Francisco Cantú was a US Border Patrol agent from 2008 to 2012. He worked the desert along the Mexican border, at the remote crossroads of drug routes and smuggling corridors, tracking humans through blistering days and frigid nights across a vast terrain.
In his debut memoir, The Line Becomes A River, Cantú writes in spellbinding prose of the landscape of the border, of the trials of its citizens and the horror of its enforcement. Haunted by nightmares, he abandons the Patrol for civilian life. But when an immigrant friend is caught on the wrong side of the border, Cantú faces a final confrontation with a world he believed he had escaped.
MY MOTHER flew in from Arizona to see me for Christmas. She picked me up from the academy on Christmas Eve and we drove through the straw-colored hills, leaving behind the trembling Chihuahuan grasslands as we climbed into evergreen mountains. We stayed the night in a two-room cabin, warm and bright with pinewood. We sat in chairs around the living room table, decorating a miniature tree with tiny glass bulbs. Then, wrapped in blankets, we laughed and drank eggnog with brandy until the conversation finally descended into a discussion of my impending work.
Listen, my mother said, I spent most of my career as a park ranger, so I’ve got nothing against you working for the government. But don’t you think it’s sort of below you, earning a degree just to become a border cop? When people ask about you back home and I tell them you’re in law enforcement, they give me the strangest looks. I realize I don’t know what more to tell them, I don’t really understand what you want from this work.
I took a deep breath. Look, I told her, I spent four years in college studying international relations and learning about the border through policy and history. You can tell whoever asks that I’m tired of studying, I’m tired of reading about the border in books. I want to be on the ground, out in the field, I want to see the realities of the border day in and day out. I know it might be ugly, I know it might be dangerous, but I don’t see any better way to truly understand the place.
My mother stared at me, blinking rapidly. Are you crazy? she asked. There are a hundred other ways of knowing a place. You grew up near the border, living with me in deserts and national parks. The border is in our blood, for Christ’s sake—our great-grandparents brought my father across from Mexico when he was just a little boy. When I married, I insisted on keeping my maiden name so that you’d always carry something from your grandfather’s family, so you’d never forget your heritage. How’s that for knowing the border?
I lowered my voice. I’m grateful for those things, I told her, but having a name isn’t the same as understanding a place. I gestured toward the window. I want to be outside. Not in a classroom, not in an office, not sitting at a computer, not staring at papers. Do you remember, I asked my mother, how you joined the Park Service because you wanted to be outdoors, because you felt you could understand yourself in wild places? My mother narrowed her eyes at me as if I had suddenly changed the subject. It’s not that different, I said. I don’t know if the border is a place for me to understand myself, but I know there’s something here I can’t look away from. Maybe it’s the desert, maybe it’s the closeness of life and death, maybe it’s the tension between the two cultures we carry inside us. Whatever it is, I’ll never understand it unless I’m close to it.
My mother shook her head. You make it sound like you’ll be communing with nature and having heartfelt conversations all day. The Border Patrol isn’t the Park Service. It’s a paramilitary police force. I glared at her. You don’t have to tell me that, I said—I’m the one getting my ass kicked at the academy.
Listen, I know you don’t want your only son turning into a heartless cop. I know you’re afraid the job will turn me into someone brutal and callous. Those people who look at you funny when you tell them I’m in the Border Patrol probably imagine an agency full of white racists out to kill and deport Mexicans. But that’s not me, and those aren’t the kind of people I see at the academy. Nearly half my classmates are Hispanic—some of them grew up speaking Spanish, some grew up right on the border. Some went to college, like me. Some went to war, some owned businesses, some worked dead-end jobs, some are fresh out of high school. Some are fathers and mothers with their own children. These people aren’t joining the Border Patrol to oppress others. They’re joining because it represents an opportunity for service, stability, financial security—
My mother interrupted me. But you could work anywhere you want, she said, you graduated with honors.
So what? I asked. This isn’t necessarily a lifelong career choice. Think of it as another part of my education. Imagine what I’ll learn—imagine the perspective I’ll gain. Look, I know you’re not an enforcement-minded person, but the 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, imagine how much better I’ll be at the job because of my time in the Border Patrol.
My mother sighed and looked up at the ceiling. There are ways to learn these things that don’t put you at risk, she said, ways that let you help people instead of pitting you against them. But that’s just it, I offered—I can still help people. I speak both languages, I know both cultures. I’ve lived in Mexico and traveled all across the country. I’ve seen towns and villages that were emptied out by people going north for work. Good people will always be crossing the border, and whether I’m in the Border Patrol or not, agents will be out there arresting them. At least if I’m the one apprehending them, I can offer them some small comfort by speaking with them in their own language, by talking to them with knowledge of their home.
Fine, my mother said, fine. But you must understand you are stepping into a system, an institution with little regard for people.
I looked away from her and a silence hung between us. I glanced down at my hands and weighed my mother’s words. Maybe you’re right, I replied, but stepping into a system doesn’t mean that the system becomes you. As I spoke, doubts flickered through my mind. I smiled at my mother. The first job I ever had was bussing dishes with migrants from Guanajuato, I reminded her. I’m not going to lose sight of that. I’m not going to become someone else.
Good, my mother said. I hope you’re right.
We hugged, and my mother told me she loved me, that she was happy I’d soon be working back in Arizona, closer to her. Before bed, we each opened a single present, as we had done every Christmas Eve since I could remember.
In the morning we ate brunch at the town’s historic hotel, feasting on pot roast by a crackling fire. Afterward we climbed the stairs to a narrow lookout tower where people huddled together in jackets, walking in slow circles to take in the view. Below us, a sunlit basin stretched westward from the base of the mountains. I watched as the landscape shifted under the winter light. Behind me, my mother placed her hand on my shoulder and pointed to a cloud of gypsum sand in the distance, impossibly small, swirling across the desert below.
Francisco Cantú served as 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 and a 2017 Whiting Award. His writing and translations have been featured in The Best American Essays, Harper’s, n+1, Orion, and Guernica, as well as on This American Life. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. The Line Becomes A River is his first book.