The Yakima Valley is a prolific center of Washington fruit production — Yakima County leads the state in production of apples, sweet cherries and pears. But the fruit industry is not sweet; like most large-scale agriculture in the United States, it relies heavily on exploited workers.
Many agriculture workers are immigrants and/or undocumented, working for very little pay and essentially no benefits, other than piles of free fruit. Fruit that rots in homes like Noé Álvarez’s childhood home; a symbol for him of the burden of being in the working class in America.
“Day and night the fruit river runs,” Álvarez writes in his debut memoir, “Spirit Run: A 6,000-Mile Marathon Through North America’s Stolen Land.” As a teenager, he starts working in a packing warehouse alongside his mother, and quickly feels the constriction of capitalism. “My jaws clench at the thought that my mother’s body is being molded by the demands of apple-orchard owners,” Álvarez writes. “I hate that success means that I must see myself as something ‘better,’ as non-Mexican.”
As a teenager, Álvarez viewed college as a ticket out of orchard life, a narrative many young people are fed. He earned a full scholarship to Whitman College in Walla Walla, but quickly realized school is not a silver bullet for either his personal development or the way white America treats him. In his sophomore year he learns about Peace and Dignity Journeys, an organization that orchestrates epic, spiritual runs wherein two groups of indigenous people run from across the globe, from Alaska to Argentina, meeting at the equator in a symbolic gathering of all indigenous peoples. Along the way, the runners carry physical and emotional symbols of unity and participate in local ceremonies with the people of the lands they run through.
“Spirit Run” is a very different kind of running book. Before feeling called to join PDJ, Álvarez ran only for emotional cleansing, not competition. It was PDJ’s focus on social justice and restitution of the colonized lands of the Americas that drew the author to embark on his journey. Running as a socially healing act is not a narrative one hears often; so much of mainstream running culture is deeply rooted in capitalism and commercialism. PDJ, and “Spirit Run,” actively reject this side of the sport.
“Orchard life has contaminated my relationship to the land,” Álvarez writes. “I saw land assaulted … I grew to hate the land for what was done to it, and for what it had done to my parents.” But, he writes, “Like language, running creates us and holds us accountable to the world around us … Running invites us to reimagine our future.”
“Spirit Run” is a narrative deeply rooted in the body, both as a singular organism and a part of humanity’s whole. It ambitiously conveys how complex the relationship between body, land, spirit and groups of people can be.
The run is messy. There is not enough food or water; the participants, who all have their own baggage, are in constant conflict with each other; the land can be unforgiving, as can joints, muscles, minds and hearts. “It’s difficult to model behaviors of peace and dignity on an empty stomach, battered knees and soul, and beaten pride,” Álvarez writes. “We are only small pieces of personality pushing forward toward better versions of ourselves as best we can.”
The book itself is a fascinating memoir of a very specific attempt to practice justice and connection.
The prose in “Spirit Run” is lyrical in its description of land and body, of human pain and hope. At times, the pacing is uneven — not unlike being on a run — and the story lacks some specifics, both in the recounting of the run itself and some of Álvarez’s childhood flashbacks. Some runners seem far away, not fully fleshed out, and the conflicts mysterious. This can be a side effect of writing about other people while taking care for confidentiality, and Álvarez clearly takes care not to say too much.
The result can leave the reader wanting, but overall, “Spirit Run” succeeds in a major way: combining the acts of a body with the sowing, and sewing, of humanity and land. The land and people of the Americas bear the scars of injustice. Sometimes the pursuit of healing is a physical act.
“Spirit Run: A 6,000-Mile Marathon Through North America’s Stolen Land” by Noé Álvarez, Catapult, 240 pp., $26