An Obligation to Dream: Talking with Noé Álvarez
Noé Álvarez is the debut author of Spirit Run: A 6,000-Mile Marathon Through North America’s Stolen Land, a memoir that chronicles his life as the son of agricultural workers in Washington, and what happens after he gets into college—and then drops out to run with other Indigenous people from Canada to Guatemala.
Álvarez grew up in Yakima, Washington, a small town in a farming region known for apples and wineries, but despite the lush surroundings, life for his family was hard. His journey of running is also a journey of healing, and the prose in Spirit Run is both vibrant and empathetic.
Until recently, Álvarez worked as a security officer at one of the nation’s oldest libraries, the Boston Athenæum. I caught up with him by phone just as he was preparing to relocate from Boston to Seattle, and we talked about the realities of the working class, what it means to leave home, and how writing is a bridge between different worlds.
The Rumpus: Spirit Run is about many things, but it is centered around your experience with the 2004 Peace and Dignity Journey (PDJ), a six-thousand-mile marathon that, among other things, reinforces unity among Indigenous and First Nations people from North, Central, and South America. Remind our readers how long you personally were running for.
Noé Álvarez: I ran for four months out of the six months. In 2004, the PDJ went from Alaska to Panama, and I ran from Prince George, British Columbia to the Zaculeu ruins in Guatemala. The run happens every four years, and in each cycle it gets bigger. This year I was going to plug into it before the COVID-19 postponement, somewhere on the route between Alaska to Ecuador. There are runners in the Midwest and New York now. There is resonance with healing through running with so many people.
Rumpus: Your book opens with how much your parents—and other Latinx workers—endured and continue to endure working in the fruit-packing warehouses and in the apple orchards around Yakima and the eastern Washington agricultural districts. For context, sixty percent of Washington state’s apples orchards are in this region, and the industry relies heavily on the labor of Latinx workers to grow, harvest, and process the fruit. Latinx people make up more than half of the population in Yakima, compared to sixteen percent nationwide. Why did you begin here?
Álvarez: It’s a reality that I still reflect on. And it’s a hard one. There’s still this depiction that Latinos are subhuman, but we’re people, too, and we’re some of the nicest people, most welcoming, most hospitable people out there.
Yet, writing it was also a matter of outing my mom and my dad for the situation they were in, as people who had come to the US illegally, and talking about my mom working in an agricultural warehouse and sharing details about that work that might have felt private to her.
I wanted to protect their story, but it was also part of the story that I had to put out there, because I myself struggled to find a writing example that spoke to me.
For me, a large part was also about processing some of the things that I had gone through in my earlier childhood and putting words to it, to a past that I couldn’t speak about when I was younger. As I started writing, I wanted to have this story both for my family and for myself, and I had to figure out which parts of the writing were for me and which were for them.
Rumpus: At one point, you also worked in the fruit-packing sheds with your mom.
Álvarez: It took me personally working in the warehouses to see my mom, my people, and that work in a different light.
I understand that work differently now. Oftentimes, we take comfort by being in our own worlds. If you want to learn, you have to get into the space that makes you uncomfortable. In the warehouses, there are a lot of stories. There are a lot of lessons about both community and hardship. For those people who I feel would never jump into one of these spaces, people who have never worked in agriculture and who never will, I wanted to take the opportunity to share about it.
Rumpus: That’s consistent with what so many writers say, about writing the book they wanted to read, the book they could not find. How did your parents react to so much being shared about your family?
Álvarez: It was mixed. They were very happy and they are very proud. They got to see the book materialize in their hands, and see the visual product. They knew that I had been working really hard on it, and they knew the questions I had asked them. We had some very difficult conversations that were hard to have, but writing the book brought us closer together, because I was asking certain questions that I didn’t have the courage to ask before.
Also, the book is in English, and while my parents do speak some English, they don’t read. Even if it were in Spanish, reading is not something that I grew up with. We didn’t have that time to really engage in those activities, because the work for us is never over, even though we’re very much storytellers.
Still, my mom celebrated in the way she wanted to celebrate. It was over her favorite meal. We had caldo de rez, or beef stew, which is also my favorite.
Rumpus: You write about this in the book, but talk about what it was like for you to go from being working class with immigrant parents, to landing a scholarship at an elite private school, and then deciding to leave in order to participate in the Peace and Dignity Journey.
Álvarez: College was a lot of pressure. It freaked me out. There were so many emotions when I got accepted into college. I had been telling myself that all I needed to do was get into college. I hadn’t thought about what I would do after I got in, and then let alone a place like Whitman College. I didn’t think about things like mentorships. I didn’t think about how I would create community. I didn’t think about prep, so I was very unprepared.
I came from a high school that was half Latino students, and Whitman was a completely different space. I withdrew into myself, trying to pick up some of the habits, the cultures, as best as possible. But, I wasn’t understanding how to do this, and I didn’t know how to begin, and I was afraid to ask for help. It was a beautiful campus in beautiful territory, but I couldn’t do it, and I had a lot of shame around that. There was also the stress of being the one in my family who might save us from economic hardship, the one who would be able to fix it all.
Rumpus: You left college then, though you were still in your first year. Why did you choose the PDJ as the next step?
Álvarez: I learned about the Peace and Dignity Journey from a friend of a friend, and I thought, I have to do this, and I realized that while I thought through all of my young adulthood I was preparing to get into college, that the PDJ was really what I was preparing for. It was an opportunity to show my own strength. And, while I had shame around dropping out and quitting, I thought maybe I could recuperate some of that by telling my family that what I needed to do was to honor what it meant to be a migrant.
