Spirit Run: A 6,000-Mile Marathon Through North America's Stolen Land

Spirit Run: A 6,000-Mile Marathon Through North America's Stolen Land

by Noé Álvarez


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The son of working-class Mexican immigrants flees a life of labor in fruit-packing plants to run in a Native American marathon from Canada to Guatemala in this "stunning memoir that moves to the rhythm of feet, labor, and the many landscapes of the Americas" (Catriona Menzies-Pike, author of The Long Run).

Growing up in Yakima, Washington, Noé Álvarez worked at an apple-packing plant alongside his mother, who “slouched over a conveyor belt of fruit, shoulder to shoulder with mothers conditioned to believe this was all they could do with their lives.” A university scholarship offered escape, but as a first-generation Latino college-goer, Álvarez struggled to fit in.

At nineteen, he learned about a Native American/First Nations movement called the Peace and Dignity Journeys, epic marathons meant to renew cultural connections across North America. He dropped out of school and joined a group of Dené, Secwépemc, Gitxsan, Dakelh, Apache, Tohono O’odham, Seri, Purépecha, and Maya runners, all fleeing difficult beginnings. Telling their stories alongside his own, Álvarez writes about a four-month-long journey from Canada to Guatemala that pushed him to his limits. He writes not only of overcoming hunger, thirst, and fear—dangers included stone-throwing motorists and a mountain lion—but also of asserting Indigenous and working-class humanity in a capitalist society where oil extraction, deforestation, and substance abuse wreck communities.

Running through mountains, deserts, and cities, and through the Mexican territory his parents left behind, Álvarez forges a new relationship with the land, and with the act of running, carrying with him the knowledge of his parents’ migration, and—against all odds in a society that exploits his body and rejects his spirit—the dream of a liberated future.

"This book is not like any other out there. You will see this country in a fresh way, and you might see aspects of your own soul. A beautiful run." —Luís Alberto Urrea, author of The House of Broken Angels

"When the son of two Mexican immigrants hears about the Peace and Dignity Journeys—'epic marathons meant to renew cultural connections across North America'—he’s compelled enough to drop out of college and sign up for one. Spirit Run is Noé Álvarez’s account of the four months he spends trekking from Canada to Guatemala alongside Native Americans representing nine tribes, all of whom are seeking brighter futures through running, self-exploration, and renewed relationships with the land they’ve traversed." — Runner's World, Best New Running Books of 2020

"An anthem to the landscape that holds our identities and traumas, and its profound power to heal them." —Francisco Cantú, author of The Line Becomes a River

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781948226462
Publisher: Catapult
Publication date: 03/03/2020
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 64,638
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Noé Álvarez was born to Mexican immigrant parents and raised working-class in Yakima, Washington. He lives in Boston, where, until recently, he worked as a security officer at one of the nation’s oldest libraries, the Boston Athenæum.

Read an Excerpt


Warehouse White Noise

Even the sun yields to the massive gray structures dominating the small town of Selah, Washington. They are fruit production and distribution centers — empaques as they're called in Spanish — that confine migrant labor inside, as prisons might. Here, apples, cherries, and pears are packaged for delivery across the globe.

These warehouses stand only five minutes from my house in Yakima. Here, and throughout the rest of the Yakima Valley, men with guns — hired policemen — idle at the front gates of the private property. At shift change, security personnel in reflective vests direct the flow of employee traffic by flagging figure eights in the air like on airport tarmacs. Day and night, semitrucks bearing hillocks of apples grumble in and out of the premises. Towers of apple bins — twenty-five-foot beacons branded with the company logo — stand in the sun waiting to be loaded. They slice shade from the unrelenting heat and, each day, a little bit of dignity from the backs of the laborers. This shade sundials onto the blistered hoods of cars that Mexican migrants carpool inside of in 110-degree weather. Boys, almost men, operate beeping forklifts, hauling fruit cargo in haste. Parched winds whip against a limp U.S. flag the size of a large billboard, as if to remind us whose land this really is. Summer heat waves lean into the backs of working men, women, and minors like me, employed for the summer — sixteen-, seventeen-year-olds — as they exit the sauna of packed cars and swarm the fruit-packing warehouse for a chance at a meager paycheck.

