Author: Francisco Cantú
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Publish Date: February 6, 2018
Pages: 256 pages (Hardcover)
Among recent works on immigration, there has been—particularly in theology—an embarrassment of riches. Works like Tisha Rajendra’s Migrants and Citizens, Rob Heimburger’s God and the Illegal Alien, Matthew Kaemingk’s Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in an Age of Fear are but a few of the excellent works to feast on. Writing in the wake of earlier work by M. Daniel Carroll Rodas, Miguel De La Torre, Ilsup Ahn, Kristin Heyer, and many others, there now exists a wide range of Christian reflection upon the ethics, history, and theology of migration. One need not turn to the pundits for an in-depth understanding of immigration, but to the many resources—both theological and practical—that provide wisdom and guidance.
But what is still missing from these works is a strong sense of testimony. Ethnographic accounts of migration abound but are seldom seen within Christian circles. De La Torre’s Trails of Hope and Terror, and Stephan Bauman, Matthew Soerens, and Issam Smeir’s Seeking Refuge: On the Shores of the Global Refugee Crisis are two of the very few which direct us in this way. It is into this space that Francisco Cantú’s memoir, The Line Becomes a River, steps as a first-hand account, albeit non-theological, of the human costs of border security.
Memoirs, such as Cantú’s, are notoriously difficult as a genre of writing for two reasons. First, the subject of the book is one’s own life, which means that research takes the form of a kind of moral inventory. As Paul reminds us, our lives are hidden with Christ, meaning in part that we are proverbial mysteries even to ourselves. To write about one’s own life is to enter into an exploration of that which is so familiar to us that we cannot possibly fully understand it. Secondly, the memoir treads a difficult space between the expose and the journalistic account, between telling us everything in pride and telling us everything in false humility. For the memoir need not disclose every prurient corner of a life—as if readers needed or were interested in every corner—but memoirs do not need to retreat into pure objectivity either. Memoirs are hard; they are about the writer, but also about more than just the writer.
On this level, Cantú’s work succeeds because he writes the book, as he tells us, in part to make sense of his own history; he casts his own life within a broader history, one of immigration crisis. Cantú’s book stems from his four-year career as a member of the Border Patrol, working in the deserts of the southern U.S. border. Having spent a good part of his childhood in this terrain, he returns to it after college to work the border where he grew up. The first section of the book opens with his entrance into training for his career. In a section which intersperses descriptions of training with his own history, we begin to see that for Cantú, the journey into a career with the Border Patrol was not a pragmatic decision, but a personal one. His own mother (who undertook a career with the Parks Services for similar reasons of self-discovery) voices this incredulity:
My mother stared at me, blinking rapidly. Are you crazy? she asked. There are a hundred other ways of knowing a place. You grew up near the border, living with me in deserts and national parks. The border is in our blood, for Christ’s sake—your great-grandparents brought my father across from Mexico when he was just a little boy. When I married, I insisted on keeping my maiden name so that you’d always carry something from your grandfather’s family, so you’d never forget your heritage. How’s that for knowing the border?
Cantú’s stories are interlaced with a sense of discovery as he learns about the world of the border—all the while coupled with his persistent sense that he will never know it. As he moves through his work week, he gives us stories of people coming up from Mexico and beyond, recounting conversations, attending to the details of their clothes, their faces, their parched mouths. But with every encounter, the people appear to Cantú as if out of thin air, flagging him down on the highway, surrendering in the dark of night—tired and bedraggled. When Cantú attempts to track them through the desert, following the cutbacks and signs the migrants leave behind, he never finds the migrants; he finds their traces: clothing, footpaths, abandoned backpacks.
The first part, then, is framed in mystery—both with respect to Cantú’s own past and with respect to life on the border. To understand one, Cantú must understand the other, but in many ways, the migrant does not want to be found. The migrant wants to live and live at peace with his or her family—but not to be found and thus subjected to our gaze. It is this persistent elusiveness of the migrant (and thus, of Cantú’s own life) which dominates the first section of the work. It is the desire to overcome these forms of strangeness, which comes into view in the second section.
This section opens with a story of Cantú’s namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi, in which Francis makes peace with the wolf who is outside the city. In the story, Francis presents himself as a mediator between the city and nature, between the hunger of the wolf and the stability of the city. And as the second section opens, we find Cantú bearing the physical weight of this status, grinding his teeth, sleeping badly, growing wary of strangers on the street after his shift is over. We are meant, it seems, to place Cantú as Francis, caught between these worlds, attempting to make peace in his own soul—between the world he grew up in, and the world he now inhabits.
