Francisco Cantú has recently been on an aggressive media tour promoting his new book, The Line Becomes a River, about his life as a Border Patrol agent. Everyone from Mother Jones to Men’s Journal seems to be into the idea of hearing from a “compassionate,” Spanish-speaking former immigration cop.
The Los Angeles Times called his book called his book a “heartfelt lament on patrolling the border.” Salon said it “humanized the border.” Mother Jones called it “the best book on immigration you’ll read this year.” New York magazine said it was a “deeply personal narrative about the author’s time working with the Border Patrol.” NPR ran an interview with the headline, “Former Agent Says, ‘Border Patrol Does Good Work ... But There’s Tension There.’” This American Life gave him 26 minutes to read an excerpt of his book on the radio.
Grassroots activists, though, have a different view. Undocumented artists accuse Cantú of exploiting immigrant narratives for his book. Moreover, they are infuriated that the tormented musings of a law enforcement officer are being paid so much attention (and money), when undocumented people could be telling their own stories. In Austin, activists have dubbed him a “hipster sadboi border pig.”
Immigrant rights activists in Austin on Monday night almost shut down Cantu’s appearance before a packed crowd at a local bookstore, BookPeople. After they interrupted his book reading half a dozen times, the store decided to cancel the reading and turned the event into a book signing.
“The writing seduces the reader into thinking they’re participating in something good when all they’re doing is helping the line the pockets of someone who is humanizing something that is incredibly violent and dangerous,” Jesús Valles, an educator in Austin who was at a book event for Cantú Monday night, told Splinter in a telephone interview.
The interruptions in Austin were organized by local community groups, including Serve the People - Austin, Defend Our Hoodz, and Stonewall Militant Front. Valles said he was a supporter of Defend Our Hoodz, a local grassroots group fighting fight displacement and “exploitative development.”
Valles said he had only read excerpts of Cantú’s book. He told Splinter that at the end of the day, the Border Patrol should not have a “face” because it’s an institution with little to no accountability and a long history of violating the constitutional rights of both immigrants and U.S. citizens.
He said humanizing the Border Patrol was deeply personal to him because he is formerly undocumented and his parents were deported to Mexico. “I’m someone who has been harmed by this system,” Valles said.
Penguin Books, the publisher of The Line Becomes a River, did not respond to requests for comment.
Cantú has defended himself on Twitter by acknowledging he was complicit in “perpetuating institutional violence and flawed, deadly policy.” He said his book considers “the ways we normalize violence and dehumanize migrants as individuals and as a society.”
Cantú’s defense has done little to persuade immigrant rights activists. In the San Francisco Bay area, they have launched a campaign pressuring two bookstores to cancel Cantú’s upcoming events.
“There is no sympathy to be had for cops,” San Francisco writer Wendy Trevino told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I’d like to see [the bookstores] cancel the event and to reiterate that we are a sanctuary city both in Oakland and here, and attempt to make this a place where immigrants can be welcome and not terrorized.”
Valles said he wondered where the book deals were for undocumented writers and artists who have been struggling and laboring to showcase the humanity of immigrants in this country.
“The book is dangerous because in the end, you’ll feel most for the protagonists, Cantú and the Border Patrol,” he said.
Update: Penguin Random House responded to a request for comment by sending this statement from Cantú.
In some of the interviews I gave, I’ve been asked “oh, the border patrol rescues people a lot, right?” Which is kind of a leading question. And I’ve said, “sure, the Border Patrol rescues people.” But the larger picture is the violence of this policy of enforcement through deterrence is what is putting people there in the first place. It’s like the fire chief setting a fire and the firefighters getting praised for putting it out. One quote I gave in an interview was pulled out of context. I said “the border patrol does good work”––but I want to be clear: that’s not my message.
On a larger level, what I’ve seen unfold, even in this short week, is that there’s an eagerness among some media to humanize the border patrol. Since I represent a relatable border patrol agent, a lot of the media about the book has been focused on that, and given more weight to humanizing me as a former Border Patrol Agent, or Border Patrol Agents in general, over focusing on my message: the dehumanization of migrants.
The Border Patrol is backed by the most powerful country in the world. They wear the uniform of the US government. The migrants are the ones we need to be talking about and humanizing. They’re the ones whose identities and names are being overlooked. Migrants are constantly made anonymous by border policies.