Francisco Cantú studied the US-Mexican border at college and he felt the next step was to work there. He applied to be a US Border Patrol agent despite his half-Mexican mother’s misgivings. He would see both sides he argued, and how better to learn about a thing than to experience it first hand.
How do you come home to your kids at night when you spend the day treating other humans like dogs?
The Line Becomes a River opens with Francisco on a visit to Mexico with his mother, perhaps to stress that he has a connection to both sides of the border. The initial chapters on training and life as an agent don’t paint them in a good light. They are not taught to be compassionate, the migrants becoming dehumanised in their eyes, and the culture is laddish.
The work doesn’t sit right with Francisco, although he understands the need for the border. Eventually he gets a desk job, exposing him to even more horrors, and ultimately he leaves for a quiet life as a barista. He talks about the history of the border, the troubles in Mexico which explains why so many people are desperate to cross, and the realities of the deportation process. These intersperse the memoir portions of the book.
Economic metaphors were predominant, characterizing migrant deaths as a “cost,” “calculation,” or “gamble.” Death is a price that is paid, a toll collected by the desert.
Very few Mexicans are granted asylum in the US, despite so many feraing for their lives if they were to return. Family members who have spent decades in America risk being split up if immigration officials discover their illegal status. A trip to visit a dying relative in Mexico can mean the end of a settled life, as one of Francisco’s friends learns in the later parts of the book.
Francisco was an agent between 2008 and 2012, and the book does not bleed into Trump’s America. Yet even with some of the more flexible policies of Obama, there’s still families torn apart, parents unable to see their American born children because of an unflinching immigration policy. The relationship between US and Mexico is a mess.
To live in the city of El Paso in those days was to hover at the edge of a crushing cruelty, to safely fill the lungs with air steeped in horror.
The book highlights how dangerous the crossing is, how hostile the landscape and weather is, as well as the risk of being held for ransom by the unscrupulous coyotes. The risk of being caught drug trafficking, or pissing off a cartel. That people still risk it shows that they are desperate.
Some of the dialogue is in Spanish and not translated, assuming the reader has a basic grasp of the language. I found this a bit distracting as I only know a few words and I kept having to try and work out if I’d missed something important. He also recalls these super meaningful dreams about a wolf, that are all a bit too coherent to read like real dreams. The text does jump around quite a lot, but it was an interesting perspective on a subject I know little about.
The Line Becomes a River is published by Bodley Head and will be available in hardback and ebook editions from 1st March 2018. Thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy for review via NetGalley.
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Disclosure: I received a copy of this book free of charge for review purposes only. Receipt of a book does not guarantee a review or endorsement. My reviews are my honest opinion and are not biased for the purpose of personal gain.