To do this work of mediation, to bring the strange world of the border into contact with his own world, Cantú begins to include historical and journalistic accounts alongside his anecdotes. This is not, I think, telling objective history in order to avoid dealing with his own internal tension, but a way for him to find his place in a larger story that precedes him. We are reminded of the history of the Mexican-American War, and of the ways in which the drug wars in Mexico fund movement between Juarez and El Paso. For those familiar with these elements of the immigration story, their employment places Cantú as a mediator of these histories: he is, in the memoir, the literal bridge between the South and the North, bearing in his work and in his person the impossible tension between these worlds.
As the book proceeds, these connections between history and experience, between Cantú and the world he encounters, become more frequent, and his anecdotes more metaphorical. One anecdote in particular illustrates this. On deployment with his coworkers Beto and Manuel, they come across a migrant woman who had been left behind by her group. Taking her into their vehicle, Cantú attends to her blisters. She, in turn, asks him if he is a “humanitario,” to which he replies that he is not. What is curious in his response is that—in attending to her wounds and by providing medical attention to this stranger—Cantú clearly is providing humanitarian relief. And yet, by training and profession, he is a member of the Border Patrol. Bracketing this story on either side, Cantú tells accounts of the sicario, the cartel hit men who had left behind their professions, and informs of studies of moral injury, in which participants in war bear moral scars. In this moment, much like the parables of the Gospels, we interpret the actions of Cantú not by his own words, but by their inclusion in an arc of a story: Cantú is crumbling, as his actions toward the migrants (and thus, his own history) and his profession as a border agent cannot be held apart as separate discrete pieces. Despite himself, or perhaps paradoxically because of his status as a border agent, he finds himself knit together in care for the migrants without fully understanding their lives.
In the first sections of the book, Cantú himself is a character, placing his own life and experiences in increasingly complex conversation with the larger histories, political geographies, and migrant narratives which surround him. But his accounts are, for the most part, journalistic—simply reporting what he has seen. This objectivity, in addition to allowing Cantú to step back from what he is seeing, has the effect of keeping the reader as an additional observer—we, the reader, can take in all of these things at a remove. But in the final section, all of these barriers—between Cantú and the world of the border, and between reader and narrative—collapse. The final section, an extended treatment of one family’s journey through their father’s arrest and deportation, contains few words of reflection from Cantú, no objective history, no relief from the fine-grained telling of the story. In the final section, as we walk through the mundane processes of record collection, and as we read the firsthand words of the man’s children to a faceless immigration panel, we are given a fulsome picture of how the border crosses over human lives, marking them with contradictions and unresolvable questions, which they now bear in the folds of their family structures. The reader, likewise, as the story unfolds, has nowhere to run from the devastating story before them. We are firmly called to gaze into the story with Cantú, unable to keep our distance from the human face of immigration. The result is emotionally wrenching. Having had a place to remain outside the story, to retreat to the comfort of history or political science, the reader must now only watch the slow unfolding of a family’s grueling encounter with migration. The pacing is slow, drawing out the small folds of the story, and it does not let us out until we have journeyed with them to its conclusion.
The book’s arc—from sharp delineation, to the jumbling of history with anecdote, to the final immersion of the reader into another person’s tragedy—allows us to see at last why the book is named what it is. Lines contain two distinct halves, but a river—while connecting two distinct shores—is an indistinct maelstrom, which churns up whatever distinctions might have lain on either side into one singular story, a story which is never the same twice. Immigration, though analyzed by means of law, history, philosophy, or theology, must be named and tarried with through the lives of the ones who live it. For human lives do not correspond to lines, and people’s histories do not correspond to borders. It is for this reason, among others, that when Jesus calls us to account in the last days (Matthew 25) it will be according to whether we have attended in mercy to strangers and not to the keeping of laws.
Cantú’s reflection offers a provocative pattern with respect to how one outside the immigration cycle engages it, as Cantú moves narratively across the border, at first acknowledging his debts to it, and then finally surrendering himself narratively to the story of another. Without negating the role to an analytical discussion of law, philosophy, history, or other disciplines, his account incorporates border patrol’s work as precursors, and finally, as a backdrop. As he navigates the final narrative of the family caught in the immigration system, these disciplines appear in the backdrop, receding as the firmament against which the members of the family shine in the darkness of the immigration system. These disciplines, while important, direct us toward something else—the faces of those in the struggle. For it is in those faces—those who bear the costs of policy and law—that important and otherwise unattainable knowledge comes. Without their faces and their testimony, law is but a sounding gong, and history is but a clanging cymbal.