Francisco Cantú with first-year Luther student Pratiksha Gautam. (Photo by Julie Berg-Raymond).
Francisco Cantú with first-year Luther student Pratiksha Gautam. (Photo by Julie Berg-Raymond).

Count them all.
Name them so as to say:
this body could be mine.
The body of one of my own.
So as not to forget that all
the bodies without names are our
lost bodies.

– from“Antígona Gonzáles,”
by Sara Uribe
(The Line Becomes a River,
Francisco Cantú. P. 143)


Writer, translator and author of The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches From the Border, Francisco Cantú delivered last week the 2019 opening convocation address at Luther College, entitled “Finding Humanity at the Border.”

In his book, described by The New York Times Book Review as laying bare “the casual brutality of the system, how unjust laws and private prisons and a militarized border have shattered families and mocked America’s myths about itself,” Cantú – who worked as an agent for the United States Border Patrol from 2008 to 2012 – recounts why he sought employment with the Border Patrol; what his job entailed; and what the experience taught him about what it means to live a fully human life in the face of what he refers to as the “violent shortcomings of our institutions.”

Addressing the near-capacity crowd at Luther’s Center for Faith and Life, Cantú spoke about the “extreme ebb and flow that so often defines how we engage with the social and political realities of our country,” and suggested we tend to move back and forth in our responses to news reports of violence and injustice – at times feeling overwhelmed by our visceral response to these reports, and at other times feeling remote and detached.

Cantú said he noticed this most recently after the mass shooting Aug. 3 at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas – where, he said, “the shooter made clear he intended to ‘shoot as many Mexicans as possible.’”

“I found myself really unable to read or absorb news of this shooting,” Cantú said. Then he heard on the radio one day a representative from the El Paso police department speaking about the shooting.

“I heard the familiar, song-like accent of the city,” Cantú recalled. “In that moment, the news became suddenly, crushingly real.”

Two deaths
Cantú also spoke about hearing news last October regarding the migrant caravan of asylum-seekers making its way to the United States, and about the death of a young Honduran man in that group.

“The migrants held a vigil” [in Huixtla, Chiapas, in Mexico], Cantú said. “The reporter even spoke his name – Melvin Jose Gomez Escobar. His body was returned to his family in Honduras, and I heard many interviews with his parents. In one, his father was saying, ‘Here, there is no equality; here dreams are worth nothing. Here, you cannot dream.’”

Cantú then spoke about another migrant death, eight years prior, when he had been a Border Patrol agent for two years (“I naively thought I might somehow become a force for good, and compassion”). He recalled arriving at the place where the body lay in the road and that two boys, one of whom was the dead man’s nephew, were standing there.

“There were only two witnesses to this man’s death,” Cantú recalled. “I remembered the way the boys milled around the body. They looked out into the desert as if they’d been robbed by some faceless criminal.”

Cantú had described this scene in detail, in The Line Becomes a River. At one point in the narrative, he recalled having to explain to the dead man’s young companions how the system was going to work: “The boys asked me what would happen to the dead man, if they could come with the body to the hospital. I told them that they could not, that they had to stay with us, that they would be processed for deportation and that the body would be turned over to the tribal police (56).”

Cantú told the Luther audience the situation revealed “the institutional indifference of which I had become a part … No reports were ever penned about this man’s death. There were no vigils, no page on forevermissed.com. His death, like that of so many migrants across the globe, was a profoundly anonymous one.”

The globalization of indifference
Cantú spoke, then, about the anonymity of migrant deaths on a global level, and referenced Pope Francis – who calls all nameless migrants “family,” and who has spoken out against what he calls “the globalization of indifference,” asking, “who is responsible for this blood?”

In a homily at Lampedusa in 2013, for example -- following a migrant shipwreck off its coast – Pope Francis said, “We are accustomed to the suffering of others, it doesn’t concern us, it’s none of our business” and asked for forgiveness: “… [w]e ask forgiveness for the indifference towards so many brothers and sisters, we ask forgiveness for those who are pleased with themselves, who are closed in on their own well-being in a way that leads to the anesthesia of the heart, we ask you, Father, for forgiveness for those who with their decisions at the global level have created situations that lead to these tragedies.”

