Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Line Becomes a River by Francisco Cantú

Hardcover, 256 pgs, Pub Feb 6th 2018 by Riverhead Books

This book seems too small for all it accomplishes. The quiet watchfulness and introspection of the Prologue tamps down opinion before it develops. We are here to listen, to understand. It is such a quiet read, immediately alert to the tension inherent in a grandson of immigrants policing the border.

This is a beautiful book, a beautiful physical object. Riverhead Books formatted the inside to be a kind of art, using gray pages to separate the sections and lines to guide our eye, delineate our thoughts. We recognize we are privileged to see what an American thinks of the border, an American with reason to care about the migrants, who shares our history and theirs.

The real terror that migrants bring or flee is not hidden; it is one of the first things the border guards encounter. A drug capture is a feather in one’s cap. The people ferrying the drugs are not as important; they are allowed to struggle back to where they came from, or continue onward if they dare. Not much thought is expended in their direction by the border patrol.

Before long, Cantú becomes aware of his own muted, muffled response to the hideousness of the choices facing his human captures. The job itself appears to be a reason why he cannot envision himself in their place. Then we discover Cantú’s stress is coming out by a grinding of his teeth when at rest. He dreams of captures—his response and theirs—and how it could be different.

He moves to a different job, a different state. He watches, in a computer lab, movements in the border area. He researches reasons for population movement, the drug dealing, gang murders, a capture’s history. This knowledge does not abate his nighttime fears. He starts to try to imagine the humanity behind the statistics, quoting the historian Timothy Snyder, “Each record of death suggests, but cannot supply, a unique life….it is for humanists to turn these [deaths] back into people.”

He goes back to El Paso and the Rio Grande and finds himself more confused than ever. “…studying…and reading…international affairs…I had the idea that…the patrol…would somehow unlock the border for me…but…I have more questions than ever before.” Exposure to the violence of the border region gave him a kind of moral injury: “Moral injury is a learned behavior, learning to accept the things you know are wrong.”

In contemplating the migration of individuals from Mexico and Central America to North America, Cantú must examine the horror facing those migrants in their own countries. He gives us a taste of it, leading us to question our own understanding of government, laws, fairness, money, profit, coercion, protection. We realize we do not know the answers to the questions these migrants raise: How are we to live? What do we have to lose?

Cantú leaves the border patrol to think, write, read, study. In trying to make sense of his own history, his recent past, and his future, he takes a job in which he meets a man who becomes his friend. That man, it turns out, is what Americans call an illegal, though he has lived and worked more than thirty years in the United States. All the understanding Cantú learned at the border is put into practice now as he couples his sensitivity and sensibility with experience.

This gorgeous, thoughtful read is replete with references to poets and novelists, as well as to those who write history, philosophy, international affairs. Cantú took time and had the resources to assimilate his feelings about illegal border crossing—the indignity, the futility of it—and he is eloquent in his expression of it.

What I came away with, putting financially-motivated drug traffic aside, was that the movement of individuals is migration, something that is not going to stop because we disapprove. When things get bad enough, people move. Cantú’s title alludes to the water-like quality of the stream, and the possibilities for growth.

Flood. We, and the people of other great nations, should think about restructuring our attitudes to accept the reality of a world in crisis and how that affects us whether we want it to or not. We must look at ourselves and the world, ourselves in the world, to see what we need to do to keep ourselves from moral injury.

Following is an interview of Cantú conducted by author Elliot Ackerman at the Washington, D.C. bookstore, Politics & Prose. The 53-minute interview gave me a different impression of the man: Cantú paradoxically seems younger in person than he does in the book.

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