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.
A version of this article has been printed in a handful of Texas newspapers on their Op-Ed pages, notably the Austin American-Statesman on December 11, 2018, and the Houston Chronicle on December 24. Special thanks to ministry colleague Jim Harrington, former Director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, for collaboration on this article.
The story of a pregnant woman, on the road and needing shelter, is retold and reenacted throughout the Americas every December. Raised in a family of European descent, I heard the story in detail each winter of my Midwestern childhood. It wasn’t until adulthood in Texas, however, interacting with Latino communities, that I delved deeper into the story’s themes of exclusion, welcome, and sanctuary.
Originating in Mexico more than 400 years ago, “Las Posadas” (“The Inns”) is the Latin American reenactment of Mary and Joseph seeking shelter. US citizens—many familiar with the biblical story—are faced with a reexamination of societal values, because of heightened political polarization which threatens our ability to deal with societal problems. Whether or not you are a religious adherent, I advocate digging deeper into this story as a way forward.
Demonization of the other is currently accepted behavior in our society—whether seeing a caravan of migrants as a hostile force; nonchalantly accepting as normal our entrenched inequality, including the callous assumption that anyone who is poor is lazy; or, dismissing our unconscionably high rate of gun killings (massacres and suicides) by calling the majority of actors “mentally unstable.” We know from recent history—from Germany in the 1930s to Rwanda in the 1990s—that demonization of the other is a deadly ideology. The majority of problems that our society suffers from does not originate outside our borders but from within them, creations of our own decisions and values (or lack thereof). “We, the people” means that we are responsible for dealing with our problems in a proactive and cooperative way. Demonization of the other is a convenient cop-out which allows us to point fingers at others outside our borders and, within them, at each other. Rather than solve problems, it exacerbates them by the misallocation of political energy and societal resources.
Religious leaders (including those of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian communities, and those of other faith traditions) have the responsibility to lift up their voices, as did the prophets who came before. In America, it’s not the purpose of religion to support the state, but to keep it honest and to call our leaders to accountability when they deviate from the commonly-held values of our faith traditions.
Rabbi Josh Whinston of Ann Arbor, Michigan, helped organize a prayer protest outside the prison-like Tornillo, Texas tent camp where our government detains hundreds of unaccompanied minor children. In similar courageous fashion, Brownsville Catholic Bishop Daniel Flores denied access to surveyors tasked with border wall construction on his church’s property in Hidalgo County. For this leader, construction on church property would severely restrict his church’s mission to serve all its neighbors.
The best of our traditions mandate that we live together by just laws that establish subsequent order. Religious teachings help infuse our social contract with compassion: feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, demand equal treatment for all, welcome the migrant, and enter into purposeful dialogue with those whom we disagree. The only question about these practices is how we do them, not whether we do them.
After the birth of Mary’s baby in humble circumstances, the story continues with the family having to flee for their lives because of the murderous intent of a ruling tyrant named Herod. The refugees cross a border to find shelter and hospitality—again.
On January 6—Epiphany—many Texans of Mexican heritage will gather around a King’s cake, called “Rosca de Reyes,” in search of an embedded miniature plastic infant boy, representing the baby Jesus, hidden in the cake. The knife that cuts the cake represents Herod and his murderous plan. The gathered ones, however, will do their best to protect the innocent child from tyranny and death.
We don’t make America great by demonizing other people, but by welcoming and befriending vulnerable persons—that’s the message and challenge of this popular Christmas story.
Thanks to the Austin American-Statesman for running a condensed version of this blog post in the Saturday, April 1 edition. No foolin’ . . .
Some of you know that I’m working on a new writing project, and no longer serving as a full-time parish pastor. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have opportunity to preach on Sundays – I was honored to preach recently at Palm Valley Lutheran in Round Rock, Texas. Solo es que prediqué en Español. I preached in Spanish for the congregation’s Hispanic Ministry effort. Thanks to colleague pastor Joaquín Figueroa for the invitation. Most of the gathered faithful were immigrants, born outside of the United States. They reminded me about elánimo (explained below) – part of the immigrant spirit, a principal foundation of this society.
I used Isaiah 58:1-9 for my message. This post-exilic text – leaders returning to a destroyed Jerusalem to reconstruct the city and its temple around 500 B.C.E. – entreats people to remember that the best religious practice balances worship piety and social concerns. Plain and simple: gathering for worship to sing, pray, and uplift Scripture goes hand-in-hand with the good acts of feeding the hungry, welcoming refugees, and practicing justice in the market place.
On the surface, our current societal context in the United States is much different from Israel’s in the 5th century before Christ. The Israelites lacked material resources as they returned to their homeland with hopes and dreams. Here in the United States, material resources abound for many to pursue their hopes and dreams. What the two disparate contexts have in common is anxiety – personal and societal. Israel was anxious about the momentous task of rebuilding their city while having to protect themselves. In the United States, we have levels of personal and societal anxiety that are off the charts.
And what do individuals and societies do when they experience high levels of anxiety? They turn inward. Adopting survival-mode is a logical response – and some will argue, a biological one – to anxiety. It’s natural to turn inward and to close ranks; individuals put me first, and societies adopt us and them language and put tribe, ethnic group, or nation first.
