The Truth about the Border in Francisco Cantú’s THE LINE BECOMES A RIVER
THE LINE BECOMES A RIVER: Dispatches from the Border, published by Riverhead Books, presents a first-person narrative by author and former Border Patrol agent Francisco Cantú. The border between the United States and Mexico is in his blood: his mother, a park ranger and daughter of a Mexican immigrant, raised him in the scrublands of the Southwest. Haunted by the landscape of his youth, Cantú became an agent for the United States Border Patrol in 2008, working in the deserts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. He and his partners were posted to remote regions crisscrossed by drug routes and smuggling corridors, where they learned to track other humans under blistering sun and through frigid nights. They hauled in the dead and delivered to detention those they found alive. Plagued by nightmares, Cantú abandoned the Border Patrol for civilian life in 2012. But when an immigrant friend traveled to Mexico to visit his dying mother and did not return, Cantú discovered that the border had migrated with him.
In our Behind the Pages interview, Francisco Cantú and Rebecca Saletan, Vice President, Editorial Director for Riverhead, share personal insights into the creation of THE LINE BECOMES A RIVER, ongoing border-related issues, and the harsh realities that this book illuminates.
What inspired you to become a writer and chronicle your life experiences on the page?
FC: What initially led me to become a writer was the need to make sense of the years I spent working as a Border Patrol agent. I signed up for the job after college, looking for answers to all the questions I encountered in my studies of immigration and border policy. I was looking for the something that would bring me close to the border, something that would let me experience it to its fullest extent. The Border Patrol seemed like the only way to do that, to witness the harsh day-to-day realities of the border, to be out in the desert day in and day out. The job, of course, was a violent one, in ways that were both obvious and more subtle. Instead of finding the answers I was looking for, I ended up coming away with more questions, and that’s what led me to writing—it became a compulsion, something I had to do in order to come to terms with all the complicated ways my work had caused me to normalize and participate in structural violence.
How did you discover this author and what were your first impressions of the manuscript for this book?
RS: I received an early draft of the book on submission in late September 2016, weeks before the election. Although we did not know then how large the border would loom in the national conversation, I could not stop thinking about it. Sometimes projects move so quickly editors don’t have time to see how the reading experience sits with us, but because the author was coming up from Tucson to meet with interested publishers, I had a little time to take my own temperature. What stayed with me was the understated force of the storytelling. I felt haunted by it, the way the US-Mexican border—the border whose line becomes a river—haunts America. The way the past and the present and the fate of those on both sides of it are inextricably entwined, no matter how high a wall we build.
What was involved in working with Francisco during the editorial process?
RS: I like to say that editing is 99 percent deletion, taking out what doesn’t need to be there, creating white space for the reader’s emotional response. But in this case what was needed was to imagine what wasn’t yet there that would help deepen and sharpen the arc of the narrative without making it heavy-handed. I thought readers needed to feel a little more the effect of Cantú’s experience on him so that we could feel its effect on us. That meant judiciously adding material: signal moments from his childhood, his family background, and the deeper history of the border itself. These elements, which he deftly wove in, amplify the narrative and allow the reader to accompany him toward a kind of reckoning that we don’t see coming until it is upon us.
What takeaways do you hope readers will glean from your book?
FC: If nothing else, I want readers to come away feeling that the border is a place that is immensely complex and nuanced, to the extent that they reject simplified rhetoric about immigration and border policy. I think it’s important at this particular moment to take stock of all the things that are missing from our conversation about the border, such as the actual human costs of our current policy. People seem to forget that migrants are dying in the desert, and it’s not a small number, we’re talking about hundreds of people each year, and those are just the ones that get reported. Our current policy of “enforcement through deterrence” has weaponized the landscape, pushing people to cross in the most rugged and inhospitable terrain there is. There’s a humanitarian crisis occurring at our border but we don’t seem to recognize it as such—we don’t acknowledge the people who are dying there, we don’t name their bodies, we don’t mourn their deaths. That’s unacceptable; it has to change. We have to understand each number in each statistic as representing an individual life.