Francisco Cantú’s The Line Becomes a River (Riverhead Books, 2018) took me on a journey to specific locales I’ve never been to. Even so, for me, they were familiar places. Working as a bilingual pastor for the past thirty years in Latin America and Texas, I’ve crossed many borders in the Americas – South, Central, and North – and have worked in close proximity with many who have done the same.
Border crossing, as Cantú discloses, encompasses much more than physical dimensions, but spiritual ones as well.
Cantú was raised in SW Arizona by his Mexican-American mom, a national park ranger. After graduating from college, he returned to the Sonoran desert. He signed up to be a border patrol cop, against his mother’s wishes. The next four years, he worked the border area that Northern Mexico shares with Arizona and New Mexico – where the border consists of mostly straight lines – and with Texas – where the border flows as a river.
The book, a huge seller and winner of the 2018 Los Angeles Times Book Prize, has created significant controversy on both sides of the political spectrum. On the far left, migrant rights’ activists have disrupted Cantú’s book signings and others, like his own mother, find police and military vocations objectionable. On the far right, those who have a penchant to refer to migrants as “illegals” have flooded book review sites with 1-star ratings for Cantú’s work. Predictably, many of these “reviewers” admit to not even having read the book as they slavishly follow through with their self-imposed ideological sense of duty.
I read all of the book’s 250 pages, and I’m thankful I did.
The Line Becomes a River is an excellent memoir-of-sorts and a stark depiction of US-Mexican border reality. It’s honest, unflinching, descriptive, raw in spots, and honest again. As evidenced by upset reactionaries on either side of the political spectrum, this book can be difficult to digest emotionally.
But isn’t this one of the main reasons we why read – to be exposed to another’s reality? Too bad that Cantú’s hard-won reality doesn’t fit with his upset reviewers preconceived notions of “the way things should be.” It’s a complex world. Cantú exposes a part of the world that many – most especially a current president – don’t understand. As we read, we enter into a profound conversation with this author on the highly significant topic of immigration.
Author Francisco Cantú – raised in this borderland, the blood of ancestors from both sides of the border coursing through his veins – makes the conversation intimate and personal in Part 3 of the book. He befriends a Mexican who has lived and worked in the US more than twenty years. This Mexican national, the married father of two adolescents, lacks legal status. His story is typical, unique, and ultimately heartbreaking. The line that becomes a river – the border – bisects his family, and Cantú details its cutting effect. “[T]he desert has been weaponized against migrants, and lays bare the fact that the hundreds who die there every year are losing their lives by design.”
Cantú’s writing throughout embraces paradox – the ability to entertain two seemingly contradictory thoughts at once. He knows that the United States’ immigration policy – or lack thereof as concerns many workers without legal status – is a joke. This books serves to expose, in its own way, a society that has an addiction to cheap labor – 400 years strong – and won’t admit to it.
Those who critique Cantú for not including more immigrant voices in his book don’t persuade me. Other books such as Enrique’s Journey and The Distance Between Us are but a few of many good examples that include these important voices that add to the conversation. But Cantú’s voice – again, like a bridge that connects two sides – is unique and necessary.
Our society today could be renamed “The Binary States of America,” the place where twenty-five years of increasing hyper-partisanship has hollowed out the middle. Ya basta – as Cantú would write – enough already. It’s time to purposely rebuild the center. By its accurate depiction of two sides of the immigration dilemma, The Line Becomes a River places itself squarely in the middle of this necessary work of reconstruction.
Tim/T. Carlos Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of fourteen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin. I’m also the author of There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, April 2019).
Check out my new author website: http://www.tcarlosanderson.com.