Border Patrol Memoir Ignites Dispute: Whose Voices Should Be Heard From the Frontier?


Francisco Cantú published a memoir about his time as a border agent, igniting a debate over who gets rewarded for telling stories of life along the border. Credit Conor E. Ralph for The New York Times

By Simon Romero

May 19, 2018

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TUCSON, Ariz. — The writer Francisco Cantú, who spent years as a Border Patrol agent, braced for the fury of anti-immigration figures and his former colleagues when he published a haunting memoir this year delving into the authorities’ frequent abuse of immigrants in the Southwest borderlands.

But when such reactions were muted, Mr. Cantú wasn’t prepared for the onslaught of criticism he received from the other end of the political spectrum, including undocumented writers and artists around the United States who view the Border Patrol as a paramilitary force inciting fear and destroying families.

Some called Mr. Cantu, 32, a third-generation Mexican-American, a “Nazi” and “traitor” for joining the Border Patrol in the first place. Others appeared at readings of his book in California and Texas, drowning out the events by screaming “vendido” — sellout — in his direction. Critics suggested boycotting Mr. Cantú’s book, “The Line Becomes a River,” branding him a quisling who profits in others’ blood.

“I don’t see why Cantú gets to be absolved and celebrated by saying he paid witness to the tragedy he was complicit in upholding,” said Jesús Valles, 31, a playwright and public high school teacher in Austin, Tex., who was among those protesting when Mr. Cantú recently traveled to Texas for book signings.

“It’s hard to even explain the fear that the Border Patrol instills in people like me,” added Mr. Valles, who was smuggled into Texas as a child before obtaining, years later, legal authorization to remain in the country. “It’s a dread of being hunted down like an animal, of seeing your siblings deported. And Cantú gets a fancy book deal after being one of the guys holding the guns.”

The simmering tension around Mr. Cantú and his book is igniting an energetic debate over who gets rewarded for telling stories of life along the border, highlighting quarrels between Latinos born in the United States and those who were brought illegally to the country as children as President Trump’s polarizing border wall starts to take shape in the Chihuahuan Desert.

In a twist to the wrangling over his book, Mr. Cantú has caught some of his most strident critics off guard by thanking them and siding with them. In public appearances, he has asked that protesters be allowed to speak derisively of him and his book. And in an interview here in Tucson, where he lives, Mr. Cantú said he agreed with some of the charges leveled against him.

“My aim was to describe the Border Patrol from within, not justify it somehow,” Mr. Cantú said over a meal at El Chivo de Oro, a food truck specializing in dishes like $1 tacos de cabeza, made from the roasted head of a cow, and birria (goat stew).

His book recounts incidents of Border Patrol agents — with Mr. Cantú among them, though usually, he said, only watching — slashing the water bottles migrants rely upon to survive, decorating cactuses with women’s underwear and setting chain-fruit cholla ablaze under the night sky.

“You’re encountering people who are completely terrified of you as law enforcement,” he said, reflecting on the experiences of finding lost, dehydrated men and women staggering through vast mesquite thickets.

Mr. Cantú transitioned from patrolling in the field to intelligence gathering, agonizing over what it meant to be good at such work. He describes in the book the dehumanizing language colleagues used to describe immigrants, as when a superior divided border crossers into “scumbags” and “P.O.W.s” — plain old wets.

Reflecting on his exposure to the culture of the Border Patrol, Mr. Cantú emphasized that destroying water supplies was never something he did himself. He said he had felt that there was no way to effectively speak out against the racist language that remains pervasive in the institution, though he did so in more intimate conversations he had with agents with whom he was close, or who were junior to him.

“I felt that my individual actions were eclipsed by the grinding machinery of the system and culture of which I was part,” he said.

A Border Patrol agent apprehending a man in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. Credit Loren Elliott/Reuters

Mr. Cantú was far from alone in grappling with such dilemmas in the Border Patrol: More than half of its agents now are Latinos, as the agency has emerged as a source of economic opportunity in impoverished stretches of the Southwest.

