Francisco Cantú Talks Borders, Rhetoric, and Climate Change

We’re on break until Labor Day. Meanwhile, please enjoy some of our favorite articles written or commissioned by outgoing editor in chief Sharon Marcus. Today’s selection was originally published on February 20, 2019.
“The reality of border policy, when you get down in the weeds, is that there is this huge spectrum of individuals who are implicated.”[n

Twenty pages into my first reading of The Line Becomes a River, I laid the book on my chest and called out to Felipe, my husband. “You have to read this,” I said. Felipe and I are both professors, he of Latin American literature and I of creative nonfiction and environmental writing. While we have loads to talk about over the dinner table, it is rare for us to read or teach the same texts. But I knew already that The Line Becomes a River was different. In it, Francisco Cantú writes of the United States–Mexico border—and the Sonoran Desert, which the border splits in two—with one ear tuned to the murmurings of this land and the policies that increasingly twist it into strange and punishing shapes, and the other to the lives of those who attempt to cross and the injustices they face. His are not the observations of an academic or analyst; instead he writes of his years as a Border Patrol Agent and their aftermath with nuance and compassion.

When I finished the book, I read a bunch of reviews to see what other folks had thought. Interestingly, few wrote about the thing that most moved me: Cantú’s choice to close with a firsthand account of José, an undocumented immigrant whose life and livelihood are forever transformed by the line we have drawn in the sand. How had Cantú decided to hand the narrative of his book over to someone whose direct experience is often left out of the official story about immigration policy? Last December I gave the author a call to find out. Below is a record of our conversation, which covers great ground, from the hot heart at the center of the Sonoran to testimonial storytelling and the role we writers might play in making our public conversations more democratic.

Elizabeth Rush (ER): In the new epilogue to The Line Becomes a River, you talk about the desert itself becoming weaponized through specific acts, like the active dumping-out of water that had been stored to assist those who might try to cross. Can you describe what that transition has been like, to go from thinking about and experiencing this geography as generative—as being a place that might bear or bring into the world stories, creation myths, or deep awareness and appreciation for life—to thinking about and experiencing it as a place that has been, through human will, turned against other human beings?


Francisco Cantú (FC): Wanting to understand the physical, geographical realities of the border as a landscape was a big part of my decision to join the Border Patrol. It was also one of the only ways for me to be out in the desert day in and day out. I wanted to understand what the border is doing to the place and has done to the place, and what it is doing to the people trying to cross it and the people living there. It was a decision that was against my own internal politics and motivations. And as it would turn out, there was a lot of naiveté behind my choice, in thinking that I could navigate this experience without being implicated by it, or without participating in it, you know? The idea that I could witness and learn and then move on unscathed—and also hopefully be a force for good within the agency during the time that I was within it—that idea was naive.

I remember it was really important to me, when I was thinking about what I wanted to do after leaving college, that it be something where I would be out on the physical border. I had worked for nonprofits and I had done all this book learning, and I wanted instead some physical, tangible experience of being out in the landscape.

I wasn’t thinking about how the border had been weaponized and I wasn’t looking to better articulate why and how that had happened. I knew there was a tension there that I didn’t understand but felt whenever I traveled through or was present in that region. Then for many years while doing the job, I became part of what was making the landscape violent, part of what had already completely transformed this place and has only continued to do so. Being out in the reality of it, you are almost in a strange way too close. It’s like not being able to see the forest for the trees.

It wasn’t until I had left and then decided to write about it that I really started to unpack and think about all the little ways the landscape has been made hostile. You always hear the desert presented as a violent place, right? Or a hostile place.


ER: Right.


Let Us Now See Climate Change

By Liz Koslov

FC: It’s just so inherent in how we think about the desert and talk about the desert that you have to catch yourself—maybe you’ve had this experience too. For me, I would catch myself writing sentences about the desert being inhospitable. But what do we know? The desert is a perfect ecosystem for the plants and animals that live there, and there are native people who have been living in the most “inhospitable deserts” for centuries. For millennia. Getting away from talking about the desert like that is important, and it is important to think about what we bring to the desert that is not actually inherent to that space.


ER: Absolutely. I felt that a lot with tidal wetlands. At some point early on, I realized that writing about sea level rise also meant writing about tidal wetlands, and then all of my learned prejudice against these spaces started to come out. I said, oh yeah, they are swampy, or they are the source of disease because mosquitoes live in them. We have a set of negative connotations around tidal wetlands, and one of the reasons they are hard to live in is that we build structures on top of them that display no consciousness about what these spaces are at a basic level. Tidal wetlands flood multiple times a day, with every high tide, you know? There are some basic principles that shape these spaces, and they are going to be problematic places to live if you don’t pay attention to those. The thing is, they are also amazing ecosystems. We just need to learn how to see them.


