Francisco Cantú and “Seeing the Thing That Crushes”
I’ll eat grass. I’ll eat bushes. I’ll eat cactus. I’ll drink filthy cattle water. I’ll drink nothing at all, I’ll run and hide from la migra (immigration). I’ll pay the mafias whatever I have to. They can take my money, they can rob my family, they can lock me away, but I’ll keep coming back. I will keep crossing, again and again, until I make it, until I am together again with my family.
No, no me quedo aqui. (No, I’m not staying here.)
Voy a seguir intentanto pasar. (I will continue trying to pass.)”(p. 242)
A man named José is speaking—actually he’s writing—in a passage that comes at the end of Francisco Cantú’s evocative The Line Becomes A River: Dispatches from the Border. José, Francisco’s friend, is struggling to return to the States after leaving the country to be with his dying mother in Mexico.
Francisco tries his best to help José return. Francisco feels anguish.
He has been deported,” [Francisco tells his own mother.] “I fear for him. I fear for his family. All these years (studying about the border, serving as a border agent, living at the border), it’s like I’ve been circling beneath a giant, my gaze fixed upon its foot resting at the ground. But now it’s like I’m starting to crane my head upward, like I’m finally seeing the thing that crushes.”(p. 222)
But getting to the point of reading those words is anything but a linear journey. A metaphysical expression throughout, Cantú shows you “The Border” through multiple framings—personal experience, journalistic interpretations, academic takes, dream sequences—that are interwoven with conversations with his mother, colleagues, friends, authorities, and many of those who struggle with ‘border circumstances.’
Cantú shifts his lens back and forth, sometimes abruptly, often with unpredictable twists and shifts. His roles change, too, from student to border agent, back to student again, to a citizen living at the border.
No persuasive piece of writing is this—like so many public issues-related books are. Cantú doesn’t take a position, lead you by the hand, hammering home his point of view. You, the reader, are left to sense-make.
Of course, you’ll come into this book with your point of view about the border. At issue is where you’ll stand at book’s end. If Cantú succeeds, then you won’t stand in the same spot. The Line has transformative potential.
“I never thought about it that way” is the highest form of praise I can give an author, and Cantú succeeded in doing that for me—just not at the start. I have a penchant for underlining and adding notes in the margin of a hard copy text. But I highlighted/wrote very little in the first half of the book. I was getting to know Francisco.
The last half of the book was quite different, decorated (as it came to be) with yellow highlights and handwritten scribblings. There was the description of Jane Zavisca’s work on metaphors (p. 109), Sergio Gonzalez Rodriguez’s The Femicide Machine (p. 135), and Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands (p. 144). I learned about research on the ‘warrior gene’ (p. 144ff) and David Wood’s work on ‘moral injury’ (p. 150ff). I resonated with Cantú’s portrayal of how his mother (through a man she knew) described what it was like for generation after generation of Mexicans to become acculturated Americans (pp. 192ff).
The most significant influence came from reading what I believe to be the book’s intellectual center of gravity—Carl Jung’s theorizing and writing (pp. 163ff). “The government and its structures,” Cantú quotes Jung, has “no intention of promoting mutual understanding and the relationship of individuals to individuals; it strives, rather, for atomization, for the psychic isolation of the individual.” (p. 163)
We build walls, interpersonally and literally. The alternative, Jung proposes, is to “discern wholeness in seemingly irreconcilable opposites.” (p. 164)
Ah! Those words unlocked a vault. In the book, Cantú shares his dreams, again and again. “Dreams are the guiding words of the soul,” Jung wrote, expressions of (and note these words) “repressed preoccupations of the unconscious mind.” (p. 164)
I had never laid eyes on a group of people so diminished,” [Cantú writes about a post-border patrol experience.] “I had apprehended and processed countless men and women for deportation, many of whom I sent without thinking to pass through this very room—but there was (now) something dreadfully altered in their presence…. …Some final essence of the spirit had been stamped out or lost in the slow crush of confinement.”(p. 182)
Cantú saw what he had seen many times before, but this time through fresh eyes—the truly lived experience revealed.
The more certain we are that anything is this or that, the more likely we are to see it partially or, worse yet, get it wrong. We need to circle it from different vantage points, using multiple frames of reference, before there’s much value (and hope) in where we settle.
That’s what Cantú taught me in The Line.
After having read this book, my challenge is figuring out how to better connect that approach with the political (politicized and hard-headed) act of policy-making—not just regarding “The Border,” but about any public issue—local and beyond.
