Trying to make sense of the border, a review by Donna Miscolta

This review by Donna Miscolta was written for the Seattle Review of Books. Show some love and go to their site:

It is a review of Francisco Cantu’s The Line Becomes a River.

When I was a college student in San Diego, I worked part-time at the Natural History Museum doing a variety of jobs. I was a zoology major and was once invited to join the herpetologist and his student assistants in the field. We drove over the mountains and dropped into the desert near the border. I was the only brown person in the car, and when a border patrol helicopter whirred overhead, one of the assistants yelled, with mock urgency, “Hide Donna!” Presumably, that’s what they would’ve done had I been undocumented, though that wasn’t the word in use in the 70s.

Later as we walked in the desert, two white men, seemingly out of nowhere, emerged from a path. “Hey, Maria,” one of them called out to me (because, you know, we’re all named Maria), “you legal?”

Such is the racism born of the border.

That afternoon, we happened upon a sidewinder sidewinding its way toward Mexico. We watched it speed away from us, the triple curve of its body swishing telltale tracks in the sand.

In The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border, Francisco Cantú describes guiding a snake to a gap in the pedestrian fence so it can make its way into Mexico. This act of accommodation comes after Cantú picks up a migrant named de la Vega from the hospital where he had been treated for kidney failure and drives him to the border patrol station to be processed for deportation.

De la Vega is released from the hospital shirtless, the way he had been found after wandering for six days in the desert. Cantú strips off his own shirt and gives it to him, a humanitarian gesture that goes only so far against the pitiless deportation system.

The migrant who is deported. The snake that is gently nudged through a physical barrier that divides its natural territory. The juxtaposition is a theme that runs through the book: the harsh borderland desert that is habitat to animals and gauntlet to humans.

In these scenes, Cantú is in his first year as a border agent, a job he seeks after academic studies of border policies and politics have rendered the subject too remote and abstract for a true understanding — despite his having grown up near the border, despite the concerns of his mother, who tells him, “The border is in our blood.”

“I don’t know if the border is a place for me to understand myself, but I know there’s something here I can’t look away from,” Cantú writes.

Cantú can’t look away from de la Vega’s naked torso, or the feet of a woman whose blisters he washes and salves. But he is able to accept the abandonment of a dead man on the side of the road by a colleague because transport wasn’t available until the next day.

“We stood for a few more minutes talking about the storm and the human body that lay there in the desert, in the dark and in the rain, and we talked of the animals that might come in the night and of the humidity and the deadly heat that would come with the morning. We talked, and then we went home.”

Such dissociation is what his mother warns about and what he himself comes to fear. But as long as he’s in uniform, he must abide by it. While at the firing range one day, he shoots a small bird perched upon the target to prove to himself that he can take a life. He picks up the bird and holds it in his hands. He digs a hole and buries it. He covers the mound with small stones.

He’s trying to get good at his job, he tells his mother. He’ll figure out what it means later, he insists. But his dreams are trying to tell him what it means now. A wolf haunts his sleep with the threat of impending violence. He is grinding his teeth to bits. He is anxious from lack of sleep. After one particularly violent dream, he realizes he must make peace with the wolf, and he addresses him as “brother.”

Later, no longer a field agent but working in intelligence at a desk job, he sees a falcon on one of the camera feeds. The falcon’s unblinking stare probes Cantú’s conscience: “What cowardice has caused you to retreat from the desert? Why not return to the border’s smoldering edges, why not inhabit the quiet chaos churning in your mind?”

After four years, Cantú leaves the border patrol. He takes a job in a coffee shop while he studies writing to make sense of the things he’s seen and done. José, the maintenance man with whom Cantú talks and shares food each day, says, “He visto muchas cosas.” As if to say, my story counts for something, too.

José’s story assumes the spotlight in the last part of the book, when Cantú comes up against the very system he once worked for trying to help his friend, whom he calls brother, to stay in this country. It’s when José speaks that we understand why, despite the law, despite the border patrol, despite the desert, people cross the border again and again.

