the southern border and also navigates the borders within himself—as a son to a Mexican immigrant, and an American citizen; an authority figure and a civilian; an officer of the Border Patrol; and a friend and guardian to illegal immigrants.
The book’s epigraph refers to the border as an unnatural divide. And it’s true that divisions like the politics of the border and Cantú’s personal feelings about the border are often left unsaid. And it’s true I do wonder about these things unsaid as I’m reading, during and after. But if there is something, rhetorically, that I walk away with, it is that although the people who inhabit and enforce this land are divided in many ways, they are also, often, as porous as the Rio Grande River that dissolves this unnatural divide. The book offers no answers or arguments about the border; instead it offers the porousness of a body that didn’t merely work at the border but was a part of it.
Emilio Carrero is a writer from Orlando, FL. He is an MFA candidate in creative writing at the University of Arizona and is the editor in chief for Sonora Review. He is currently working on a memoir.