Every day, a ceaseless flow of men, women and children push their way north, in scorched summer heat, across raw desert terrain and man-made boundaries into the domain of the United States Border Patrol.
The Border Patrol acts as the last link in a long chain from political rhetoric to policy to practice. Guarding desert and mountain passes, the agents detain the lost, the dehydrated, and the unlucky, sending them back across the line, where many of them will try their luck again and again, their desperate hope much stronger than fear of imprisonment or death.
Francisco Cantú grew up on the border. His mother, a park ranger and second generation Mexican-American, raised him in the national parks and deserts of southern Arizona. Forever intrigued by the landscape of his childhood, Francisco decided to pursue a master’s degree, focusing on border relations. Yearning for an understanding academia can’t give, Francisco takes a leap of faith and joins the Border Patrol, committing himself to this unnaturally divided space and the people who cross it.
Training first as a field agent, Cantú learns to track humans through signs in the desert dirt and detect movement with thermal sensors. He makes arrests- people young and old, despondent and defiant, alone or clinging to the fallen bodies of family members who have lost their battle to the elements. After three years in the field, nerves fraying, Cantú is promoted to intelligence, a desk job that takes him out of the physical brutality of the field but mires him in a world of drug cartels and violence.As horrific nightmares haunt him, he suffers from jaw-clenching pain and becomes increasingly paranoid, eventually deciding to leave the job behind. But even with patrol life behind him, Cantú’s search for peace of mind is fraught. Working as a barista, he bonds with José, the café’s maintenance man, a proud husband and father who has lived in the United States for over 30 years.When José returns to Michoacán to pay his respects to his dying mother, he is detained trying to cross the border, and Cantú is forced to once again confront his demons.
THE LINE BECOMES A RIVER presents a personal examination into the structural violence that has become US-Mexico border’s defining characteristic. Attention to the border has never been more pronounced than it is today. The images called up by politicians and the media loom in our collective consciousness- the intractable corruption, the violence, “The Wall.” As Cantú wrestles with his sense of responsibility and hopelessness, he opens up a nuanced, transformative conversation and exposes the realities of the deep human struggles of those who defend and those who cross.
Francisco Cantú is a recent MFA graduate in nonfiction from the University Arizona
. His essays and translations have appeared in Guernica, Ploughshares, Orion, and Public Books, where he serves as a contributing editor. After serving as Border Patrol Agent for the States Border Patrol from 2008-2012, Cantú conducted research on Dutch asylum issues as part of a Fulbright Fellowship
. An excerpt from THE LINE BECOMES A RIVER is forthcoming in Best American Essays