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Diversions Along a Border

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U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
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The implications in leaving a place where you so belonged, had really not hit me. What level of need would cause any of us to leave with little or nothing?

I’m Mike Strong from Hays for HPPR, Radio Reader’s Book Club. The book is “The Line Becomes a River” by Francisco Cantu

Not since World War II have refugee numbers been so high. 82.4 million people. These people did not leave their homes and jobs and lives by choice or whim. They are fleeing for their lives, even more so than their livelihoods.

I’m Mike Strong from Hays for HPPR, Radio Reader’s Book Club. The book is “The Line Becomes a River” by Francisco Cantu

Not since World War II have refugee numbers been so high. 82.4 million people. These people did not leave their homes and jobs and lives by choice or whim. They are fleeing for their lives, even more so than their livelihoods.

In 1998, one of my still favorite movies, “Dance with Me,” starring Vanessa Williams, Chayanne and Kris Kristopherson, arrived in movie houses. I was a member of the KC Swing Dance Club. After seeing the movie, I was relating my enjoyment to other dance club members. Our male star, Chayanne, a Puerto Rican playing Cuban Rafael Enfante, just after the death of his mother finds out that he can leave Santiago, Cuba and head for Houston, where his father owns a dance studio.

Before Rafael leaves Cuba, (which, by the way, Chayanne pronounces variously as Cyuuba, CuuBa and Cuugvha [more or less]), he is given a neighborhood going away party with great dancing, music and friends. Casually, as I related the movie to the swing-dance club members I said something like, “That going away party was so great, with friends like that I’m not sure I would ever want to leave.”

I vividly remember one of our members looking right at me, suddenly very serious. She was from Haiti. She said, “at some point, if you are that dirt poor, and you get the chance to leave, you leave, regardless of how wonderful your friends.”

That stopped me in my tracks. The implications in leaving a place where you so belonged, had really not hit me. What level of need would cause any of us to leave with little or nothing? And she wasn’t even talking about violence and threats of death.

Most refugees run a gauntlet of hazard from harassment, to robbery, to rape, to murder. And when they reach what they hope is some form of safety, they run into border centurions.

To some extent, Francisco Cantu is giving us a memoire version of Joseph Wambaugh’s “The New Centurions,” an autobiographical fiction (book Jan 1971, movie 1972) written while he was still a Los Angeles police officer. Wambaugh gives us an insider’s view of idealism compromised by on-the-job experience into rough cynicism.

Wambaugh tells us that meeting almost everyone on the worst days of their lives, can give you an attitude that you are the difference between chaos and order in society. It is a blinkered view, at best, but you can see his point.

Our author, Francisco Cantu arrives on the border, filled with idealism about correcting the system from inside, and hearing his mother’s dire fears about what that kind of service can do to you, asking what are you really doing, and to whom? She had retired after a career in the forest service.

In the prologue to the book, he is with his mother in a park when his mother is recognized by one of the uniformed park employees who greets her as an old friend. His mother explains that her mijo is studying the border. They are headed for El Paso and then Ciudad Juarez for a visit.

The uniform shakes her head and says, “You better be careful, Juarez is dangerous.”

That took me immediately back to 2004. A trip to the Shaw section of Washington, D.C. to examine the district 13 years after the PBS documentary, “Throw Away People.” The usual doc which showed crime and deterioration and decrepit buildings. The woman at Baltimore International warned us (Myself, Nicole English and a group of sociology students) about Shaw. “Dangerous,” she said.

We found anything but. We also found gentrification, including gentrification by the very people who had once been the at the bottom of the heap in Shaw. http://www.mikestrongphoto.com/CV_Galleries/VideoEmbed_Shaw-2004.htm

Unlike Wambaugh, who created a fiction from his experience, Francisco Cantu gives reports from inside the establishment, until he finally decides he is no match for the system. He cannot reform it and the border police are changing him. Either he leaves or he capitulates.

At this report (August/September 2021) We have yet another round of new refugees, fleeing for their lives, from Afghanistan.

Again, in an old script, repeated too often, a script badly needing a rewrite, the desperate people, who had a life they now must leave, against all their preferences, these people in need are opposed by vast armies of little officials, so afraid of these people in frail circumstances, that they are holding them off in camps, and in borders, often at gunpoint, and sometimes in cages (differently named).

I haven’t the space to begin to list the number of times fearful, haughty, officials, through the centuries, have found someone they could bully, terrorize and herd into confinements, or send back to certain death (like ships of Jews, as WWII loomed), while claiming they were protecting their borders, or they needed authorization, unlike the pursuers.

Again, this script is in bad need of rewrite. Looking back, immigrants, whether migrants or refugees, have often been the source of new businesses, jobs, markets and enrichment of wherever they landed.

They are contributors, much like Syrian Hassan Akkad, who, in London, sought to pay back his gratitude by volunteering in COVID wards as a hospital cleaner. Picking up the most infected waste and cleaning for new patients. He is still with us. And has a book.

Like my Irish great-great grandparents coming over in 1848, eventually owning a plantation and a cigar factory (my grandfather still had a cigar-box hammer) and, my great-grandfather starting a school for Blacks in Maysville, Kentucky somewhere around 1900, give or take. My grandfather remembers that his father wore a pistol because of death threats over that school.

Or my step-grandparents, coming from Germany in the early 1900’s starting a farm south of Stanton, Nebraska, losing one son in the Army Air Corps dropping bombs over Germany, their homeland, with another son taking on the farm and mechanizing it (from mules) and his son in turn with another farm, and my step father who, coming back from Korea, created a glass repair shop and the jobs that went with it for more than 35 years, until a heart attack, when he sold it to a couple of eager young guys.

Neither I nor my brother wanted the shop, but we grew up there, and were there even as kids, long before daycare was a regular word. It was normal to have kids near the working adults. Models for living.

I am past my space allotment, and I’ve barely begun to cover Francisco Cantu’s book and only a few of the side trips almost every page took me to. “The Line Becomes a River” is a place to begin.

Mike Strong, from Hays, for HPPR Radio Reader’s Book Club. The book is “The Line Becomes a River” by Francisco Cantu

Reference Links:

Shaw in 2004: http://www.mikestrongphoto.com/CV_Galleries/VideoEmbed_Shaw-2004.htm

Hostile Borders: https://consortiumnews.com/2021/09/01/closed-borders-hostile-receptions-await-afghan-refugees/

Hassan Akkad, interviewed by Christiane Amanpour: https://www.cnn.com/videos/tv/2021/09/03/amanpour-afghan-refugees-hassan-akkad-syria.cnn

The New Centurions by Joseph Wambaugh – Wikipedia book reference: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_New_Centurions_(novel)

Baltimore International is Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, commonly referred to as BWI or BWI Marshall

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Fall 2021: RIVERS meandering meaning2021 Fall ReadHPPR Radio Readers Book Club
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