Thursday, November 1, 2018

Review: The line becomes a river: dispatches from the border by Francisco Cantú.

Every now and then one comes across a book that one wants to put into the hands of every politician, every citizen with a hint of influence. “The line becomes a river” by Francisco Cantú  is such a book. 

Well written, thought provoking and heart wrenching, it is the story of the son of a Mexican American mother who becomes a border guard, then an advocate for a paperless Mexican friend.

The author’s mother grew up in the USA and needed half a lifetime to get over feeling ashamed of being Mexican. She was a park ranger near the Mexican border. The border, he writes, is in his blood. 

During his years as a border guard he enjoys the camaraderie with fellow agents and the thrills of an active job in the great outdoors, but is deeply affected by the human tragedies he witnesses. The desert is hell. Migrants who cannot keep up with a group are left behind to die of thirst and exposure. Even if they manage to make it across the border migrants may be held prisoner in drop off houses for ransom by family in the USA. Every hardening of the border tightens the grip of organised crime. Francisco tries to provide small acts of kindness wherever he can. At least he speaks the language and knows the culture. Eventually the stress becomes too much and he quits.

The last part of the book concerns the tragic case of one Mexican family. Diego Martinez has lived in the USA for thirty years, since he was 11 years old. He is an exemplary citizen, member of a church, loving husband and father of three boys ranging from 8 to 15. He quit drinking when his first son was born. He has never been in trouble with the law. His employer says he is the best worker she ever had. At some point he goes to Mexico to be with his dying mother. Returning proves to be a nightmare. He makes it across the border but is caught. In spite of a good lawyer and the passionate pleas of his family, employer, church community and friends his application for leniency is denied and he is deported. At one point the wife receives phone calls asking her for ransom money. She pays up, but there is still no sign of her husband. The blackmail had been a hoax. The story ends with mr. Martinez still in limbo, still in Mexico near the border, still determined to make it home to his family no matter what the cost. 

Shortly before reading this book I had listened to a podcast by Malcolm Gladwell, part of his Revisionist History series. Highly recommended by the way. Gladwell makes the point that migration patterns changed in recent history. Back when crossing the Mexican American border was easier Mexicans, especially young men, would go to El Norte for a few months to work, then go back home. Families mostly stayed in Mexico. Once crossing the border became costly both in terms of money and danger it made more sense to stay put in the USA and to eventually smuggle the family in as well. Present policies mainly benefit organised crime.

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