Cantú has faced backlash on Twitter and at some of his public events for his stint as a border agent. Could he have interrogated the institution and the violence it engenders without becoming part of it? Could he have articulated the complexities without having worn the uniform?

I don’t believe he thinks he could’ve. There’s a deep and tortured honesty in his writing that comes not just from having the border in his blood, but also from introducing the border patrol into his psyche: “It’s like something inside of me still belongs to it. I’m still part of this thing that crushes.”

But Cantú also crushes something. With José’s story, he thwarts the racialized stereotype that has been used to dehumanize migrants and immigrants. And with this book, he reminds us that the border, which as yet is not a wall, is in some places an imaginary line in the middle of a river. That the border is not just a physical structure. The border is in the blood of millions of people — like Cantú, and like me.

Books in this review:

  • The Line Becomes a River
    by Francisco Cantú
    Riverhead Books
    February 06, 2018
    256 pages
    Purchased by SRoB

    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Donna Miscolta is the author of the story collection Hola and Goodbye (Carolina Wren Press, 2016) and the novel When the de la Cruz Family Danced (Signal 8 Press, 2011). Follow her on Facebook or visit her website.

Follow Donna Miscolta on Twitter: @DonnaMiscolta


Kickstarter Project: Lemonade Summer by Gabi Mendez


I am in no way affiliated with this project, but it seems like a good cause and it’s running out of time. If you agree that it seems like a good cause and have some extra scrila to spare, go for it!



Lemonade Summer by Gabi Mendez is an all-ages graphic novel about queer children, adolescents, teens and young adults coming of age in positive environments and finding supportive communities. The book is 136 pages with full color covers and chapter covers. Each story is a monochromatic color scheme mirroring the sun from noon to dusk, reflecting the characters’ growth in the book. The stories feature young, queer characters who grapple with the conflicts of their own worlds.

New Book: Ricanstruction: Reminiscing & Rebuilding Puerto Rico

Ed. Edgardo Mirando Rodriguez

Pre-order now!:

Ricanstruction: Reminiscing & Rebuiliding Puerto Rico is an anthology featuring contributions from writers and artists from the comic book industry like Gail Simone, Greg Pak, Reginald Hudlin, Denys Cowan, Tony Daniel, Ken Lashley, Bill Sienkiewicz, Yanick Paquette, Gabby Rivera, Will Rosado, Jorge Jimenez, Mike Allred, Chris Sotomayor, to Puerto Rican and Latinx celebrities like Rosario Dawson, Ruben Blades, Javier Munoz, Sonia Manzano and over 100 more. Produced and also featuring stories written by Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez, this anthology teams up his original character LA BORINQUENA with some of the most iconic comic book heroes of all time from DC: Wonder Woman, Batman, Superman, Aquaman, The Flash and many others. Original stories also take us to the past to explore the beautiful history of PUERTO RICO as well as tales that envision a stronger and rebuilt island. 100% of the proceeds from this anthology will go to the continued work to help over 3 million Americans living in Puerto Rico, providing solar-powered lamps, food, clothing and so much more. These short stories remind us all that the true power of being a hero is inside each of us. When we come together as a united people, we will never be defeated! !El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido! Thanks to DC for generously giving our studio, Somos Arte, permission to use some of DC’s iconic characters in original stories for this anthology, whose proceeds Somos Arte will contribute towards the continued hurricane relief efforts in Puerto Rico.

