When running is your language, you use it to carry the stories of your people

The fertile fields in Washington state provided Noé Alvarez a playground and a place to unwind, but they were a source of pain for migrant workers in his community who toiled for a better life. On an epic transnational run, Alvarez learned to carry the stories of others, made peace with his past and rewrote his family’s story.

From his family’s migration to his own daily practice, Noé Alvarez finds meaning in movement

Noé Álvarez carries a staff on a stretch of the Peace and Dignity Journeys through a Mexican jungle. The staff represents the people and stories runners encounter from one community to the next along the 6,000 mile journey. (PDJ 2004)

Noé Alvarez grew up on the fertile lands around Yakima, Wash. Alvarez is the son of immigrants and part of a larger community of migrant workers who left their homes and families in Mexico to acquire a better way of life. 

But it's on that land, characterized by giant warehouses and long days of heavy labour, that Alvarez was taught that a better life required more movement still.

"The only narrative I think that my family understood is [me] getting out and saving the family. I had this pressure of saving my family and that overwhelmed me," said Alvarez.

The difficulty of carrying his family's story of migration and the pressure he felt to lift his family out of poverty is part of Alvarez's story, one that he brings to life in the memoir Spirit Run: A 6,000-Mile Marathon Through North America's Stolen Land. In it, Alvarez describes what it took to physically run from Canada to Guatemala while emotionally carrying his story and the stories of others.

Alvarez's mother and father migrated from Mexico to the United States before he was born. They came to Yakima, like so many migrant workers, to toil on the fertile lands in Washington state known around the world for their apples, hops, cherries and wine grapes. 

As a teenager, he too worked in the warehouses and fields and experienced firsthand the physical toll of it. But where Alvarez saw the real weight of the work was in his mother's worn body and crippled hands. 

They're dry around the cuticles from her constant hand-washing. Whatever it is, it cannot be washed away. Her palms are tough like lizard skin. Wrinkled and sinuous. Her nail polish is chipped. When I massage over the bruise-colored knot in her wrist, she jerks her hand back as if bitten by a snake. These are the hands of the woman who has endured a journey across Mexico and who made a life for me in the U.S. — the first and only woman in her family to leave Mexico. This woman whose thumb now hides and adheres her index finger like a splint, a casualty of migrant life. (Noe Alvarez, Spirit Run)

Alvarez's memoir recounts his transnational run but it is informed by his parents' experience as immigrants.

"I'm nothing without my people," he said.

"It goes back to wanting to honour where you come from, wanting to honour the stories of others, because that's part of your story, whether you like it or not." 

People of all ages often join the runners on the Peace and Dignity Journeys as they leave one community for the next. (PDJ 2004)

Peace and Dignity Journeys

In 2004, Alvarez learned what it takes to carry his and others' stories forward after joining the Peace and Dignity Journeys (PDJ), a 6,000-mile run organized by Indigenous communities that simultaneously stretches south from Chickaloon, Alaska and north from Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. With a focus on sharing traditions and knowledge, each day begins and ends with ceremony.

It was these kinds of really tough, heavy stories that gave us the power to push through some of the most difficult circumstances on the run.- Noé Alvarez

Runners commit to at least 10 miles a day, running in intervals to cover the necessary ground. They run with little more than the clothes on their backs, their footsteps fuelled by the words given by the communities that host them.

"It was about carrying the messages that they had for the next community, which was, 'please pray for my son who's battling drug addiction', 'keep us in mind, our lands are getting decimated, our waters are getting contaminated', 'our people are struggling', and 'please don't forget us'," said Alvarez.

The stories were often heavy but carrying them meant he could also be more open with himself about the difficult aspects of his own story, such as enrolling in college. It was the expected path to raising up his family, but Alvarez said he felt like a traitor attending classes knowing his family was still working so hard in Yakima.

The heaviness of leaving home pressed Alvarez to search for a new narrative and the PDJ provided the perfect setting. 

"It was these kinds of really tough, heavy stories that gave us the power to push through some of the most difficult circumstances on the run, which brought us magic. It's a medicine I wanted to share with other folks who are in similar conditions," he said.

An elder holds on one of the staffs carried by runners of the Peace and Dignity Journeys near Sonora, Mexico, 2004. (Noé Álvarez)

The PDJ was gruelling, but it taught him how to carry the weight of the migrant experience. For Alvarez, running is a way to transform and make peace with stories, the words on the page replaced with the steady pounding of feet. 

"I wanted to find a language that I didn't have growing up speaking English and Spanish and living in a sort of middle world. And so running was an ability for me to express the things that were inside of me," said Alvarez.

"I tell people that if I had to pick a religion, it's running. It's that moment for me to sort of check in with those tough moments in my life, to confront tough dialogues about who I am and how I can be a better person." 

One question that people ask me is, 'what was I running away from?'- Noé Alvarez

Pride in migration

For Alvarez, the act of running is an homage to the beauty of migration, despite the suggestion that those who move are fleeing from something. 

"One question that people ask me is, 'what was I running away from?' It never was, 'what are you running to?'"

When he prepared to cross the U.S. border into Mexico on the PDJ, a border guard joked that he was running the wrong way, presumably a nod to the history of Mexican immigrants to the U.S. Even with the tougher border controls and anti-immigration policies of the Trump administration, in 2019 Mexicans made up nearly 11-million of the immigrant population in the United States, accounting for 25 per cent of the 44.5 million immigrants as of 2017 (Migration Policy Institute Data Hub). 

Alvarez seeks to reframe the migration story.

"I want people to be proud that we're runners. I want people to be proud that we are movers, that we are curious, that we venture into new lands and we want better, not only for ourselves, but for the people around us," he said.

As for the destination, running is less about the future for Alvarez and more about arriving in the moment. He said believing "there is an end" is part of the trauma.

"What I'm trying to hone in on is establishing a ritual, establishing a routine, a daily practice where you are confronting certain aspects of your life, the things that make you you, the things that bring you power, the things that bring you sadness. You have to make time for that."

Written and produced by Kim Kaschor.


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