The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border

The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border

by Francisco Cantú


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The instant New York Times bestseller, "A must-read for anyone who thinks 'build a wall' is the answer to anything." —Esquire

For Francisco Cantú, the border is in the blood: his mother, a park ranger and daughter of a Mexican immigrant, raised him in the scrublands of the Southwest. Driven to understand the hard realities of the landscape he loves, Cantú joins the Border Patrol. He and his partners learn to track other humans under blistering sun and through frigid nights. They haul in the dead and deliver to detention those they find alive. Plagued by a growing awareness of his complicity in a dehumanizing enterprise, he abandons the Patrol for civilian life. But when an immigrant friend travels to Mexico to visit his dying mother and does not return, Cantú discovers that the border has migrated with him, and now he must know the full extent of the violence it wreaks, on both sides of the line.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780735217737
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/05/2019
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 23,200
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Francisco Cantú was an agent for the United States Border Patrol from 2008 to 2012, working in the deserts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. A former Fulbright fellow, he is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, a 2017 Whiting Award, and a 2018 Art for Justice fellowship. His writing and translations have been featured in The New York Times, Best American Essays, Harper's, and Guernica, as well as on This American Life. He lives in Tucson and coordinates the Southwest Field Studies in Writing Program at the University of Arizona.

Read an Excerpt

At the station I was given the keys to a transport van and told to drive out to the reservation where two quitters had been seen wandering through the streets of a small village. When I arrived it was just after dark and I noticed few signs of life as I drove past the scattered homes, scanning for disheartened crossers. In the center of the village a small adobe church stood in an empty dirt lot, and I saw that the front door had been left ajar. I parked the van and left the headlights shining on the entrance. I walked to the heavy wooden door and leaned with all my weight to push it open, causing a loud and violent scraping to rise up and echo into the dim interior.

Excerpted from "The Line Becomes a River"
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Copyright © 2019 Francisco Cantú.
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Reading Group Guide

1. “[T]he reality of the border is one of enforcement. I might not agree with every aspect of U.S. border policy, but there is power in understanding the realities it creates. Maybe after three or four years I’ll go back to school to study law, maybe I’ll work to shape new policies. If I become an immigration lawyer or a policy maker, imagine the unique knowledge I’ll bring.” Thus Cantú explains his decision to join the Border Patrol. He also says, “At least if I’m the one apprehending [border crossers], I can offer them some small comfort by speaking with them in their own language, by talking to them with knowledge of their home.” What do you think of these motivations? In retrospect, do they seem naive or overly idealistic? How are Cantú’s hopes and expectations changed by his experience?

2. “[S]tepping into a system doesn’t mean that the system becomes you,” Cantú insists to his mother in Part I of The Line Becomes a River. How does his time in the Border Patrol challenge that assertion? In what ways does “the system” determine, influence, and limit the behavior of the individuals within its ranks?

3. In interviews as well as in the author’s note to the paperback, Cantú has claimed that our border policy weaponizes the landscape. He writes, “It is a landscape often written off as a wasteland that is inherently ‘hostile’—without recognition that it has, in fact, been made to be hostile. Violence does not grow organically in our deserts or at our borders. It has arrived there through policy.” What does he mean by this, and how do we see this weaponization on display in The Line Becomes a River?

4. How is violence normalized along the border? What is the relationship between the casual, daily instances of violence Cantú witnesses and sometimes partakes in during his field work, the violence of the drug cartels in which he immerses himself when he gets promoted to a desk job, and, as he writes in the author’s note, “the threat that hovers ceaselessly over migrants, even long after they establish lives in a new country—a threat always poised to come knocking at the door”? How does one type of violence fuel the others? Do they receive different kinds of media attention? Different levels of empathy from the public? Why?

5. Consider the fact that José’s children never crossed the border. How was the border thrust into their lives, even though they are all U.S. citizens? Consider other ways the border is thrust into people’s lives, even after they cross it and settle into lives in the interior of the country.

6. “In places, commission reports remarked upon the ‘arbitrarily chosen’ nature of the boundary line and the ‘impracticable’ nature of their work,” Cantú writes, referring to those originally tasked with creating the U.S.-Mexican border. What geographical and political purposes does the border serve? What are the consequences of different kinds of demarcation (i.e., stone monuments vs. militarized walls)? How might we reframe the discussion around borders?

7. Cantú’s mother is a recurrent figure in the book. What role does she play in the narrative? How does her own life experience shape her perspective?

8. Cantú rarely tells us what he thinks or feels about the events he describes. Why do you think he makes that choice? What means does he use to create emotional and moral tension in the narrative? What is their effect?

