The Border as a ‘Weaponized’ Landscape

Border Patrol agent turned- author Francisco Cantú examines his experiences in new book.

| Spring 2018

  • Author Francisco Cantú.
    Photo by High Country News

The tacos dorados, Francisco Cantú tells me as we push through the turnstiles into Nogales, Mexico, are some of the best he’s ever had. So we beeline through the bustling streets toward the small metal cart in search of the paper-wrapped stacks of crispy chicken tacos dripping spicy red salsa.

Cantú is the author of The Line Becomes A River, forthcoming this February from Riverhead Books. The book is a beautiful and brutal chronicle of the four years he spent working as a Border Patrol agent, and the years afterward, in which an immigrant friend, José, is deported to Mexico, and Cantú finds himself navigating border policy from the other end. The book — his first — is already generating buzz; this year Cantú has received a Whiting Award in Nonfiction and a Pushcart Prize, and a section of the book recently aired on This American Life.

On this Monday, we’ve driven the 45 minutes from Tucson to Nogales, leaving my red pickup on the U.S. side, under the shadow of the 30-foot-tall wall that cuts through the city. We eat our tacos in a little city park. Cars stream around us, but the park itself is calm: Big cottonwoods with white-painted trunks arch over us. A few fallen leaves tick around us in the wind, as we talk about what a relief it is to slip into Mexico for the afternoon — feeling the slight shift in the rhythm of life, the tilt of our perspective.

Cantú wears yellow-rimmed glasses and a sizeable mustache, his thick dark hair containing only a few strands of gray. “When I first started coming to Nogales, I was in the MFA program and teaching a class to undergraduates,” he says. “I remember thinking how crazy it was that anything south of the border was not a part of their worldview.”



For Cantú, the border has always been a presence. Growing up in Prescott, Arizona, he was “close enough to it to have an understanding of it as a complicated place.” His own grandfather crossed as a child, just after the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution.

After high school, Cantú went off to American University in Washington, D.C., to major in international relations. He studied abroad in Guanajuato, Mexico, becoming fluent in Spanish. “There was always that tension between what I would read in books and what I would see when I went home or when I traveled to Mexico,” Cantú says. “My mind was always trying to connect what I studied with the contours of the place as I understood it.”