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.”
This tension eventually led him to join the Border Patrol. “I wanted to bridge the gap between academic knowledge and real world, on-the-ground realities,” he says. But “the work ended up giving me a whole new set of questions, without really answering the ones I came in with.”
During his years in the Border Patrol, Cantú found himself increasingly haunted by the border’s violence — both of the drug cartels, and of the desert landscape itself. No matter the risks, the crossers kept coming. At night he woke from vivid, terrifying dreams, grinding his teeth. He was working on an intelligence field team out of El Paso when he learned that he’d received a Fulbright Fellowship. So he quit the Border Patrol and spent his fellowship year living in The Netherlands, studying rejected asylum-seekers who chose to live in the shadows after their visas were denied.
But it was his own country’s border that pulled at him. He came back to the desert. He applied to get his MFA in creative nonfiction writing in Tucson. “I can’t tell you the gift I gave myself in choosing to be a writer and not a government employee or a lawyer or a policymaker,” he says. “I don’t have to rack my brain any longer for a solution. That’s not my job anymore.” Instead, he sees his job as deepening people’s understanding of the border.
“It’s always easier to pose the questions as black-and-white, to think about a person being someone who deserves entry into this country or not. But that doesn’t encompass the complexity of what goes on here,” Cantú says. The conversation needs to start by acknowledging the aspects of our border policy that are causing humanitarian crisis, he says. According to the United Nations Migration Agency, border deaths jumped 17 percent between 2016 and 2017, despite fewer people attempting the journey. By early August, 96 bodies had been recovered in Pima County, Arizona — where both Cantú and I live — alone. “We need the courage to say, ‘That’s not acceptable,’ ” says Cantú. “We shouldn’t be weaponizing a vast, inhospitable landscape through our policy. Whether or not that’s intentional, it’s happening right now.
“It’s hard to really grasp the significance of somebody saying: It doesn’t matter how hellacious this obstacle is, I will overcome it, for my family, for my work. No matter what version of hell you put at the border, people are going to go through it to the other side. That presents the question: Should we be then trying to make this more hellacious and more life-threatening?
“We could talk about this forever,” he says to me. “But should we get a beer?”
The bar he takes me to is called Kaos, a place he went once with a Mexican friend. Cantú never manned the Nogales border — in his work with the Border Patrol, he patrolled the remote desert west of here and worked out of intelligence centers in Tucson and El Paso — but to walk with Cantú in Nogales is to move with familiarity. “If you want Bacanora,” he tells me, referring to a Sonoran mezcal, “I know a guy here who makes the best Bacanora. He’s in a shoe shop.”
Inside the darkness of Kaos, we pour a fat liter of cold Tecate into two plastic cups, while mariachis noodle on their guitars in the corner. As the man next to him shouts over the music, he apologetically translates for me from time to time — “His friends call him mofles! Like Muffler! I don’t know why” — and I watch his face, so open and kind, so appreciative of the place. I try to picture him as la migra, the border police.
“There are days when I feel I am becoming good at what I do. And then I wonder, what does it mean to be good at this?” writes Cantú in The Line Becomes A River. “Of course, what you do depends on … what kind of agent you are. … but it’s true that we slash their bottles and drain their water into the dry earth, that we dump their backpacks and pile their food and clothes to be crushed and pissed on and stepped over, strewn across the border and set ablaze.”
I am not the first to wonder at the gap between what Cantú writes he has done and his unyielding desire for a system that acknowledges the humanity of those who cross. He will later describe writing the book as a form of exorcism, an act that allowed him to atone, to make sense of his own involvement in what the border has become. It was an act that allowed him to see some of his experiences as complete, as over — even as he came to understand that, in other ways, some things are still ongoing, still a part of him.
Cantú twists back toward me. “Mofles says Tecate tastes better on this side!” he says over the music, with a wry smile. And I have to agree that it does.
On our way back to the States, we still have room for tacos. We stop at a carne asada stand, where Cantú, laughing with the cocinero, gets the recipe. We eat as we walk, and at the last bend before the border, mopping taco juice from our fingers, we buy popsicles, paletas, for our wait in the border line: coconut for him, pistachio for me.
But the line is surprisingly empty; we walk right through. We scan our passports, the Border Patrol agent takes a brief glance at them, and just like that, we cross the line into the United States — nonchalant, licking our popsicles, improbably powerful.
Headed north in late afternoon, I ask Cantú if driving through these green hills, across these big spaces, is different now that he’s patrolled them. “It’s probably the landscape I know more intimately than any other,” he says. “I knew the name of every pass and peak out there, every mountain range and mile marker and wash.” He pauses. “But because of the work I did, it became impossible to drive through that landscape and think, ‘Oh, look how nice it is.’ ” This land is not wild, he tells me, not in the way we like to think of it, with words like untouched and solace and peaceful. “All of a sudden you have access to the knowledge that, 100 percent, there are groups of people right now that I cannot see walking across the same terrain that I’m looking across. There are scouts on a handful of these mountaintops that I’m looking at, that are watching everything, who are radioing people. There are human remains left undiscovered and unidentified.
“If you do this, you see the desert as teeming with this sort of human drama. And even if you go camping out there — you can totally still have the wilderness experience, can hike, and you will maybe never encounter anything other than sign of peoples’ passage. Because it’s so vast. But they’re out there.”
Katherine E. Standefer’s work appears in The Best American Essays 2016. She prefers cowboy boots. Follow @girlmakesfire