At shift change, the people in their company lime-green shirts burst out of the warehouses. Among them is my mother, Carmen, whom I accompany for the first time the summer of 2002. I'm seventeen, a junior in high school, and in this part of the country, kids much younger than me are expected to work. Some drop out of school to support their families. This summer my mom and I work the day shift together, although she usually works nights. When people scurry past me, I look into the harried faces of the working class, my people, Mexicans and non-Mexicans. We are united and divided by our condition. There's nothing uplifting about this kind of work. I look at myself and my green shirt. I'm not any different. To be young and in high school means nothing to a place like this. Soon, I fear, it will consume and trap me like all the rest, my dreams of ever leaving Yakima ending here.

My mother's identity, in her decades working here, seems to have been reduced to a company shirt that clings to her skin in dark shades of sweat. ID badges hang around our necks. A pass to work — to exist. We hurry inside, where deafening generators run and metallic sounds reverberate, throbbing in our heads long after shift has ended. The place is a confusion to me, a complex mess of man and machinery designed only for one thing: to package fruit. The by-product: the erosion of the minds of the people working here. We walk through an invisible wall of icy air that sends chilly beads of sweat down our bodies. My mother pinches her shirt and fans it in the cool air, but the cold quickly consumes her in a shiver and she puts on her sweater. We split off, men and women to separate quarters of the building. Like sleepwalkers, people take their stations. Gray walls and blinding commercial lights around us direct people's gazes downward. My mother, a sorter, slouches over one of the many conveyor belts of fruit, shoulder to shoulder with other women, in a valley of mothers, grandmothers, and even great-grandmothers all conditioned to believe that this is all they can do with their lives. Little by little the company has stripped them of the things that identify them as individuals. They have removed their watches and jewelry. Their hair is tucked beneath blue hairnets. They do this until their individuality is largely erased. They become one monotonous shape, the shape of a worker. The conveyor belt flows with apples, pears, and cherries, depending on the season. Delicate fingers sort the fruit picked by the hands of mothers who live all across the Yakima Valley, fruit that ends up in stores, farmers' markets, and ultimately in homes across the globe.

The bosses are stationed above us, in mezzanine offices. They are vigilant. Some prowl the scaffolding with clipboards and walkie-talkies. A few senior-status Latinos are charged with supervising us, wearing a false sense of belonging and authority as though it were a badge. They pit us against one another, then reward us with company swag and lunch boxes.

Many times this summer I observe my mother hard at work. Harder than any mother should be. I watch her going through the motions, planted among machines. Nothing I can do about it but hold out for the day I will graduate from high school and go off to college, become a small-town hero, return a different man.

Until then, my jaws clench at the thought that my mother's body is being molded by the demands of apple-orchard owners. Her feet, shoulders, and hands seek relief from her sinking, stiff posture, her aches and misaligned joints. Blood queues in her calves in the form of varicose veins, and she shrugs at the pinch above her shoulders where the muscle has thickened like a bull's hump. A similar deformation is taking shape in her knees. Only now, this summer, do I learn the pangs resulting from standing for long hours in a factory. The uncirculated blood below the knees crushes my feet. I wonder how my mother has sustained this for as long as she has. Decades. I feel sorry for ever having been impatient with her, for not being more helpful around the house, and for not fully understanding what the warehouses were doing to her mental health. Years of toiling in these conditions has left her too beaten down to start anew.

I now begin to understand why my mother didn't want me looking for a job here. She was probably afraid of what I'd see or, worse, that I might view her differently.

But despite her misgivings, as soon as I was old enough, strong enough, I insisted on working with her at the factory. I am hoping to alleviate some of the financial pressure. Hoping, in my own naïve way, that I can do something to save our family, the unit that is clearly coming apart at the seams. What I am learning is that we aren't making it as a family. I blame Yakima for stretching us too thin. For keeping us separated on holidays and weekends because bills needed to be paid and food needed to be bought. For years I avoided facing this, knowing that I might crumble beneath the weight. To delve into this misery was not helpful to surviving the years. But my parents have lost the spark between them. Love for them has become just another part-time job on top of two or three other jobs. The thing about love is that it doesn't put food on the table. Working alongside my mother forces me to open my eyes. College will protect me. I have to save up enough money, somehow.

I think of the moments when my mother called me at home after school during her lunch breaks. There's food in the fridge, she would say. Not just the beans and rice we ate almost every day, or the tortillas lathered with butter and salt then scrunched into balls. Special meals that she cooked at night, at the end of her shifts, while I slept.

When I can, I wave to my mother on my way to an even colder section of the building, inside the freezer, where the product goes for storage. Even I can't escape the mark of labor tainting my shirt, soul, and mind. I'm demoralized by the images of my people almost prostrating before machines. I despise the way it touches me. The touch of toil. My eye sockets sink with exhaustion, fruit stains my clothes. My lower back aches and my feet feel hammered with nails. There are days that I can't help but feel a certain shame when looking into my mother's eyes. And it is for this reason that I hate the warehouses the most.

