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Keynote speaker calls audience to action at 2019 Diversity Conference

by Courtney Deeren - Lifestyles Editor
Tue, Oct 22nd 2019 09:00 pm
Francisco CantĂș gave the keynote address at The College at Brockport's 19th annual Diversity Conference. His speech centered around the current political climate and immigration, telling two similar stories with vastly different outcomes.
Francisco CantĂș gave the keynote address at The College at Brockport's 19th annual Diversity Conference. His speech centered around the current political climate and immigration, telling two similar stories with vastly different outcomes.

On Thursday, Oct. 17, The College at Brockport President Heidi Macpherson welcomed Francisco Cantú to a full field house in the SERC. Cantú was responsible for closing out the Diversity Conference as the keynote speaker. 

“Francisco Cantú currently lives in Tucson, where he coordinates the field studies and writing program at the University of Arizona,” Macpherson said in her introduction. 

Cantú worked for four years as a U.S. border patrol agent before writing a memoir titled “The Line Becomes a River,” which won the 2018 Los Angeles Times Book Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Circle. 

When Cantú came on stage, he asked to take a selfie with the crowd. 

“I’ve never talked in front of this many people before, so I’m going to — before things get serious — do a quick selfie,”  Cantú said. 

He began his speech by discussing our relationships to politics. 

“Over the course of the last few months, as summer came to an end and I was starting to think about the new upcoming semester, I found myself thinking about the ebb and flow of how we engage with politics and social realities in this country now,” Cantú said. “And so I was thinking in particular about the news and about how many of us sort of alternate between finding ourselves entirely overwhelmed and outraged by it or in other situations entirely resigned and detached.” 

Cantú said, in this regard, news has a tendency to either be incredibly impactful or to seem far away. He said news impacts people differently, but when things hit closer to home, Cantú believes we still continue to not get too involved. 

“I noticed this in my own life, quite pointedly in the aftermath of the mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas,” Cantú said. “At the beginning of August, a gunman drove 10 hours across the entire state of Texas to quote ‘shoot as many Mexicans as possible.’ Despite the fact that I myself had spent nearly a year of my life living in El Paso, I found myself really unable to read or digest any news about the shooting.”

As Cantú continued telling the story, he said if he did not consume any of the news it would not be a reality to him. However, he was eventually forced to hear about the shooting. 

“More than half a decade had passed since I lived there,” Cantú said. “And since I wasn’t really in regular contact with any of my old friends I neglected to reach out to anyone. Then sure enough, one day as I was driving across town in my car, a local station played a clip of the public relations officer for the El Paso police department speaking to reporters and I [had] to hear [about it] for the first time since the news broke.” 

From there, Cantú went into the story that would carry his message throughout the speech. Cantú was driving through the Arizona desert and heard a story on the radio about the death of a 21-year-old man who was part of the caravan. There was a candlelight vigil held in his honor by the migrants who were travelling with him at the time of his death. 

“The reporter on the radio even spoke his name,” Cantú said. “Melvin Josué Gómez Escobar. Once I got home I searched the man’s name on the internet and the first result was a web page made in his memory on forevermissed.com.”

Cantú spoke about the aftermath of Gomez’s death. Gomez’s body was sent back to Guatemala and his family took the opportunity to talk about the injustice and inequality faced by residents of Guatemala. 

Cantú then spoke on the cause of Gomez’s death in order to fully connect to his main point. 

“Gomez’s accident occurred more than 1,000 miles away from our border with Mexico, but I think it’s important to understand his death as a part of the long line of casualties stemming from our increasingly militarized border,” Cantú said. 

Cantú’s story related Gomez’s death to his time as a border agent.

“When I heard the news about Gomez’s death on the radio, I was made to remember the death of a migrant that occurred eight years prior to this in the desert, a few hours west of my home in Tucson, Arizona,” Cantú said. 

He recounted the events of the night, going into the job hoping he would “somehow become a force for compassion,” but quickly learned something else entirely. During the call, Cantú responded to a death of a migrant man. 

“The dead man’s 16-year-old nephew and his 19-year-old friend, both of them from the native village in the Mexican state of Veracruz, hovering over the dead man,” Cantú said. “They told me that after getting separated from a large group of migrants they had become lost and shortly thereafter the man began staggering from dehydration. He soon laid down in the dirt, unable to continue and the boys went out to a nearby road to attempt to wave down one of the infrequently passing cars.”

The cars that passed did not stop and the boys began putting rocks in the road hoping someone would. While no one stopped, it was enough to draw attention and caused motorists to call border patrol. When border patrol arrived, the man had already died. When Cantú was asked if the boys could accompany the body back home, he was forced to explain to them they would not be able to take the body home to the family. They were instead under arrest. 

“For me, this moment explaining the vast governmental bureaucracy that awaited this man’s body to the two people who had just watched him die was the first time I had been made to articulate out loud the institutional indifference of which I had become a part,” Cantú said. 

Cantú called out the double standard regarding the two stories, saying there were no vigils for this man, his name was never spoken and he does not even know what happened to the man’s body. This is part of the reason why Cantú decided to donate proceeds from his book to human rights organizations.

According to Cantú’s website, “a portion of the author’s proceeds from this book are donated to The Colbrí Center for Human Rights, The Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project and other organizations working to end death, disappearance and mass incarceration in the borderlands.” The Colbrí Center for Human Rights “identifies human remains on the U.S.-Mexico border through comprehensive forensic research and reliable data on missing persons.” The Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project is responsible for providing “free legal and social services to detained men, women, and children under threat of deportation.” 

Cantú is working to bring awareness to migrants lost in transit.

“His death, like the deaths of so many migrants across the globe, was a profoundly anonymous one,” Cantú said. 

After talking about his current volunteer work in detention centers on the border, Cantú wrapped up his speech by speaking the name of the man whose body he had seen in the desert some years ago. 

“Ascencion Quechulpa Xicalhua. May we begin to pronounce his name and the names of all those like him across the globe and speak them back into history.”


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