Isabel Quintero & Zeke Pena, Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide in Albuquerque April 14

Isabel Quintero & Zeke Pena, Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide

Event date:
Saturday, April 14, 2018 – 3:00pm
Event address:
4022 Rio Grande Blvd NW
AlbuquerqueNM 87107

Graciela Iturbide was born in Mexico City in 1942, the oldest of 13 children. When tragedy struck Iturbide as a young mother, she turned to photography for solace and understanding. From then on Iturbide embarked on a photographic journey that has taken her throughout her native Mexico, from the Sonora Desert to Juchitan to Frida Kahlo’s bathroom, to the United States, India, and beyond. Photographic is a symbolic, poetic, and deeply personal graphic biography of this iconic photographer. Iturbide’s journey will excite readers of all ages as well as budding photographers, who will be inspired by her resolve, talent, and curiosity.

Isabel Quintero‘s first novel, Gabi, A Girl in Pieces, was one of School Library Journal and Kirkus Reviews Best Books of 2014, and won the American Library Association’s William C. Morris YA Debut Award prize. Her second book, Ugly Cat & Pablo, was published in April 2017. She lives in Southern California.

Zeke Pena is an artist and illustrator whose work about the U.S./Mexico border community explores universal themes by remixing contemporary and historical narratives. He has exhibited at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, Albuquerque Hispanic Cultural Center, Houston Center of Photography, El Paso Museum of Art, and Museo de Arte Ciudad Juarez, as well as in galleries across the United States and Mexico.

Tim Z. Hernandez, All They Will Call You, April 7th in Albuquerque

Tim Z. Hernandez, All They Will Call You

 Saturday, April 7th, Albuquerque’s Bookworks ( 4022 Rio Grande Blvd NW, Albuquerque, NM 87107) at 3 pm.

Combining years of painstaking investigative research and masterful storytelling, Tim Z. Hernandez reconstructs the harrowing account of “the worst airplane disaster in California’s history,” which claimed the lives of thirty-two passengers, including at least twenty-eight Mexican citizens–farmworkers who were being deported by the U.S. government. Pushing narrative boundaries, while challenging perceptions of what it means to be an immigrant in America, Hernandez renders intimate portraits of the individual souls who, despite social status, race, or nationality, shared a common fate one frigid morning in January 1948.

“Tim Z. Hernandez is the real thing. This epic, tragic story is finally being told, and it is in the best possible hands.”–Luis Alberto Urrea

Tim Z. Hernandez was born and raised in California’s San Joaquin Valley. An award-winning poet, novelist, and performer, he is the recipient of the American Book Award for poetry, the Colorado Book Award for poetry, the Premio Aztlan Literary Prize for fiction, and the International Latino Book Award for historical fiction. His books and research have been featured in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, CNN, Public Radio International, and National Public Radio. Hernandez holds a BA from Naropa University and an MFA from Bennington College. He continues to perform and speak across the United States and internationally, but he divides his time between Fresno and El Paso, where he is an assistant professor in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Texas at El Paso. You can find more information at his website,

Junot Diaz coming to Austin

Wednesday, April 4th at 6:30 pm

speaking & signing

More information here:


  • The speaking portion of this event is free & open to the public.
  • Tickets are required to join the signing line. 
  • Tickets are only available with the purchase of a copy of Islandborn from BookPeople.
  • Books & tickets are now available to pre-order. Purchasing a book online automatically assigns you a ticket for the signing. There is no separate “ticket” item to add to your cart.
  • Tickets are lettered. The line for the signing will form according to ticket letter after the author speaks.
  • Keep checking this page for further guidelines as the event date approaches.

If you cannot make it to the event, you can still order a signed copy! Simply add the book to your cart and indicate SIGNED COPY. We ship all over the world!


Every kid in Lola’s school was from somewhere else.

Hers was a school of faraway places.

So when Lola’s teacher asks the students to draw a picture of where their families immigrated from, all the kids are excited. Except Lola. She can’t remember The Island—she left when she was just a baby. But with the help of her family and friends, and their memories—joyous, fantastical, heartbreaking, and frightening—Lola’s imagination takes her on an extraordinary journey back to The Island. As she draws closer to the heart of her family’s story, Lola comes to understand the truth of her abuela’s words: “Just because you don’t remember a place doesn’t mean it’s not in you.”