Common Text engages border issues

Next year's Common Text engages timely border issues

April 4, 2019
Mark Tarnacki
Staff Writer

The image above shows the cover of this year’s Saint Michael’s Common Text, The Line Becomes a River by Francisco Cantu. Images below show Peter Vantine, First-Year Seminar Program director, below left; and the book’s author, Cantu (lower right).

The Common Text selection for incoming first-year Saint Michael’s College students in 2019-2020 will be The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border by Francisco Cantu. The author grew up in the Southwest in proximity to the border, studied immigration and border issues in college and later worked as a border patrol agent.

“The book delves into the contentious topic of the United States border with Mexico from a deeply personal perspective, while also providing some historical context,” says Peter Vantine, director of the First-Year Seminar Program, professor of French and chair of the College’s Department of Classical and Modern Languages & Literatures, who announced the choice this week.

He said the Common Text selection committee chose this book “for its emotionally and intellectually engaging discussion of a complex topic—borders and migration—that figures prominently in contemporary social and political debates, while also being a subject of perennial relevance in the United States and abroad. We were further drawn to the text by the writing itself, as well as the author’s inclusion of other voices besides his own.”

For more than a decade, the Seminar has been focusing the first portion of incoming students’ seminar studies around a common text that each student is asked to read before arriving on campus. All members of the College community also are invited to read and join discussions about the Common Text. The Common Text for the First-Year Seminar program last year in 2018-2019 was Hamilton: The Musical (Original Broadway Cast Recording) by Lin-Manuel Miranda (2015).

PeterVantineVantine announced the 2019-2020 Common Text at Faculty Assembly on March 29, but put off sharing with the wider community until this week as he worked to firm up possible speakers and events next year. While the details of next year’s program is still a work in progress, the director said he is anxious to make the choice fully public sooner than later so students, faculty and the rest of the campus community can dive into the work. This also will allow College officials to share with prospective students and their families during Admission Office Accepted Student Events on campus in April.

Professor Vantine publicly thanked the two other members of this year’s selection committee who worked with him in making the choice: fellow French Professor Laurence Clerfeuille, and Moise St. Louis, associate dean of students/director of The Center for Multicultural Affairs and Services/political science lecturer, “for their thoughtful reading and deliberation.”

About the author

Cantu, after becoming fascinated with border and immigration issues in college, worked for the United States Border Patrol in the deserts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas from 2008 to 2012, seeking to go beyond his more distant, intellectual understanding of the subject and to understand border enforcement up close, on the ground. For four years he grappled with his role in a problematic system whose consequences are often dire.

As Cantú’s 2018 memoir traces the evolution of the author’s feelings and thinking about the border and the migrants he encounters, it also reflects on his own family’s Mexican heritage and his relationship with his mother, a former ranger with the National Park Service who worries both about her son’s physical safety and the deeper effects that his difficult, morally ambiguous work may have on him.

“By examining the violence and dehumanizing treatment faced by migrants, Cantú reveals how such troubling realities have become normalized and treated as routine,” Vantine said.  The Line Becomes a River encourages readers to reflect on our shared humanity and think critically about the policies and discourse that surround the border, he said, adding that through the book, the author seeks to capture both the hardships and the beauty of the border, allowing readers to feel closer to harsh landscape and those who risk their lives to cross it.

CantuPortraitFrancisco Cantú is a former Fulbright fellow. He has received a Pushcart Prize and a 2017 Whiting Award for emerging writers. His writing and translations have been featured in Best American Essays (2016), The New YorkerHarper’sn+1Orion, and Guernica, as well as on This American Life.

Vantine said he expects that events related to the book and author next year will be, as always, part of orientation for incoming first-year students next year will be a panel discussion featuring three members of the Saint Michael’s community who will write short essays in response to the book, which students will read this summer in conjunction with the book.

Go to the First-Year Seminar page on the Saint Michael’s College website to see more related links about the book and author and First-Year-Seminar program.

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