I begin to doubt if I can ever free my mother from the assault of the fruit industry. The harder I work, the more I feed into the whole enterprise, the more tired I get of fighting, the more I hate who I become, and the more I become part of the problem — I become efficient at the thing that I don't want to become efficient at. The harder I work, the more I begin to believe that I am only useful for my physical strength. I bottle up the worry for a later day, daydreaming about college counselors, financial aid, and course catalogs — when my time will come to do greater things far outside of town. I have to get into college. I have my high school counselors for guidance. I can pester them for information on colleges, financial aid, and tell them that the army is not for me — as is expected. Many here join the army in hopes of winning their citizenship.

"Amá," I call out to her on my way to the bathroom where long lines force me to hold it in. My voice can't shake her from the rapid river of apples. "Amá!" I shout against the clicks and clangs of metal mouths hounding my mother.

What chokes me up is the sight of her hand, hiding from the prickles of tendonitis and tucked between her left breast and soft stomach. Her hand is tender within a wrist brace. It brings her no comfort. Her other hand does the work of two, grabbing at the fruit as best as she can. Once again I shout to grab her attention until she finally forces a smile at me.

My mother likes to talk me up to her friends. They look at me like someone who could help change things around here. Here is as far as they go.

* * *

The alarms sound. The machines convulse again with rage for man and woman. Unforgiving. The speed increases. The shouting from above resumes. My mother's eyes fall over the belt again. I enter through plastic doors into another massive wing where fruit is stacked and stored. The temperature drops by several degrees. The roar of forklifts is in my ears as I dart through the mayhem to my spot at the end of "the line." There, the conveyor belt unleashes its tantrum of large fruit boxes. Diesel clouds from the forklifts act upon my nose like smelling salts and give me a jolt of energy that I take out in anger on my work. This is for my mother, this is for my father, this is for all the working-class people — of all races and colors, who have to put up with living like this. My gloves tear at the fingertips, nicked by the rough handling of boxes, and I suck my cuticles clean of blood. The taste of machinery is inside of me now, the iron taste of blood. Extra gloves come out of our paychecks so we keep quiet.

I'm on stacking duty, or estaquiando as the men call it. The men no longer look me up and down like they did the first day, as if to say, "He won't last," "Quit wasting my time," and "Here's another young sucker, fallen like the rest of us." Maybe now they see me as part of their own, something I both want and don't because it means that I'm adjusting. But I hate that success means that I must see myself as something "better," as non-Mexican. Maybe if I could keep seeing myself as something else, as something "better," I'd help end the vicious cycle of hard labor. But this is a privilege many people here don't have. They can't afford to see themselves as better than their condition. At least not yet.

The men and I wait at the end of the line. Our teeth chatter with cold like Morse code, secret messages decipherable only by those living inside. Hands rest on hips or under the warmth of armpits, chests expand rapidly after a flash of work, and eyes remain tunnel-visioned to one task: readying ourselves for the next batch of boxes. We say little during the calm. Our faces glisten with sweat. After each man readies his pallet behind him, he waits for the new barrage of product. It's during these moments that I become acquainted with a new kind of cold: warehouse cold. It's a cold that seals lips, that seeps into bones, that presses underpaid workers to work like robots. Our bodies chase after boxes for brief embraces of warmth. We put on flannel coats but still shiver. We pat our arms and stomp the cold from our feet like men caught in a blizzard. Regularly the memory of what goes on inside and outside these walls beats inside of me, while the other men and I march in place for warmth. Outside, somewhere on an orchard or construction site, my father continues to pick fruit or hammer nails into buildings that will stand long after him. I conjure the good hours, when I'm not at work, when I am among other Latinos who sit on their lawns BBQing carne asadas, sipping beer, listening to music, happy that another day has been endured.

We stand along the belt, muscles cramping from constant hot-to-cold transitions. The bellow of generators and machinery blends all noise together into one cacophonous hum. The warehouse white noise.