Some agents grew up on both sides of the frontier, or still have family in Mexico, or have romantic relationships that somehow disregard the hazy line drawn along the Rio Grande. Many of Mr. Cantú’s fellow recruits were veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a reflection of the increasing militarization of the borderlands.

Mr. Cantú said in the meandering interview that writing an account of a Latino who hunted down other Latinos for a living wasn’t what he had in mind when he joined the Border Patrol at age 23 as a graduate of American University. He said he had expected to do the job for a few years to gain on-the-ground experience before going into diplomacy or law school, hoping to specialize in immigration issues.

Javier Zamora, 28, a poet who emigrated without authorization from El Salvador to the United States at the age of 9, said he understood where some of the critics of Mr. Cantú were coming from, especially those who point out that the perspective of Mr. Cantú, a United States citizen, stands in contrast to those of millions of Latinos at risk of deportation in the country.

“The book resembles veteran writing and the dilemma that poses: Would you rather read a book by an Iraqi or something by an Iraq war veteran?” asked Mr. Zamora, author of the acclaimed 2017 poetry collection “Unaccompanied.” “I go for the Iraqi writer.”

Still, Mr. Zamora, who now lives in California and is at risk of being forced to leave the United States after the Trump administration reversed policies that had allowed nearly 200,000 Salvadorans to live in the country, said he appreciated much of Mr. Cantú’s book, especially passages where he writes about the mental toll of his work, describing nightmares and grinding his teeth at night.

“It’s that internal space of the mind that he describes that I think is valuable,” said Mr. Zamora. “I find it hard to read nonfiction about the border because of the trauma it brings back, but this book isn’t quite like that. It shows how the border is anything but black and white, but just very, very gray.”

Still, other writers, including some who spent much of their lives in fear of immigration agents, are less charitable in their assessments of Mr. Cantú and his book.

“Cantú is a white-passing man who has never been undocumented,” said Sonia Guiñansaca, 29, a poet brought to New York at age 5 from Ecuador to join her parents. She spent more than two decades living illegally in the United States before obtaining documents allowing her to remain in the country.

“It saddens me that he’s benefiting from our stories when I have a phone book full of phenomenal migrant writers and artists who never get the same chance,” said Ms. Guiñansaca, who nevertheless added that excerpts from the book she had read were “beautifully written for what it was.”

Mr. Cantú, who is of mixed Hispanic and Anglo ancestry, said he was grateful for such criticism. He said that some of the most compelling writing about the border was being done by poets, citing Vanessa Angélica Villareal, from the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, and Sara Uribe, who lives in northern Mexico.

Still, an overriding influence for Mr. Cantú was his own mother, a former park ranger in the Guadalupe Mountains near El Paso. She tried to dissuade him from joining the Border Patrol, and when that didn’t work, she questioned her son about the cruelty of agents who allow migrants to die in the desert.

“She was concerned for the health of my soul,” Mr. Cantú said.

Mr. Valles, the playwright in Texas who protested against Mr. Cantú, said it would be too easy to let the writer off the hook for youthful naïveté or not listening to his mother.

“People are going to read his book; maybe they’re going to cry in the process,” Mr. Valles continued. “And by reading it, they’ll feel like they’ve helped someone, but they get to close the book and move on. We can’t close the book on the nightmare that the border has become. We can’t close the book on our lives.”

With that point, Mr. Cantú would not disagree.

He concluded, he said, by realizing that his belief that he could be a force for good within the agency was naïve, overwhelmed as they all were by the complexity of immigration polices along the border. Writing, he decided, allowed him to convey “the simultaneous beauty and joy and horror of living here and loving this place.”

A version of this article appears in print on May 20, 2018, on Page A14 of the New York edition with the headline: The Latino Who Hunted Latinos.

Francisco Cantu
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Founder of the Politics for the People free educational series and book club for independent voters. Chair of the New York County Independence Party.

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