No Urge to Look Away: Sara Interviews Author Francisco Cantú

In preparation for Francisco Cantú's visit to Brazos Bookstore on February 7, we sat down for an interview about his new book, THE LINE BECOMES A RIVER. Cantú's artful, human look at the border between the US and Mexico comes out next week. We can't wait to share it with everyone! 

Sara: When did you get the sense that this project would become a book? When did you start writing?

Francisco Cantú: I really had no idea that I would write a book like this at all. When I joined the Border Patrol, I’d just graduated from college. I had been studying border issues, and had become obsessed with that topic. I studied in Mexico; took classes; anything I could read about border and immigration, any time I could travel there I would.

I was finishing college with these questions floating around. I’m from Arizona, and I felt like the only way to answer those questions I was left with was to be on the border, in the desert day in and day out. I’m not a law enforcement-type person, but Border Patrol seemed the only way to have that up-close experience with the desert (not on the weekends, not on certain trips).

At the time i was thinking, maybe I’ll do it for four or five years and go on to policy work or law school. I didn’t imagine myself writing a book about it, or join Border Patrol to write a book.

I was always a literary nerd though. I would read anything about the border; I was really into Latin American literature and borderland literature. Writing was always an afterthought. I thought I would be the kind of person to write short stories as a hobby late at night when i came home from work. But when I finally had participated in Border Patrol and left, writing this book was a compulsion.

SB: Compulsion to write the book, then as you describe through the narrative, the compulsion from your constant dreams; that’s a fascinating repetition.

FC: The first sign that the job was taking a toll for me came in the form of those nightmares, of which I tried to describe a few in the book. For years I would just ignore them.

Like in any enforcement or military job, part of the training is designed to normalize these intense traumatic, and often violent, experiences that you’re expected to have. In my waking life, I totally did that. I normalized the things I saw, never thought about it. I think the dreams rose up from that pushing-aside/normalizing not-normal happenings.

When I started to realize that, and the reason I write about them, is that there was a recurring dream I was always having. I was wearing my teeth out, grinding the enamel off my molars. That was the first time my dream world manifested in my waking life. That was the point at which I had to pay more attention to my dreams. They were shaking me.

SB: Something I really enjoyed was your reference to other creative or interdisciplinary thinkers and writers, not just academic/historical. Often those writers were local to Houston (John Pluecker, Cristina Rivera Garza), which I appreciated. What informed the sources you pulled into your book?

FC: I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. I went to a reading by Eduardo Corral. He’s from Casa Grande in Arizona (well, he’s in North Carolina now). He writes a lot about the border. Honestly, right now, I think the most urgent writing that’s coming out about the border is poetry. In my book, I quote from John Pluecker’s translation of Antigona Gonzalez by Sara Uribe.

SB: That was one of my favorite books last year.

FC: That book made such a big impact on me; it really deeply moved me. Poetry has the power to move you in an inexplicable way. It feels less inherently manipulative than narrative.

SB: What other poetry books fall into that category?

FC: Unaccompanied by Javier Zamora; Beast Meridian by Vanessa Angelica Villarreal; The Verging Cities Natalie Scenters-Zapico… I was definitely thinking about Cristina Rivera Garza’s Dolerse. I wish that her book was translated into English –– that’s one of the most important books written about violence, the drug war and Mexican society.

What I was trying to accomplish was to reflect a full vision of all the ways that this violence manifests. For me it was very personal, but then in the later stages, it became about bringing in these other voices and other works, in order to show all the ways the normalization of violence manifests. Not just for me but for societies, nations, and cultures. Obviously I was thinking about that in terms of the border and the people who live in the borderlands, what violence we’re conditioned to accept.

SB: Talking about conditioning, I appreciate the presence of your mom throughout the book; her work as a park ranger along the border while you grew up, her phone calls to you…

FC: Yeah. I’ve been asked about being brought up with this mother who works for the Park Service, etc. Honestly, I hadn’t really thought about it very much, but I honestly think if I hadn’t been brought up with this Park Service mother, I don’t know if I would have joined the Border Patrol. She was in love with the outdoors. I spent my youth in very different natural environments. One of the things that attracted me to the Border Patrol was that they’re the only people who are out in the desert all the time.

I really considered doing seasonal work with the Park Service; there are several parks right on the border. But I didn’t want a seasonal gig. I wanted to be out there ALL the time. I needed to know the full spectrum of this desert.

SB: Your mom really centers the book in that way. In her phone conversations, after your dreams, she seems able to help you frame your experiences.

FC: I talked about those dreams as being a sort of tether, or reminder, to an awareness that was being minimized.

Aside from those dreams, my mom was the only one there holding me accountable and reminding me of all the things I had said, all the reasons I wanted to join. My mom was one of the few forces in my life tethering me before I answered to this experience in which people can really get lost. You put your soul at great risk when you enter into this kind of work. I don’t know where I’d be if it weren’t for my mom tethering me to that part of myself.

SB: In the beginning of the book, you’ve got this quote that really resonated with me: “I might not agree with every aspect of US border policy, but there is power in understanding the realities it created.” Can you talk more about what you meant by this power, and do you see that now?

FC: I think a lot about this still. I haven’t come to any conclusions about it, but I think a lot about idealism, especially now. At the time, when I joined the Border Patrol, I had this naïve, idealistic thought that since I could speak Spanish and lived in Mexico, and since I had this book knowledge from college, I would be able to help people or make their experience less traumatic.

Looking back on it, I rarely ever felt like I was truly helping people. A year or so after I joined the Patrol, I signed up for training to be the EMT: to administer aid, to literally save someone’s life. Even when I was giving someone an IV to aid extreme dehydration, at the end of the day i was still taking them to a cell and back to a place they were risking their life to try to flee. It was hard to feel like I was doing good on the whole.

But I do think there is power in understanding the structures at work, the structures that we slip in and out of. Of course, most people don’t slip in and out of structures as complex and inherently violent as Border Patrol and law enforcement, but we still lend different parts of ourselves to violent structures all the time.

Obviously not everyone has to join the Border Patrol to come to terms with the violence we’re perpetuating, but can recognize the things we move through and accept, and how to move forward in creating a world that rejects that violence.

A lot of that work is to be done on a community level: finding and connecting with people in your community, Building communities that are safe and nurturing, and that exist outside of these different structures.

SB: What’s next for you? Was this book a singular compulsion? What will you continue writing?

FC: Compulsion was the right word. This book was its own thing. I worked on it for five years. But I definitely see myself now as a writer, and as an artist; to me that has become the only, and most honest, way of grappling with these issues.

I don’t really know what my next project will be. I’m going to take some time to work on some translations… to deal with someone else’s voice and words for a while.

One thing a lot of people ask me is “now that you’ve written this book, are you going to move on from the border?” I feel no urge to look away from the border. There’s so much here. I see the border as a microcosm for so many struggles and conflicts: environmental, social justice, in terms of humanity. There’s still so much that draws me here; I have no intention to look away.


The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border Cover Image
ISBN: 9780735217713
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Riverhead Books - February 6th, 2018

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