FC: It’s the same thing, right? It’s like, should there be a city of 5 million people here in the middle of the desert? No, there probably shouldn’t be. It’s the same basic principle.



ER: To wade out into these places, to inhabit them in order to see them as they are, as you mention, there is something, like a chip in your brain, that has to change. For me that change often comes experientially. It sounds like that was your intention going into your time in the Border Patrol. Perhaps you thought: I’m going to try to understand this space, and to do that, I’m going to have to figure out how to be a part of it. And then it turns out that decision is a lot more complicated than you initially thought.

One thing that struck me as I read some of the reception to The Line Becomes a River was the occasional desire to dismiss some of what you write about because of your willingness to join the Border Patrol in the first place.

As a reader, I wasn’t inclined to judge your writing in that way. But I am curious: How have you internalized or responded to some of that conversation around your book? I mean, your history is your own, you can’t undo your own history.


FC: The short answer to the question is that I do think about it, I do think about that response and I do think about that critique of my work. I think about it a lot. To be honest, I’m thankful for the pushback that the book has received.

The history of this region, the history of Mexican Americans, the history of the Border Patrol and the way that it has perpetuated violent and damaging policies throughout the region—these histories are all tied up in one another. To be called a traitor, or to be called a vendido—this Spanish word for a sellout or a traitor—it’s a very old thing. This has been happening as long as there have been Latino people and Mexican American agents in the Border Patrol. This has been an element of what it means to do that work while coming from that background.

It’s part of the complexity of what border policy is. It’s really easy to talk about border policy and border enforcement in these big terms that place institutions and the government and politicians on one side and the communities of people that are affected by them on the other side. But the reality when you get down in the weeds is that there is this huge spectrum of individuals who are part of all this, who are implicated. And the closer you get to the border the more muddy and complex that becomes. You know, the Border Patrol used to be majority Hispanic, and now it’s more like half of agents share that history.


The Big Picture: Building the Wall

By Geraldo Cadava

ER: There’s a character early on in The Line Becomes a River who is in training with you and he’s Hispanic. The way I understand his place in your book is that he’s trying to join the Border Patrol in part to get a better job to provide a better salary for his family. It’s a choice that is driven as much by economic need as by anything else, though I think he ultimately doesn’t make it through training. That seems to me to be a moment in The Line Becomes a River that speaks so directly to this tension.


FC: It’s as old as colonialism, right? People from oppressed communities have always been recruited by the oppressor to participate in the oppression. On one hand, why would I willingly, knowingly enter that? But on the other hand, how do you ever understand the thing without getting close to it and looking closely at it?

One of the most important parts of the pushback that I have gotten is about who is being given a platform to talk about these issues. This book, because it has a big New York publisher behind it and because it’s been well reviewed and well covered in the media, has partly generated this criticism. Here’s this person who was a Border Patrol agent, an enforcer, being given this platform to talk about border justice and immigrant rights and all these social justice issues. For a lot of people in that community who are most affected by these issues, like migrants themselves and the people who work with those communities, for them, I think they might say: Hey, wait a minute, what the hell? Why are you letting this former Border Patrol agent be the one who gets to talk about this issue? Because the people who most need to be heard and most need to be given a platform, whose voices have been most overlooked in this whole conversation since time immemorial, are the migrants themselves, the people who are on the other end of that power differential.

I hope the conversations around this book, and also conversations around the tension and the “controversy” around this book, I hope that they are an entry point for hearing those other voices. For inviting those voices into these spaces that the book has occupied. This book has taken up a lot of space in a way, in this small, kind of literary way, but …


ER: It’s hard to know how big the space you, or your writing, takes up.


FC: Right, it’s hard to know. I hope it’s part of that door getting pushed open wider and wider.

ER: One of the things your book does really elegantly, especially in the last third, is incorporate the voices of those long overlooked in this conversation. You develop a friendship with a migrant named José. His mother gets sick and he goes back to Mexico, and then he tries to make it back across the border twice, but he doesn’t have papers. He gets caught. And you end up trying to assist him in whatever way you can through the legal process that follows. The book actually closes not with your words, but with his. It seems to me that this is your attempt to push that door open for other voices to enter into this conversation. I’m curious: How did you know that that’s where you wanted to end The Line Becomes a River, and how did that come about?


