How does a line in the sand become a barrier that people
will risk everything to cross?
My mother and I drove east across the flatlands, along the vast floor of an ancient sea. We had come to West Texas to spend Thanksgiving in the national park where my mother worked as a ranger during the years when I formed my first childhood memories—images of wooded canyons and stone mountains rising up from the earth, the sound of wind whipping across low desert hills, the warmth of the sun beating down upon endless scrublands.
As we neared the Guadalupe Mountains we passed an expanse of salt flats and I asked my mother to stop the car. She pulled onto the shoulder and we walked out together across broken earth. We stood looking north toward the Guadalupes, towering remnants of a Permian reef once submerged beneath the inland waters of Pan- gaea. A cool November wind blew against our bodies like a slow current of water and I bent down to touch the ground, breaking off a piece of white crust and rubbing it between my fingers. I touched my tongue and looked up at my mother. It tastes like salt, I told her.
Inside the park, my mother and I waited at the visitor center while a uniformed woman stood at the reception desk with a pair of visitors, patiently explaining the park’s camping fees and hiking options. When the visitors turned to walk away, the woman caught sight of us and a smile spread across her face. She hurried over from behind the desk and reached out to hug my mother before taking a step back to look at me. She stood for a moment in disbelief. Ay mijo, the last time I saw you, you were barely this tall. She held her hand down at her knees. Are you still in Arizona? she asked us. Mom is, I said, but I went away for college in Washington. Her eyes grew wide. The capital? I nodded. Qué impresionante. And what are you studying? International relations, I told her. He’s studying the border, my mother added. We’re staying in El Paso on our way back so he can visit Ciudad Juárez.
The woman shook her head. You better be careful, she said, Juárez is dangerous. She stared at me with her hands on her hips and then reached out to touch my shoulder. You know, I still remember babysitting you when you were a little chamaquito. She looked down at my shoes. All you wanted back then was to be a cowboy. You would wear those little cowboy boots and that little cowboy hat and run around with my boys in the backyard, chasing each other with those little plastic guns. My mother grinned. I remember it too, she said.
'All you wanted back then was to be a cowboy. You would wear those little cowboy boots and that little cowboy hat and run around with my boys in the backyard, chasing each other with those little plastic guns.'
My mother left the trail and sat on a rock at the edge of the stream, removing her shoes and socks. She rolled her pants to the base of her knees and waded into the water, tensing her shoulders at its coolness. She invited me to join her, but I shook my head and sat alone in the dappled sunlight on the bank. My mother stepped over rocks and fallen branches, pointing at the way the water flowed over an exposed root, the way the sun shone brightly on a clump of green grass. She bent over and touched the surface of the water, rubbing her wet hands on her face. As I collected fallen maple leaves, my mother reached down and pulled a handful of pebbled limestone from the streambed. Come, she called to me with drip- ping hands. Touch the water.
That night, as we sat in a backcountry research station eating precooked turkey and instant stuffing, I asked my mother why she had joined the Park Service all those years ago. She stabbed her fork at a piece of stuffing. I joined because I wanted to be outdoors, she told me, because the wildlands were a place where I could understand myself. I hoped that as a park ranger I could awaken people’s love for nature, that I could help foster their concern for the environment. She glanced up from her plate. I wanted to guard the landscape against ruin, she said, to protect the places I loved. I sat back in my chair. And how does it feel now, I asked, looking back on it? My mother set down her fork and ran her finger along the wood grain at the edge of the table. I don’t know yet, she said.
The following day, my mother and I left the park and drove west. As we came into El Paso that evening, I gazed out at the lights spreading across the floor of the desert valley, trying to make out where the United States ended and Mexico began. At our motel, a bespectacled clerk made small talk with my mother as he checked us in. What brings you to El Paso? he asked. My mother smiled. My son is researching the border, she said. The border? The man looked at us over the top of his glasses. I’ll tell you about the border. He pointed beyond the glass doors of the motel to a grassy hillside at the parking lot’s edge. You see out there? Used to be I would watch that grass move every night. Wasn’t long before I realized it wasn’t wind moving the grass, it was wetbacks sneaking across the line. The man smirked. But the grass hardly moves anymore, if you know what I mean. You don’t see wets in people’s yards these days. My mother and I nodded awkwardly as the man chuckled, handing us the keys to our room.
The next morning we parked at the Santa Fe Street Bridge and walked south toward the border. We followed a steady stream of crossers through a caged walkway that stretched over the concrete channel where the barely flowing water of the Rio Grande separated El Paso from Ciudad Juárez. As we neared the other end of the bridge, I watched as a bleary-eyed man said goodbye to his wife and son. The boy stood crying next to a groaning turnstile as his mother and father held each other in a long embrace. On the other side of the revolving gate, my mother and I were waved past an inspection table by a Mexican customs agent dressed in black. My mother turned to me. They don’t want to see our passports? she asked. I shrugged. I guess not.
