Thank you Francisco Cantú for The Line Becomes A River: Dispatches from the Border. Haunting, heartbreaking, honest. As a social therapist, working with diverse groups of people to create their emotional growth and as an independent political activist working to transform the political landscape from party control to control by the people, I so much appreciate how this book exposed the impact of imposed lines that separate and sometimes destroy us.
As someone who also experiences horrifying vivid dreams, your writing will stay with me forever:
I dream in the night that I am grinding my teeth out, spitting the crumbled pieces into my palms and holding them into my cupped hands, searching for someone to show them to, someone who can see what is happening.”(p. 58)
With The Line Becomes A River, more of us see. Or are trying to see. Perhaps we can collectively see in new ways how to live together without inhumane separation of families and treating people of color worse than disposable trash.
How can we see with new eyes together? In the international therapy and national political work I am involved with, we view playing together as revolutionary, as a way to grow and discover, as a way to stop other-ing and see each other with compassion. I want to let you know about an exciting development on the US-Mexico border that my colleagues are spearheading. A Social Therapy center named after the founder, The Fred Newman Center in Ciudad Juarez, opening June 1, 2019. It is a training space that offers therapy services (individual, family and group), workshops (e.g. improvisation, dance, music) and playful spaces for growth.
I very much look forward to meeting you at our Politics for the People book club.
Jennifer Bullock is the Director of Independent Pennsylvanians and a social therapist in Philadelphia. She serves on Independent Voting’s Eyes on 2020 Cabinet.
In his author’s notes Cantú says, “One of my principal goals in The Line Becomes A River was to create space for readers to inhabit an emergent sense of horror at the suffering that takes place every day at the border…I sought to leave room for readers to construct their own moral interpretation of the events described.”
Cantú succeeds remarkably well. Without rancor or engaging in the rhetoric of blame and condemnation of the other, he presents a loving and very powerful story of the United States-Mexican border. The book is constructed as a piece of tapestry, the various parts woven together into a rich and compelling whole. I found myself reading to savor his words and descriptions of the harsh and beautiful borderland that he inhabits.
He shares his dreams, vivid, and filled with animals, nature, spirits, and even teeth, that give expression to the conflicts he feels in performing his job as a policer of the border. These dreams become more vivid and troubled as he gets to know more intimately the lives of those who he called “lawbreakers, and border crossers” as people, like himself, who are simply seeking a better life for themselves and their families.
I found Cantú attentiveness to language and how it shapes our understandings of border issues to be very compelling. He deconstructs some of the common metaphors used by journalists writing about migrant deaths: Economic ones that characterize migrant deaths as a “cost”, a “calculation” or “gamble” and relate to death as the price paid; Violent metaphors depicting death as the vengeful punishment of an angry desert or a casualty of a war; Dehumanizing ones depicting migrants as animals, throngs to be hunted, and persecuted, prey of smugglers. These are just a few of the metaphors that serve to dehumanize those who cross and are struggling to find a better life. In another section Cantú talks about the language of pain. Pain, he says “has the power to destroy and to produce it’s own reality …this reality is quite often a reality of fear, a reality that makes us crazy, isolated, filled with distrust for our fellow human beings..” These are just a few examples of how our use of language can distances us from the moral injury that is being done to all of us in the Americas as the immigration “crisis” goes on and on.
Among the stories that Cantú beautifully chronicles are the stories of the people who cross. Cantú, a 3rd generation citizen of the United States, speaks fluent Spanish and was brought up in the border culture. After leaving school, he enlisted in the border patrol and spent four years making daily forays into the northern desert apprehending and bringing into the authorities those who attempted, and failed, to complete the crossing. His encounters are personal, histories compelling, and brought me closer to the people we call migrants; undocumented, dislocated people, captives of drug smugglers, or any of the other labels that we use to distance ourselves and that keep us apart.
One of Cantú’s most detailed and moving narratives was of Jose Martinez, an undocumented thirty year resident of a border town on the US side. Jose, who is from Mexico, had married, raised a family of three sons, all US citizens, is a hard and sought after worker, beloved and respected by many. Cantú, having left the border patrol, became involved in Jose’s deportation case when he, Jose, left the country to visit his dying mother in Mexico and was apprehended attempting to cross the border to return to his family. Cantú chronicles the legal battles, the personal struggles and family pain of this immigrant’s efforts to regain a place in our society. Jose, after his fourth illegal crossing, each time unsuccessful, tells Cantú, “I will keep crossing, again and again until I make it, until I am together again with my family.”
It is difficult to grock the immensity of the hardship, the death, the terror and destruction of human life that is taking place in the name of keeping our borders safe. I found Cantú’s eloquent, simple, and at times poetic narrative to be very effective in directing my attention to the living breathing people whose lives are being hurt by the inability of our society to care for the world’s people. I want to thank Politics 4 The People for once again introducing me to this powerful piece of writing.
Cantú later says in his author’s note, “he did not attempt to make sense of the current political moment” …I agree with him, there is no sense to be made and was reminded of this when I read an article in the New York Times today that reported on a story from the border. Teresa Todd is an elected official, government lawyer and single mother who was sent to jail for stopping to aid three young Salvadoran sibling migrants fleeing gang violence in their country. The youngest sibling, a girl, had become sick and the young people were left behind by their travel group, were lost in the northern desert without food or drink. Ms. Todd had passed one of the brothers on the side of the road waving for help, and decided to turn back and brought them into her car. Shortly after that the sheriff’s car and a border patrol car pulled up and Todd was taken into custody and detained in a cell for three hours. In her statement to the press she said, “I can’t leave a kid by the side of the road. I don’t feel that I did any thing wrong. I stopped to help some kids.”
Somewhere in that story I found hope.
Susan Massad is a retired primary care physician educator who is on the faculty of the East Side Institute where she leads workshops/conversations exploring what it means for people to grow and develop in the face of serious illness, aging or memory loss. Susan is a long time independent activist with Independent Voting.