FC: It was a very intentional decision. Thinking about the arc of the book or the arc of the story: the first part of it is very much about this narrator and this narrator’s experience of coming into this institution. In the second part of the book, the narrator is still at the center, but we do get some distancing with the bringing in of other voices, from research and journalism, about border enforcement and migration experiences. At this point we’re zooming out a little bit. And then in the third part, we’re zooming back in, not on the narrator’s experience, but on the experience of this other person who in the first part of the book is someone the narrator would have been positioned against, right? And José, he could have been any one of the multitude of people that crossed paths with the narrator, any one of the multitude of people that the narrator is essentially sending back in the first part of this book.

The intention was to let this other story slowly take over the narrative thrust of the book. That was really important, because in the time line of my own experience, my friendship with José occurred years after I had stepped out of this job, and years after I had felt that this job was becoming something distant from me—that this work I had done and this thing I had participated in was a page that I was turning or a chapter that I was closing. And then to have this person I knew and cared about suddenly be thrust back into that same story and that same system that I had been a part of, and then to see all of it unfolding, but from the other side …

I had been a part of the vast deportation industrial complex, but only part of a very specific aspect of it: the part where people are being intercepted in the desert. But then there’s all these things that would happen to someone after they left the Border Patrol Detention Center that I never really saw or really knew about. And to see that, and to see it happening to someone I cared about and then to be in this role of navigating, helping this family navigate that system—


ER: Which is a role you chose to take, right? It’s not that it was your job to take on that role, you chose to take on that role. It’s not like you were getting paid.


Comics Journalism, Comics Activism

By Jared Gardner

FC: Right. But it was natural, because I had such a better understanding of what was happening to José than his family did. I had been part of the system and understood a lot of the structures, so I could help them navigate it: Here’s where we need a lawyer, here’s where we need to show up in court, and here’s how we can find where he’s being detained so we can go visit. All of these things.

But on a craft level, the book is a memoir. It’s telling the story of the narrator at its center, and then I really wanted to slowly push back on that to whatever extent I could within the third part of the book. Turning over the narrative, the “I” of the story, to José felt like the only genuine way to challenge some of these narrative conventions around who gets to tell what stories. Because I don’t believe in being a voice for the voiceless.


ER: Right.


FC: That’s a colonialist, white-man, white-journalist’s idea of what we need. That somehow we need people who look like us and talk like us to interpret the stories of these other people.


ER: As if these people don’t have voices of their own.


FC: Or don’t speak in terms that we will understand. The idea that we need an interpreter. I think that’s horseshit, right?


ER: Right.


FC: And so that last part of the book has to be in José’s words. That’s when at a certain point, it’s no longer really acceptable for me to be telling someone else’s story. Leading up to that point, it’s about how the narrator’s story intersects with this person’s story, but then that ends. We enter the point where the only thing left is to hear this person in their own words.


ER: Right.


FC: How do you, as a journalist or as a nonfiction writer, as the one whose name gets stamped on the story, how do you lend that authorship to the people whose stories you are telling? Or reinterpreting or presenting or sometimes just packaging—like sometimes you’re just repackaging their words, you’re acting as an editor or a curator and not really an author. That’s a larger conversation about nonfiction and journalism, but it’s something that I have been thinking a lot about.


ER: I couldn’t agree more. While at work on Rising there were moments when I was listening to other people’s stories where I just thought: Nothing I can do as a writer can make this story, their words, any more compelling. So eventually I chose, like you, to leave those words alone. And I put their name on them in the book.

I’m looking at part of José’s testimony, where he says, “I’ll walk through the desert for five days, eight days, ten days, whatever it takes to be with them,” meaning his family. “I’ll eat grass, I’ll eat bushes, I’ll eat cactus, I’ll drink filthy cattle water, I’ll drink nothing at all. I’ll run and hide from La Migra. I’ll pay the mafia whatever I have to. They can take my money, they can rob my family, they can lock me away, but I’ll keep coming back. I’ll keep crossing again and again until I make it. Until I’m together with my family.” I mean, his words are poetry. What can you do to make them stronger than they are?

I think that we need to sit with these stories, to listen to them directly as opposed to encountering them again and again through political language or rhetoric. Closing your book with his words is very powerful. I really appreciated that.

FC: You said it’s important to encounter these voices and stories, but there’s so many different forms of encounter, right? Like we can encounter those stories on the news, we can encounter them in ways in which they will continue to remain very abstract or distant from us.


ER: Right. Your work made me think of Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl.