We left the port of entry and made our way down Avenida Benito Juárez past throngs of taxi drivers and snack vendors. We walked by blaring speakers and brightly painted storefronts—past liquor stores and pawn shops, dental offices and discount pharma- cies, past taquerías and casas de cambio and signs advertising se- guros, ropa, botas. After several blocks my mother asked if we could find somewhere to sit. We crossed the street to Plaza Misión de Guadalupe, where she quickly slumped down onto a bench. I need to catch my breath, she said, my heart’s racing. Are you all right? I asked. She took in a breath and looked all around her, placing a hand on her chest. I’m fine, just a little overwhelmed. I glanced up at the sun. Listen, I’m going to get you some water. I touched her shoulder and pointed at a market across the street.
Inside the shop I stood behind two women discussing politics in the checkout line. I’m glad it will be Calderón, one woman said to the other. We need a president who will be hard on crime, someone to take on the delincuentes and clean up the streets. The other woman shook her head vigorously as she paid the shopkeeper for a carton of cigarettes and package of pan dulce. No entiendes, she said to her friend. The problem doesn’t come from the streets.
My mother drank thirstily from the bottle of water, sighing deeply as I consulted a pocket map we had taken from the hotel. We’re close to Mercado Juárez, I told her, we can sit there and get something to eat while you rest. She nodded and took her time looking up and down the street before lifting herself from the park bench. We walked slowly down the sidewalk past the brick dome of the Aduana Fronteriza and turned to make our way down Calle 16 de Septiembre. A block from the mercado we stood at an intersection choked with cars, waiting for the signal to turn green. Then, as we made our way across four lanes of traffic, my mother cried out and fell to her hands in the middle of the street. I turned in panic and kneeled down at her side with my arms around her shoulders. Are you okay? I asked. She breathed through her teeth and gestured down at her foot, twisted in a pothole. You’ve got to get up, I told her, we’ve got to get out of the street. I looked up at the signal, flashing its red hand. I tried to drag her to her feet, but she shouted and winced, breathing in short gasps. It’s my ankle, she said, I can’t move it.
I stood in the intersection as the light turned green, holding my hands out to the line of cars. I glanced toward the mercado and saw a man running from the sidewalk. In front of us, a woman stepped out of her car and came to kneel at my mother’s side. Tranquila, she whispered, tranquila.
A man in a cowboy hat stepped down from his idling truck and turned to the cars behind him, motioning for them to stand by. The man who had run from the mercado touched me on the back. Te ayudo, he told me, qué pasó? My hands were shaking as I gestured at my mother. No puede caminar. The man stood on the other side of her and made a lifting motion with his hands outstretched. We bent down together and slung my mother’s arms around our shoulders. The woman at my mother’s side reached out to touch her—vas a estar bien, she told her before turning to walk back to her car. My mother hopped up on one leg as I lifted her with the other man, and we shuffled together toward the sidewalk. We helped my mother sit against a concrete wall and I turned to watch the traffic roll again down the street.
I kneeled down and looked at my mother’s hands, smudged black from the asphalt. Do we need to call an ambulance? I asked her. She opened her eyes and tried to slow her breathing. I don’t think so, she said. Just let me sit. I looked up at the man and stood to take his hand. Gracias, I told him, not knowing what else to say. The man shook his head. It’s nothing. In Juárez we take care of one another. He patted me on the back and gestured for me to sit down with my mother. When you’re done here, he suggested, come visit my stand in the mercado. I’ll be there with my mother, we’ll make some quesadillas for the both of you. Before turning to leave he looked at me and raised his eyebrows. Aquí están en su casa.
More about the book
THE NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
'Stunningly good. Beautiful, smart, raw, sad, poetic and humane… It’s the best thing I’ve read for ages', James Rebanks, author of THE SHEPHERD'S LIFE
How does a line in the sand become a barrier that people will risk everything to cross?
Francisco Cantú was a US Border Patrol agent from 2008 to 2012. He worked the desert along the Mexican border, at the remote crossroads of drug routes and smuggling corridors, tracking humans through blistering days and frigid nights across a vast terrain.
He detains the exhausted and the parched. He hauls in the dead. He tries not to think where the stories go from there.
He is descended from Mexican immigrants, so the border is in his blood. But the line he is sworn to defend is dissolving. Haunted by nightmares, he abandons the Patrol for civilian life. And when an immigrant friend is caught on the wrong side of the border, Cantú faces a final confrontation with a world he believed he had escaped.
The Line Becomes a River is timely and electrifying. It brings to life this landscape of sprawling borderlands and the countless people who risk their lives to cross it. Yet it takes us beyond one person’s experience to reveal truths about life on either side of an arbitrary line, wherever it is.
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