Writer. Professor. Fulbright Fellow. Former Border Patrol agent.
Francisco Cantú is all of these things. Though, the title that gets him the most attention is the last one.
Cantú, 32, author of “The Line Becomes a River,” sits outside the Starbucks on University Boulevard. The wind rocks the umbrella blocking the tense Tucson sun. It’s good to be back home.
From his thesis project to nationwide phenomenon, Cantú’s book has reached audiences far and wide. He’s just returned from a book tour overseas in the United Kingdom. Though, the journey hasn’t been without bumps.
Cantú, a third generation Mexican American, is from Prescott, Arizona, where his mother worked as a park ranger. After studying U.S. and Mexican relations, Cantú wanted to see the border up close, so he joined the U.S. Border Patrol. He spent four years with the agency picking up the dead and taking undocumented migrants to detention centers.
One of the most harrowing instances from the book is when Cantú first witnesses his colleagues intentionally destroying lifesaving supplies in the scorching desert. “I watched as several of my classmates ripped and tore at the clothing, scattering it among the tangled branches of mesquite and palo verde,” he writes. “… others laughed loudly and stepped on a heap of food. Nearby, Hart giggled and shouted to us as he pissed on a pile of ransacked belongings.”
This wasn’t the last time this would happen.
After returning home, Cantú was haunted by his experience, so he coped the only way he knew how. He wrote. As he pursued a master’s degree at the University of Arizona in creative writing, he found clarity in chronicling his experience through critical analysis and self-reflection.
Cantú anticipated pushback, but never imagined it would come from the left. “There’s a lot of people who are like, ‘No you’re a cop we don’t need to listen to you,’” he says. “I think part of it is that migrant voices are the ones that should be heard, and I agree with that so it was strange that I agreed with a lot where the protesters were coming from.”
Activists asked two local bookstores to cancel his readings in San Francisco, arguing he is a cop who doesn’t deserve sympathy in a time of increased law enforcement involvement in deportation. In Austin, Texas, protests erupted as demonstrators believed Cantú to be a “traitor.”
“After coming home and having a little bit of distance from it I feel pretty grateful for the way that responding to that has made me think more critically and speak more critically about my work, and where it’s being positioned in this political landscape,” Cantú says. “That’s been a gift.”
When Cantú was studying creative writing at Arizona, he says everyone saw him as a writer. “The weirdest part of having the book come out is now all of a sudden the world is being introduced to me as a former border patrol agent,” he says. “Well, I left the Border Patrol like (four) years ago, so it’s like I have this whole other identity.”
Since stepping into the spotlight, Cantú has been interviewed more times than he can count. He’s talked on panels about immigration. The coverage has been constant. When President Donald Trump deployed the national guard to the border, people wanted Cantú to give his opinion, something he still can’t get used to these days.
“This weird thing happens when you publish a book, where all of sudden kind of overnight people look at you as kind of an expert,” he says. Cantú believes it’s problematic because there are advocates out there who know more about immigration than he does, especially immigrants themselves. He says they are the most affected as they risk their lives and live in fear of deportation everyday.
Cantú isn’t invested in debating or public speaking. “I think the best work I can possibly do is as a writer,” he says. He explore subjects more critically when he can flesh his thoughts out into words. “Writing is sort of antithetical to our culture of social media of instant reactions, instant response.”
The recent push for border security is nothing new to Cantú. When he was an undergraduate in college, the George W. Bush administration passed the Secure Fences Act of 2006 which called for construction of more border fencing along the Southern border. “We’re doing the same exact thing that we’ve done before, and we’re expecting different results,” he says. “Almost as if we do it bigger and louder that it will somehow change things.”
Though, the rhetoric toward immigrants has shifted recently. “We are being encouraged more than ever before to lump migrants into a big indistinguishable group of people like they’re one in the same,” Cantú says. Although there was about a 44 percent drop in migrants arrested along the border under the Trump administration, there was an increase in migrant deaths. Cantú believes people need to take this humanitarian issue into mind when crafting new policies.
Cantú says he had the opportunity to talk to community groups which has helped him learn more about their work and become more aware.
“I’m here because of the generosity of other writers who’ve been mentors to me or have talked about my work or recommended my work to others or put me in touch with different opportunities,” he says.
Now, he’d like to pay it forward and lead people to other work that doesn’t get such widespread attention. As a Spanish to English translator, Cantú thinks that’s how people get exposed to new cultures and ways of thinking.
In the future, Cantú sees himself exploring immigration and social justice issues through reflecting, reading, researching and creating a piece in either a magazine article, op-ed or possibly another book.
For now, he says, it’s good to be home.
Maritza Cruz is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.