FC: Svetlana Alexievich makes that encounter an intimate thing, and she makes that happen by creating a chorus of voices that begins to overwhelm us. There’s a book that came out in 2017 called I Couldn’t Even Imagine That They Would Kill Us, by John Gibler. It’s about the 43 students who were disappeared in Mexico, and it is also an assemblage of first-person testimonies from all of these people, all of these people who were there and survived. Elena Poniatowska also does this with Massacre in Mexico, about the student massacre in the 1960s.

The task is to find ways to trick the reader into letting down those weird defenses that we build in this society against other people’s stories. We’re so saturated by media and by all these different forms of storytelling that aren’t really recognized as storytelling, so we have to find a way to make one story break through or make one voice break through. That’s where all the work happens. And you see it happen in different ways, right? Like last year, there was a picture of a girl crying at the border that ended up on the cover of Time magazine. In that case it was a picture and not a story that broke through.


American Storyteller

By Eric Bennett

ER: Before I let you go, I do want to ask one question that’s slightly wonky about the intersection of the migrant caravan and climate change, about border politics and climate refugees. Actually the thing that made me write about sea level rise was being sent to report an immersive piece about the India-Bangladesh border fence, back in 2012. I spent about two months on both sides of the border. In Bangladesh, often the response was that the fence itself wasn’t so much of a problem. You could bribe your way through. The bigger problem was that they couldn’t grow the food that they needed to sustain themselves on the land where they’d lived for hundreds of years.

So, there was this real awareness of saline inundation setting in motion large-scale migrations, and that fence was in part designed to try to keep out climate refugees. India and Bangladesh, like the United States and Mexico, were once the same place. The history is long and complicated, and who gets counted in and counted out of each country was as important then as it will be in the future. I’m curious what you make of, or if you’ve thought about, how climate change and an increasingly militarized border will intersect, do intersect.


FC: You know who is doing a lot of really amazing reporting on this is Todd Miller. He lives here in Tucson and he has a book called Storming the Wall. It’s about how the military border industrial complex intersects with issues of climate change and is capitalizing on climate change as a way of making profit. The specifics of the line that is drawn between climate change and migration and border security isn’t exactly my wheelhouse. But that line intersects with and becomes the same line as what I’m often thinking the most about, which is the normalization of violence through policy, through institutions and the culture of those different institutions.

I also think that this line is about dehumanization. How does our rhetoric dehumanize the people who are going to be affected by this the most, and who are already affected by this the most? Where these things intersect is that “we” are being prepared—we in scare quotes, as a “first-world society”—by this rhetoric to dehumanize the people who are being displaced by climate change or by poverty or by violence. And it bears mentioning that this violence, the violence of gangs and the violence of drug cartels and the violence of destabilized governments, is often an outgrowth of our own militarized policies of enforcement in the drug war.


ER: Absolutely.


FC: When our president suggests that all migrants are gang members or when the word “migrant” is uttered and a word like “MS-13” or “rapist” is also uttered—the list kind of goes on and on—we see how migrants are being dehumanized with rhetoric. Think about metaphors that we use when we talk about migration. When we’re talking about migration, we’re talking about floods and invasions and being overwhelmed; we’re talking about a society or a culture being transformed in ways that are unfamiliar and unwelcome. That serves to dehumanize the most vulnerable people.


ER: Right. And right now, we actually need the opposite language, language that humanizes.


FC: Yes.


ER: Language that calls us to attention, that says, you know, the most vulnerable among us are actually the ones who need help. And we’ve somehow made those vulnerabilities possible.


FC: Exactly. There’s an established project to dehumanize people and divert our attention or our outrage about people dying in the desert. There needs to be a counterproject, which I do think is happening. That project is to humanize these people, and to hold accountable those structures and those institutions and those policies and also the individuals who are part of those structures.

Listen, along the border there’s Spanish and there’s English and there are all sorts of different regional dialects, and there are lots of people who are crossing the border for whom Spanish is not their first language. They speak an indigenous language first. And so I wrote small sections of The Line Becomes a River in Spanish, and I didn’t translate that Spanish because I was hoping, in a very small way, to make the reader encounter the border as a place where different cultures meet, the border as a place without one dominant narrative. If the reader speaks Spanish, great, they can understand those untranslated sentences for what they are, and if they don’t speak it, then that’s also great, because they will be slightly uncomfortable or slightly confused, and that’s part of what this place is.

It’s such a small gesture, but it’s my way of asserting the autonomy of this place and the languages that make it what it is, my way of surprising the reader and through that surprise producing an openness, an awareness, of our shared humanity.


This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus. icon

Featured image: Pedestrian fence and Border Patrol truck at US–Mexico border, Sasabe, AZ (2009). Photograph by J. N. Stuart / Flickr