When Francisco Cantú started touring to promote his new book, The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border (Riverhead, Feb. 6), he was basking in the support of indie booksellers around the country, with having been named the top Indie Next List pick for this month. Cantú braced himself for the reality that the book, which focuses on the author's struggle to come to terms with his work and his own family history (as the grandchild of a Mexican immigrant), might draw ire from his former employer and conservatives. He never imagined, though, that it would draw a backlash from the group that now seems to be railing against the title: liberals.
Cantú's cross-country tour for The Line Becomes a River, which began earlier this month, purred along largely without incident until the author arrived in California.
At a February 19 event in San Francisco, at Green Apple Books on the Park, roughly 12 activists disrupted Cantú's reading. They entered the event, forming a circle at the front of the room and, for half an hour, peacefully took turns reading three-minute narratives about abuses committed by the Border Patrol.
“It was very peaceful and moving,” said Green Apple Books co-owner Kevin Ryan, who witnessed the protest. “I asked Francisco if he wanted to speak or address anything. And he said, ‘No. I don't have anything to say. Everything they said was true.’”
By his own account, Cantú entered the U.S. Border Patrol as an “idealistic and naïve” 23-year-old. He emerged from the organization, four years later, deeply conflicted about his work and haunted by his time patrolling the desert. Speaking at an uninterrupted event at the Los Angeles Public Library on Wednesday night, Cantú said: “As I was writing this book, I was, in the back of my mind, anticipating backlash from the Border Patrol or [backlash] from the right. Since the book has come out, the loudest reaction has been from the left.”
Cantú, through his publisher Riverhead, declined to talk to PW. Riverhead also declined to comment. But, on the author's behalf, the publisher emailed a brief statement. Calling the Green Apple protesters "purposeful and impactful," Cantú said the readers "highlighted individual and structural failings within the agency." He went on: "Their actions gave me hope that more people will be moved to directly engage with border issues, and take action to hold our institutions accountable for violence.”
While Ryan, the co-owner of Green Apple, felt the protest yielded something positive "because a lot of different people got heard,” not all booksellers feel Cantú is being treated fairly.
After canceling his Feb. 20 event at Oakland, Calif.'s East Bay Booksellers, the store's owner, Brad Johnson, sent a note to his patrons, calling the attacks being leveled at Cantú "indistinguishable from bullying."
Despite being caught off guard by the protests, Cantú understands the feelings the book has stirred. “It’s inherently problematic that the voice of a Border Patrol agent is being lifted up in the headlines,” he said in Los Angeles. “If you are undocumented, you would say, ‘Why the hell do you need this border patrol agent to come along and start talking about how bad things are at the border? We’ve been telling you that the whole time! Why don’t you publish a book by us? Why don’t you lift up our voices?' I think that’s an incredibly important conversation to have right now.”
Some West Coast booksellers have embraced the book even more vocally since it fell under fire. After the Green Apple incident, Skylight Books in Los Angeles selected the book as its the subject of its next "Current Events Reading Group." And, according to the author's publicity team, the East Bay Books cancellation will be the only modification in Cantú's schedule, with five more stops still planned through March.
On Thursday night, Cantú appeared at Warwick's in San Diego. The store's director of events, Julie Slavinsky, confirmed that one patron had asked the store to cancel Cantú's appearance. To prepare for the visit, the bookstore hired a security guard and notified the local branch of the San Diego police department about the possibility of a protest. “In my seven years as the events director, we have not had any protestors show up because of an author,” Slavinsky said.
By Slavinsky's account, 100 people attended the event. In the end, there were no protestors in the crowd.