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6,000 Miles From Canada To Guatemala On Foot In 'Spirit Run'


This summer, a group of runners will start a marathon in Alaska, but they won't stop at 26 miles. Instead, they'll run thousands of miles in a relay for 10 to 20 miles a day for months. The race is called the PDJ, Peace and Dignity Journeys. It's an Indigenous movement, and it takes runners through native lands in Canada, the U.S., Mexico and Central America. The PDJ happens every four years. Noe Alvarez ran it in 2004 when he was 19 years old. He's the son of Mexican immigrants, and he told me when he was young, running had a different meaning.

NOE ALVAREZ: You know, we'd run away from gangs, or we'd have to run away from, you know, immigration like my parents did. So, you know, it's just exploring how running really becomes a healing act when you're dedicated to something greater than yourself - you know, when you run in the name of something or someone.

SHAPIRO: Alvarez writes about the PDJ in his debut memoir "Spirit Run." It's his story and also his parents' story. They both worked in manual labor in agriculture in central Washington state.

ALVAREZ: You know, I remember being, you know, woken up at 3 o'clock, 4 o'clock in the morning and taking to the fields while my parents labored away, and I would wake up under an apple tree and then help my parents out however I could. So my dad had this whole thing about getting out as soon as you can. You know, do everything you can. Don't be like me. So that was the narrative, and he had a lot of shame in being who he was. So for him, the only thing - the only solution was to get out. And so for me, I had a strong love for the land. You know, I had a strong respect for my people. But I had to honor my dad's wishes and say, you know, I got to do something better.

SHAPIRO: You got a full-ride scholarship. You went to a prestigious private college, Whitman. And in the middle of your education, you decided you had to leave and do this run.

ALVAREZ: I did. The pressure to save my family overwhelmed me. And I quit college, you know, after working so hard to get there - just, you know, the culture shock of having to - you know, the basics - using a spoon and a fork where I was accustomed to eating with my hands, eating tortillas. Like, every step of the way, college was a very difficult thing for me. And it happened to coincide then when I was 19 years old with the Peace and Dignity Journeys, a six-month-long run that's organized every four years. And so it kind of saved me. It came - it coincided perfectly. I said, I needed to get out. I couldn't face my family. This is an opportunity for me to kind of hit the restart button and go and figure myself out.

SHAPIRO: What made you think when you were looking for an escape hatch that the Peace and Dignity Journey would be it, would be the right move?

ALVAREZ: Yeah. So what I learned about Peace and Dignity Journey was that the goal was to visit with Indigenous communities, build relationships and engage in ceremony with them. You know, it was to get us to move again and take action, you know, for our lives and building momentum around running and carrying your community forward. It was that whole community aspect - you know, just, like, being around people who are modeling what I guess my dad couldn't model - right? - articulating, you know, that spirituality and that emotion, that love you have for your people and figuring that out. So that was what, you know, motivated me to join.

SHAPIRO: It seems like in a lot of the journey and the run, you struggle with this tension between - how do you pay tribute to your parents? How do you progress from where they were without seeming to disrespect their work and their life?

ALVAREZ: Right. So I guess a lot of it had to do with honoring my parents' story, right? Like, migration was big - you know, that my dad and my mom had accomplished so much, leaving so, so many difficult situations back home - you know, my dad, you know, being homeless in Mexico. So for me, I didn't want to move on, I guess, you know? I wanted to embrace that sort of wandering spirit, just this desire to move. And oftentimes, it was because we had to, right? So it was part of my narrative. It was ingrained in my brain and my blood and my genes. And so when this run came, I sort of felt that it was an opportunity for me to engage in those similar movements and that journey that my parents had taken because it was very heavy what my mom and my dad shared, you know? It was a very scary thing to run, and I didn't want to leave it there, you know? I needed to go back and address it and confront it and make it beautiful again to some degree, if that makes sense.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. You weren't able to carry much with you, obviously, but one of the things that you did take on this run was a dictionary (laughter). Why did you bring a dictionary?

ALVAREZ: Oh, wow. You asked that question. Yeah, I figured that I could have all the books in the world in a dictionary - right? - because, you know, I wanted to take things. I told myself, what would I do, you know, out there when I was bored? I inevitably - I figured I'd be bored. And I - you know, I always had this fascination with language. Like, I feel like I'm making up for lost time. So for me, language is like a muscle that I needed to rebuild, you know, that I couldn't utilize as a kid, you know, because I - you know, I was, you know, put in detention for speaking Spanish. And, you know, so I was making up for a lot of lost time. And so for me, language and storytelling and running are, for me, like, the mediums for connecting with people, you know?

SHAPIRO: So what would you do with that dictionary when you were, you know, camping in the wilderness in Canada or the U.S. or Mexico and you pull that dictionary out of your pocket?

ALVAREZ: I would flip through it, you know, and I would just sort of find words. And so if you saw my journal that I have about the experiences that I had, towards the back, it's full of words that I wanted to learn, you know? So I just wrote words, these big words and...

SHAPIRO: Give me one.

ALVAREZ: ...Things. Oh, no. Oh, no. Oh, no.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

ALVAREZ: I'm telling you, I still have a fear of language. I still, you know...

SHAPIRO: Just one. Just one.

ALVAREZ: (Laughter) Retrolenticular.

SHAPIRO: Ooh, what does that mean?

ALVAREZ: That which sits behind the lens, I believe. So it's like - I think you can do a lot with it - right? - because it talks about vision - like, seeing before seeing kind of thing...


ALVAREZ: ...If that makes any sense.


ALVAREZ: And so I think it's a very scientific word, but I think I try to make it poetic. But yeah, retrolenticular was the one that stood out to me.

SHAPIRO: That's beautiful.

ALVAREZ: Yeah. Thank you.

SHAPIRO: I mean, as we've discussed, you struggle throughout the book and, I think, throughout your life with what it means to be working-class. And I noticed that your bio in the back of the book says until recently, you worked as a security guard in a library. At the same time, you have degrees from Whitman and Emerson. You studied at Princeton. I mean, is this still an identity struggle for you?

ALVAREZ: I think it is. I think maybe all those, you know, achievements were still sort of a desire to show my family that I could do it. But I still - I feel like over the years, I'm embracing every day being working-class. You know, I so, so much want to be back on the farmland. I so much want to be with my dad picking apples. You know, I still want to do that, you know?

SHAPIRO: Even though it was a horribly unpleasant experience for you and for your dad when...


SHAPIRO: ...You were both doing it.

ALVAREZ: Right. Right. And so I want to transform that experience, and I think there's still some healing that I haven't, you know, experienced around that. And it's traumatic, you know, still. But I like to be, you know, with my, you know, sleeves rolled up, you know, with my people, trying to fit in as much as possible. That's where I want to be, you know? And I don't know why I do these things to myself and just get out there, but I find myself very restless, very curious about the world. I just wanted to collect as many stories about the world as possible and figure it out, and I feel like the more I get out there, the less I know. And so it's like - I don't know. You know, writing is what allows me to sort of process all of that stuff.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Well, Noe Alvarez, thank you for talking with us about your new book.

ALVAREZ: Thank you so much, Ari. I appreciate your time.

SHAPIRO: It's called "Spirit Run: A 6,000-Mile Marathon Through North America's Stolen Land."

(SOUNDBITE OF SOHN SONG, "SIGNAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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