Put another way, how might I (and we) “finally see the thing that crushes” before it crushes us?
Frank A. Fear is professor emeritus, Michigan State University, where he served as a faculty member for thirty years and worked in various administrative positions for nearly twenty years. Frank also writes about issues that intersect sport and society.
I loved The Line Becomes A River, both for it’s vivid story-telling and literary qualities, and for the clear picture it paints of the human crisis along Mexico’s border with the United States.
Francisco Cantú has a great sense of place and material conditions, and for significant details, which makes his writing vivid, immediate, and personal. Here’s one example:
The sun had already begun to set as I left the body, and it cast a warm light on the storm clouds gathering in the south. As I drove toward the storm, the desert and the sky above it grew dark with the setting of the sun and the coming rain. When the first drops hit my windshield I could hear the dispatch operator radio to Hart, who had stayed behind with the body, that the tribal police didn’t have any officers available and that he’d have to wait with the dead man a while longer.”
He writes with a sensuous feeling for history, as he describes the process by which the border was laid down. (“The line becomes a river” where the Rio Grande flows past El Paso, on its way to the Gulf.)
I also loved the way he renders some lines of dialogue as they were spoken, in colloquial Spanish. I couldn’t always translate them, but they made me feel included and intimate with the story Cantú tells. His terse, minimalist style is heightened by not using quotation marks around dialogue. It feels very organic, and it reminds you of Hemingway – the feeling comes as much from his restraint in telling the story as in what he actually says:
Oh, the woman replied, we’ll send someone right away. I hung up the phone and stood alone in the darkness of my living room, hunched next to a window, peering through the blinds at an empty street.”
I thought about Cantú’s book when I read the front-page story in the the New York Times a few weeks ago on Cinco de Mayo: “Either They Kill Us or We Kill Them.” It’s an account of the gang warfare in the small town San Pedro Sula in Honduras, on the other side of Mexico, not far from the border. Honduras is the original “banana republic” – a contemptuous racist epithet coined in 1901 to describe Honduras, Guatemala, and other Central American countries laboring, through no fault of their own, under the economic and political domination of the United Fruit Company and other U.S. corporations. Today, Honduras is a failed state.
A “failed state” is variously described as a country in which there is endemic political corruption at all levels of government, and/or one in which the political and economic systems have become so weak that the official government is no longer in control). But for us – independent activists, the first-responders to the crisis in U.S. democracy – a failed state is perhaps best understood as the end-stage in a long history of political corruption and social decay, in which the great majority of people have been disempowered, and lost all the tools for the democratic control of their government, and whose government does not represent them and cannot protect them, having been overwhelmed and infiltrated by warlords, criminals, and sociopaths.
An earlier – and decisive – stage of this political disempowerment and economic decay was well documented more than 40 years ago by the book Global Reach: The Power of the Multinational Corporations (published in 1976 and serialized in The New Yorker). This important book described how special interests, based in the U.S. and Western Europe had, for decades, systematically developed institutional and legal arrangements to drain wealth from South and Central America. (You can get a used copy from Amazon for $1.99.)
Although Mexico has suffered less from this systematic underdevelopment by foreign powers and is more wealthy than Honduras, it shows a similar pattern – progressively increasing infiltration of the government, the police, and the military by the drug cartels. The mass disappearance of 43 student-teachers in Iguala in 2014 and, 5 years later, the failure of the Mexican government to prosecute anyone for these mass murders, has “highlighted the level of collusion with organized crime had reached with local governments and police agencies.”
The United States is not a failed state – yet. Although the prolonged tyranny of the two-party monopoly has done serious damage to the United States economically, socially, culturally, and morally, we still have tools to challenge this monopoly – to fight back. Part of dealing effectively and humanely with the crisis on the Mexican border – our interface with the failing and failed states of Mexico and South and Central America – is saving our own democracy.
If we fail at this, in another generation I think the United States may look a lot like Mexico – or even more chaotic, corrupt, lawless, and violent, and even more polarized between an oligarchy of the obscenely rich and the vast majority of the poor and powerless.
As Jackie Salit, President of Independent Voting, said in her recent national conference call:
We, of the independent political movement, are not “fine-tuning” democracy, or tinkering around the edges: We are addressing the fundamental question of who this country belongs to.”
Lou Hinman lives in New York City and is an activist with IndependentVoting.org and a member of Independent Voting’s Welcome Committee.