“The anonymity of migrants at our borders must be understood as directly [related to] our indifference,” Cantú told the Luther audience. But he cautioned against stopping at empathy, saying it is not enough. “Our feelings and our tears are useless, unless they compel us to act in a way that can change the situation,” he said.

Living and working now in southern Arizona, Cantú said he has been volunteering with asylum-seekers and that he sees his role as being “to provide moral support, facilitate communication and serve as a sounding board for despair,” he said. “[They] ask for small things – small deposits into their commissary accounts so they can make calls and purchase necessary goods … Large-print bibles are frequent requests. Mostly, they want to be heard … to know their stories have been heard.”

Cantú said it’s important to “harness the immediacy of those emotions when we are relating most viscerally, when we hear one of the stories. Just because these stories might overwhelm us, does not mean they need to be pushed away.” He urged his listeners to “reject casual dismissal of [the migrants’] lives. Speak their names. [We need] to make sure the death and pain of another causes a shudder in our own bodies.”

Near the end of his author’s note written in December 2018 and included in the February 2019 trade paperback edition of The Line Becomes a River, Cantú made this point, as well – expressing his sense that “if our understanding of violence and death along the border can become something visceral, then we may begin to feel, deep within ourselves, no matter how far we live from the border, that what happens there is profoundly unnatural” (265).

... When the violent shortcomings of our institutions are revealed, when their dehumanizing design is laid bare, it can be overwhelming to imagine navigating the particulars of enacting change,” Cantú wrote. “But what I have learned from giving myself over to a structure of power, from living within its grim vision and helping to cannibalize the people and places from which I came, is that small impulses and interactions have the power to lead us back toward humanity, and heeding them can be a means of extricating ourselves from systems of thought and policy that perpetuate detachment … When we consider the border, we might think of our home; when we consider those who cross it, we might think of those we hold dear” (268).

As he closed his lecture, Cantú encouraged the audience to “take heart” – and said aloud the name of the man he’d encountered many years before, as a Border Patrol agent, lying dead on the road. The man’s name, he said, “became known to the world, last year: Ascención Quechulpa Xicalhua.”

The Line Becomes A River was winner of the 2018 Los Angeles Times Book Prize and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in nonfiction. A former Fulbright fellow, Cantú has been the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, a Whiting Award, and an Art for Justice fellowship. His writing and translations have been featured in The New Yorker, Best American Essays, Harper’s, and Guernica, as well as on This American Life. A lifelong resident of the Southwest, he now lives in Tucson, where he coordinates the Field Studies in Writing Program at the University of Arizona.

[A note on Cantú’s journey to call Ascención by name ...]

In an essay entitled “Clearly Marked Ghosts” (themapisnot.com/issue-iii-francisco-cantu), Francisco Cantú, author of The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches From the Border, revisited the occasion of encountering a dead migrant man in the road, and the two young men watching over his body – an occasion he wrote about in poignant and painful detail in his memoir.

Having left the Border Patrol many years earlier Cantú was, by the time he was writing “Clearly Marked Ghosts,” teaching at university. Cued by one of his undergraduate students who had written an assignment about a map that plotted the locations where undocumented migrants had died while crossing into the U.S. from Mexico, Cantú looked into an organization called Humane Borders.

“Through a partnership with the Pima County Medical Examiner, Humane Borders maintains a constantly updated and search-able death map online where ‘viewers may see the exact location where each migrant body has been found, along with other information, such as the name and gender of the deceased (if known and if the family has been notified), date of discovery, and cause of death,”
Cantu wrote. “Nearly six years after his death, I drove west from Tucson to see if I could find my way across the desert to the place where the man from Veracruz had laid down to die.”

In his essay, Cantú described the journey to find that place; he was worried he might not, in fact, be able to do so.

“But then, just before the bend in the road, I saw a dirt two-track splintering south into the creosote flats,” Cantú continued. “I pulled my vehicle onto the dirt shoulder of the road and stepped outside to feel the hot summer wind. In the distance, clouds of clay-colored dust whipped into a tall funnel and then disappeared again at the horizon. As I walked south along the two-track my memories coalesced upon the terrain and I looked down to find the very patch of dirt where the man had laid on his back all those years ago with blood pooling in his abdomen and ants crawling across his face. I looked out at the landscape and said to myself—here is where Ascención Quechulpa Xicalhua ended his life’s journey, here is where his story rests upon the earth.”