When fellow human beings become less so

I suspect some of the attendees at the lecture last week by Francisco Cantú, author of “The Line Becomes a River,” a memoir of his four years as a U.S. Border Patrol Agent, may have left the packed auditorium, at the Centro de Bellas Artes, somewhat disappointed.

They may have expected a more evangelical presentation about the injustices of U.S. immigration policies. Instead Cantú read what sounded like a master’s thesis, with a Spanish translation projected on a screen behind him.

Personally I also found Cantú nothing like what I’d expected. He’s in his early thirties, small and slight, and uncommonly handsome, nothing like the paunchy, rough-hewn, law-enforcement stereotype I had in my head. Cantú’s Spanish, which he studied in Guanajuato, clearly was not his first language.

A fence runs through Nogales, U.S. and Nogales, Mex.
(photo by Jonathan Clark, Nogales International newspaper) 

But the point of Cantú’s talk in San Miguel, and in his essay in the The New York Review of Books, was far more important, if subtle, than just tossing another log in the bonfire of endless debate about how to fix our “broken” immigration system.

Cantú wants us to recognize how the immigration war along the U.S.-Mexican border dehumanizes not only undocumented immigrants, but also the rest of us. He makes that point in his book by structuring it as part memoir and part reportage, hence the subtitle “Dispatches From the Border.”

During his four years as a Border Patrol agent, Cantú encountered all sorts of horrors—people who’d died from thirst and hunger when they were abandoned by the “coyotes” who were supposed to escort them to safety, a woman with her feet covered with blisters so gross she could hardly walk,  and cases of some agents slashing plastic water jugs left for immigrants traversing the Southwestern deserts.

Francisco Cantú is now a professor at the
University of Arizona in Tucson. 

He also worries about how these unknown tragedies, plus the torrent of dehumanizing epithets constantly hurled at immigrants by the Trump administration—rapists, gangsters, criminals, narcos, terrorists and more—effectively turn  immigrants into “others,” undeserving of our concern, much less sympathy.

In her brief but powerful “The Origins of Others,” Toni Morrison, wrote about “othering” as a way for to rationalize the unequal status between oppressors and the oppressed, and the mistreatment of the latter.

Thus Fox News recast the caravans of Honduran immigrants as hordes of dangerous vandals poised to invade the U.S., when in fact, two-thirds of those in caravans were women and children who banded together as self-protection against narcos and other real criminals en route.

But “othering” has its limits, as when Americans were exposed to pictures of immigrant children separated from their families, some sleeping on the floor of cages. The Trump administration said it would abandon its “zero tolerance” policies that led to family separations, though it’s not clear if in fact it did.

Besides, the partial shutdown of the federal government, the ongoing investigation of the president, and other news quickly eclipsed the momentary national outrage about those children. Where did all those children end up? Were they all reunited with their families?

The most heart-rending part of Cantú’s book is the last third, with its story of José, an undocumented immigrant Cantú had befriended, after leaving the Border Patrol. José, who travels to Oaxaca to be at the side of his dying mother, gets arrested when he tries to re-enter the U.S. illegally.

Friends pony up the money to hire an immigration lawyer to wrestle José from the maws of immigration authorities which demand he be immediately deported. José’s wife doesn’t have any papers but his three sons were born in the U.S. He doesn’t want to deprive his sons of the opportunity for a better life north of the border, and to have a father by their side as they grow up. So José vows to keep trying to cross the border, no matter what it takes, to reunite his family.

Throughout the book, during and after his stint as a border patrolman, such horrific experiences scarred Cantú emotionally, even spiritually, as the images recur as nightmares. His efforts to keep José from being deported, and his family torn apart, seemed so much like an effort to atone for his complicity with the U.S. immigration machinery.

Over eggnog one Christmas Eve, Cantú talks with his mother, whom he idolizes, about how the memories of his service on the border patrol continue to torment him.

“You spent four years on the border,” she said. “You weren’t just observing reality, you were participating in it. You can’t exist within a system for that long without being implicated, without absorbing its poison. And let me tell you, it isn’t something that’s just going to go away. It’s part of who you’ve become.”

In his essay in The New York Review of Books, Cantú quotes Pope Francis during his visit to the Italian island of Lampedusa, where thousands of immigrants from Africa had landed.  Pope Francis referred to the survivors, as well as those who perished trying to make the crossing, not as undifferentiated “others” but as family.

During a mass, Francis asked his audience, “Has any one of us grieved for the death of these brothers and sisters? Has any one wept?” The pope then talked about the “globalization of indifference,” which has left us numb to the suffering of others.


Note to readers: Several of you have complained that for some reason my blog won’t accept or allow comments. I don’t know know why that is; I certainly welcome reader comments. If you can’t leave a comment, please send it directly to my email, stewnal@gmail.com, and I’ll paste it in myself.  Thanks. Alfredo 

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