9. During his time in the Border Patrol, Cantú watched countless people get deported, their names and details blurring in his mind, their stories incomplete. He encounters José after he has left the Patrol. Why do you think Cantú chose to include his story, and to end the book in the voice of José himself? What can the stories of individuals teach us about an issue, and how can we harness their power? Whose stories get amplified, and why? What can we do to amplify more voices, both at an individual and institutional level?

10. In his author’s note, Cantú acknowledges the ways he came to participate in a violent system/institution. Do you think Cantú bears any culpability for the work that he did? If so, does writing this book atone for any of it? What are concrete ways to “reject a culture of violence,” and how can we each take steps to “refuse to participate in it, and refuse to partake in its normalization?”

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The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Beautifully written, illuminating, and haunting. The author alternates between letting the stories of individuals he encounters stand on their own and adding well-placed personal and historical context. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book should be required reading for our current president, and for members of Congress. The format of this book, with the Spanish phrases and historical perspectives, made for an intersting read. Definitely worth purchasing.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you want to begin to understand the long, complex and heartbreaking story of the border between the U.S. and Mexico you must read this book. If you have formed an opinion about current immigration policy on the southern border in this current political climate, you must read this book. The writing is impeccable, the story is open-hearted, and the result is a book that will change the way you think about immigration and about humanity.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
brf1948 More than 1 year ago
Francisco Cantu has done a wonderful job of bringing to light the conflict and contradictions of the US/Mexican border problems. I think you have to spend some time here to truly understand the conflict of conscious that all we locals feel as this boondoggle escalates over time and without a true compass to guide us into an acceptable solution. Cantu is a third generation American of Mexican heritage. There are many many second and third generation Americans with parents and extended family who have lived here in the US for 30 or 40 years without documentation, and those families are subject to the removal of their loved ones at any time. These illegals don't have to do anything wrong - most illegals tip-toe through life, trying not to make waves or even a shadow. In their defense, it was a much different world on the border even 20 years ago - easier to get across, harder to get to a place where documentation was handled properly, and American farmers and stockmen were always needing help they could afford. Add to that the fact that many families have been here four or five generations and are the go-to for their Mexican relatives when a bright child - or one on the wrong path - will be lost into Mexico's cycle of poverty if they can't get a proper education or a clean lifestyle without being sucked into the gang mentality that is the brightest light offered to the youth of Mexico. And therein lies the problem. Juarez, Mexico is about an hour and ten minutes away from my home, in a small New Mexico town of about thirty thousand. I have lived in or near the borderland for 70 years. There is a hard kernel of truth at the core of that old saying, 'it takes a village to raise a child'. Gangs were once a big city problem. Now they are everyone's problem - but the majority of Mexicans who cross over illegally are simply looking for jobs and a safe place to raise their family. Period. Most have attempted to come over legally before they made the dangerous decision to rely on a Coyote to bring them and their family into the US. And the reason they feel they must come over is simple. There were 25,339 reported homicides in Mexico in 2017, a 23% jump from 2016 (CNN). There were 120 reported murders in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, sister city to El Paso, TX, in the month of June, 2018 (El Paso Times). Unfortunately cartel members and the kids in gangs including MS13 can slip in right along side the family's looking for safety. We have to be able to vet the immigrants we admit to the USA. ALL the immigrants. There are some Middle Eastern and Europeans who also use the Coyote system of illegal entry through Mexico. There is no easy solution, no snappy answer to this problem. And the Wall - Berlin had a wall for many years. Look at the misery that entailed. No one has come up with a solution that is both humane and safe. But finding that path is crucial and we need to find it NOW. Cantu brings all of this into play in The Line Becomes a River - both from the side of protecting the border and the hard decisions families have to make about their illegals and the unacceptable life offered south of the border. And make no mistake about it - it is the honest, hard working families, those people that would be an excellent addition to any community, who are paying the price every day that we don't come up with a solution.
litpixie More than 1 year ago
First, I have to write this: I won a copy through Goodreads for a review. This is a timely read. Cantu worked as a border agent after graduating with a degree in international relations. Through his time in the field and then in intelligence and then as a barista (when he returned to college for his master's degree) befriending a handy man who also happens to be a undocumented person. Cantu goes into what the border towns are like, the way the cartels have taken over various towns and how they control the coyotes as well as the people trying to get across. Some of the information you may know from watching the news, but there is more here than I've heard from the news. It's written in an easy style, even if the information is difficult at times to read. If you want to understand the Border Patrol and what is happening in Mexico this is a book that is a must read.
cllhnstev More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
How many pages do I receive for my $12.99?