Be careful, however. Turning inward is a legitimate response for emergency situations; as a long-term strategy, however, turning inward doesn’t make for a better me, you, us, or nation. This was the prophet’s message from two and a half millennia past. Reaching out to the hungry, welcoming the stranger, and treating others fairly in the market place were vital components to the right practice of religion. They still are.
After the worship service, we gathered for Estudio Bíblico – Bible study. Pastor Figueroa invited me to present a few themes from my work on faith and inequality from my book Just a Little Bit More, now available in summary form in Spanish as Solo un Poco Más. We had a lively discussion, using Ecclesiastes 5:10 as a guide. We talked about work, money, faith, responsibility, and elánimo – best translated in English as drive, enthusiasm, effort. The stories shared spoke of sacrifice, perseverance, and dogged hope – and good ol’ hard work. All of the men who were present work in construction; the women work as house and office cleaners, and in healthcare. Almost all send money to relatives in their native countries. These are great American traits and practices – busting one’s tail for extended family, paying taxes, teaching children the value of hard work, and uplifting common good by attitude and lifestyle. This is the immigrant spirit that so many have brought to these shore through the generations and still today. This is the positive spirit of just a little bit more.
The negative spirit of just a little bit more has shaped American society as well. Slavery and the near-extermination of indigenous inhabitants were carried out, whether the perpetrators knew it or not, in the spirit of social Darwinist conquest. In that day for many, the end result justified the means used. Today, greedy Wall Street firms and pharmaceutical companies blatantly ripping off customers are only two examples of the pervasive negative spirit of getting what’s mine at the expense of someone else. Today we know that neither the means nor the ends are justified when someone takes advantage of another socially or economically.
Drive, enthusiasm, and effort – el ánimo – are great traits when used for the betterment of family, community, and society. Life is complicated; efforts at betterment, small or large, must be examined continually to make sure that others are not taken advantage of in the process.
High levels of personal and societal anxiety explain why a lot of Americans voted for nominee Trump. His promise “to put America first” struck a chord. What “America first” means precisely and whether he can carry it out in the globalized twenty-first century remains to be seen. While he doesn’t disdain immigrants or migration generally – First Lady Melania is an immigrant – his specific disdain of people of Mexican heritage, Mexican migrants (whether legal or undocumented), and his attempted ban of Syrian immigration sends a clear message: some immigrants are not to be trusted. No one has or ever will accuse the president of being a historian; his strategy of turning inward goes against the best moments of our history and joins some of the worst (the Trail of Tears in the 1830s; FDR interning Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor; the flourishing of the Klan in the 1950s; and, the era of McCarthyism).
When the president models reactionary behavior concerning immigration, it follows that some ugly bits of our history will be repeated. Take a stand – either from religious conviction or human solidarity – and welcome the stranger in your midst. We have more in common than that which differentiates us. The following story exemplifies the best of the immigrant spirit.
I travelled to Detroit with eight of my high school youth two summers ago for a five-day national youth gathering – 30,000 Lutherans descended upon the Motor City. The Detroit Chamber of Commerce slipped up a bit; apparently word didn’t get around that the Lutherans – 30,000 hungry people with money to spend – would be arriving mid-week. Late that Wednesday afternoon of our arrival we walked downtown Detroit with the goals of taking in a few sights and getting some eats. I had checked the Web previously and picked out a place called Gateway Deli (I’m a big sandwich guy, and my youth gave me first dibs on choosing a place to eat). We found the place – 333 W. Fort Street – but it was closed!! The restaurant’s hours were 7am – 4pm. We were so disappointed – and hungry. I looked inside past the “CLOSED” sign to see if someone was inside. A guy came to the door and opened up. He said, sorry, we’re closed. He had an eastern European accent. I explained our dilemma. He said that he heard a big group was coming this weekend, but he had no idea people were arriving today. He said he’d been there that morning since 4:30am. I said your menu looks great – I had perused it online. Then he said the magic words: “Come on in. I’ll take care of you.” He had already put in twelve hours that day.
And he did take care of us. One of his wait staff was still there. Between the two of them they served us – a group of ten – with smiles, hospitality, and great food. And, yes, we gave our server, a middle-aged white woman who had to moved to Detroit from Arkansas, a hefty tip. As the youth finished their meals, I went over and talked to the kind man who let us in after they had closed. He said call him “Q.” He was the proprietor. Yes, he was an immigrant from eastern Europe; I didn’t ask which country. He had previously lived and worked in New York City, and then moved to Detroit in 2013. He heard that rents were cheaper in Detroit, and that the city was making a comeback from the turmoil of the 2008-09 economic crash. And he was right – Detroit is coming back, thanks to immigrants like Q and other hard-working Detroiters. Three days later we came back and had a great breakfast. That weekend he stayed open later for dinner and had staff to cover. Our second meal at Gateway Deli was just as good as our first, and all of our youth got a kick out of thanking our new immigrant friend who went by the cool name of Q.
The immigrant spirit. There’s no America without it. The immigrant spirit reminds us where we’ve come from; it reminds us that this land originally did not belong to us; it helps keep us honest and focused. Spend some time and talk to the next person you encounter who speaks English with an accent. Listen to their story. Their immigrant story just might surprise you – for the better.
If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.
Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.
The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide is now available. ¡Que bueno!
¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más –está disponible en Amazon y el sitio web www.blueocotillo.com!