The buzzer sounds. Like clockwork, we pivot our weight, moving rapidly, tapping into our reserves to pick off fifteen-pound boxes like butter from the conveyor belt, stacking them onto blue wooden pallets. We hunch low over these pallets, gradually stacking them as we build them so high that we have to stand on our toes. Nine boxes per level, fifteen levels tall. We lift boxes with all our strength onto the pallets towering well above our heads, pushing with our shoulders and then fingertips. The product rises and rises, labels facing out. The labels must always face out. When they don't, pallets have to be disassembled. I'm still getting the hang of it. Pallets must stand straight. When the pallets get too tall, I learn by watching the other men how to flip boxes into the air like pizza dough, but with the weight of fruit. I feel something like pride when I catch on. A glimpse of joy, even, at the thought of beating the machines. I'm glad to be of help and ease the load of my coworkers. At the very least, I'm not a burden to them. But the joy is short-lived. Our hard work is used against us. The machines are recalibrated to move even faster.

There are two conveyor belts in my section of the warehouse. When one of the two lines queues up with too many boxes, everyone kicks into high gear to help. Boxes swell and slam into one another, piling up and knocking onto the ground. Someone will get fired for this. The boss can't allow for damaged fruit. One after another, boxes pile up while we struggle to rectify the collision. Men from other lines dart over to assist us, while also attending to their own line. Young and old men race back and forth between the lines, working with all their might to beat the indomitable machine. Sometimes this chaos brings a smile to someone who then yells a sort of war cry, known to Mexicans as an aipa. A sort of, "Bring it on, I'm strong enough!" It lightens the mood. It inspires me to do the same and work in harmony with my coworkers. But the smile soon leaves my face when we lose out against the apple apparatus.

This thing, this life cannot be beat.

If the line proves too overwhelming, a supervisor pushes the emergency button, stopping the conveyor belt. He waits until all the boxes are cleared. We, the defeated men, are reminded again that we are only men. Nothing more. Less, even, in the face of all this metal. White and Latino supervisors scold us for the delay, and before long, the buzzer sounds again, giving us little time to recover. Several times a day, for long hours, this is the routine. It's difficult to think clearly. The common response to the question of what time shift ends is, "When the trucks stop coming."

* * *

I must imagine my people as they really are. Not as I want them to be. Maybe then things will change. Maybe then it will hurt me enough to work harder to improve their conditions.

* * *

My shadow drags behind me as I step outside momentarily for lunch, into the blinding sunlight, and sit, pounded with exhaustion. My aching body does weird things in the transition from the cold warehouse to desert heat, similar to when you put frozen hands into hot water. My body swells and tightens against my skin. My rose-tipped nose and fingers burn with thawing and I scrunch my face to regain feeling there. My cold ears pop and for a minute I cup them with my palms to ease the sharp feeling. I sit on the sidewalk against the tall cement slabs to eat my food alone. Tacos de frijoles. Too tired to speak or chew. Workers everywhere crowd outside under the shades of hedges, or sit on old picnic tables, or lie down on the freshly cut grass in front of the management office. Do they not see us?

I look to my mother gesturing animatedly with one hand on the far side of the cafeteria among girlfriends, walking back inside with her lunch box. It's the end of her break. I see now that here are where all her friends are. She has built a life here. Her family outside of family and the reason she will probably never leave this place. Breaking ahead is a lonely venture without one's people.


Excerpted from "Spirit Run"
by .
Copyright © 2020 Noé Álvarez.
Excerpted by permission of Catapult.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Outline of the Run xi

Prologue xiii


1 Warehouse White Noise 5

2 The "Palm Springs of Washington" 21

3 Ganas in Carver Country 24

4 Getting Out 33

5 Walla Walla Walkabouts 37

6 Cold Feet 44


7 The Arrival 55

8 Tree Noodles 72

9 "Indian Time" 79

10 La Cruz de Campos 87

11 Glacier Dip 90

12 Washington Gray 95

13 Goldendale 99

14 An X-Man 102

15 Apache Medicine 108

16 Cougar Country 112

17 City-Slicker Natives 118

18 Tlaloc in L.A. 123

19 Southern Fire 128

20 Man in the Maze 134

21 Running the Wrong Way 139

22 The Devil's Coffin 142

23 El Chapito 146

24 Deer Runners 147

25 Chihuahua 150

26 Touch of Treasure 152

27 The Rebirth of Story 154

28 Nayarit 157

29 Mangoes 161

30 Santo Coyote 164

31 Hardware Store 166

32 Weaving Words 168

33 The Flying Men of Teotihuacan 171

34 Descending Eagle 177

35 Oaxaca 179

36 Zapatistas: Rebel Country 182

37 Acteal 187

38 Guatemala 190


39 Old Orchard 195

40 Today 204

Acknowledgments 217

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