I had the privilege of being born in the United States, but I never forgot, and my parents never let me forget, the hardship it took for them to get here. I had so much pride in them, because they were capable of coming to the US. They didn’t know the language, and they were so young. Just having the pure courage to take the first step and go into a foreign land takes an incredible strength. I wanted to embrace that somehow. I wanted to restore that story and heal some of that trauma. I was having a breakdown at school, and I needed to heal, too. I needed to listen to my body. College was not the place for me, but home wasn’t the place for me either. I was displaced by my own emotions and my lack of understanding of my own history and my future. The idea of the PDJ was fitting into the space that I needed to be in.
Rumpus: The college part—it’s such the narrative that people love to hear. The idea of the son of immigrants working hard, getting into school, claiming his part of the American dream.
Álvarez: What is the American dream? That’s an ongoing question for me. What I know is that I feel it is my obligation to dream. It is my obligation to fantasize in ways my parents couldn’t. That’s basically been the narrative and legacy of people being barred from achieving something beyond just survival and working the land. There’s a lot of trauma to that narrative.
My family were dreamers, though, and they did so by dreaming a new opportunity by coming to the US, but they were always constricted by laboring on someone else’s terms.
On paper, I felt I was doing the wrong thing, dropping out of college—my only opportunity, as I saw it at first—and I had that on my shoulders. I knew I couldn’t go home, even as I had my emotional meltdown. But deep down, I knew it was the right thing so I stuck with it.
Rumpus: Why did you feel that you couldn’t go home?
Álvarez: I was always looking to get out of my hometown. That was always my thing, leaving Yakima. That was the only thing that equated with success in my hometown.
Rumpus: Leaving is the success.
Álvarez: Yes. It was the only thing I could see, and it’s sad, because maybe that’s why the town continues to go through challenges, is that people don’t have the courage to stay. That’s why I admire the people who do stay and put in that work, because it’s not easy. But at that time, I needed to be away from Yakima. A question I ask myself, and I wonder how far I would have gone or what I would or would not have done if it had not been for PDJ.
Rumpus: That’s interesting, and I think a lot about that, too, being from Tonasket [in the same geographic region as Álvarez’s hometown of Yakima – Ed.], where my only goal was to get out. Where, to your point, if people had the courage to stay, as you put it, how could those places be different? How could we really rethink that? How can we change the idea that the measure of success—when you’re from a small agricultural town—is leaving?
Álvarez: I would want to change that idea for myself, too.
Rumpus: I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t think I could live in Tonasket anymore. Or Yakima.
Álvarez: I think I grew up with that idea about leaving and not coming back. It creates a feeling of abandonment. People have been coming back, and there is wonderful work going on, but there is still of lot of work. For me that work is story, and going out there and meeting people and trying to sit there with them and trying to share with those who wanted to get out, but couldn’t. Or who just, for whatever reason, want to hear these stories that might benefit their community.
Rumpus: Why did you call the book Spirit Run?
Álvarez: I tell people that if I had to pick a religion it’s running. It’s the way I process my life. That’s the way I process my world, my emotions. That’s the way I unclog myself from bad thoughts sometimes. I wanted to really convey that it was a healing aspect beyond just physical, because it’s not just a physical thing.
On the run we would say “running is the easy part.” A lot of it had to do with being able to contend, not only with the other runners, and their different realities, but also contend with your own realities and your own demons and your own past and your own traumas. And so it took a lot of strength, spiritually, to just surrender to that process and being able to make ourselves vulnerable to surroundings and our own stories and to being okay with that.
Rumpus: What kernels, if any, of the book started to form while you were running?
Álvarez: On the run I had my journal and I would document things. There were so many beautiful experiences and I was just overwhelmed by them. There was the thought of doing something with it on the run, but I had literally no idea what that would be. I had never taken a writing class.
When I run today, sometimes the specific smell of a tree or will overwhelm me and trigger a memory of the run. The journal help me with some of those memories, but on the run itself, it was often just, I’m hungry; I’m tired. And you’re living in a moment and trying to sort of just check out sometimes. It’s hard to say if I knew that maybe it could be a book, since again, I was mostly just documenting the areas.
Rumpus: At what point did you know that it would be a book of narrative nonfiction?
Álvarez: The run and the journaling were about processing some of the things that I had gone through in my earlier childhood, and putting words to it—putting words to a past that I couldn’t when I was younger.
PDJ had been my longest, best-kept secret. Not a lot of people knew that story. I was even more guarded about it than my past as a laborer and my parents being working class, which didn’t feel like something to be proud of.
As I started writing, I wanted to have this story both for my family and for myself. I wanted to talk about it, and that’s when it began to take the shape of something that would become Spirit Run. I want to talk about it more now. I feel like my life these days is just the overwhelming pride that I have from my past and, and the work that I do. A lot of my work is still anchored in work, so I work in the evenings with homeless populations, and much of my background is in social work settings and with immigrant and refugee populations.
Rumpus: I feel like, as someone who also has a working-class background, that my perspective on writing is so much that of “just sit down and do the work.” Keep doing the work until it is done, knowing that it will never be done. I’m curious what the connection between having a working-class background and the ability to write a book is for you. You had an incredible experience and a journal to work from, but that’s not the same as getting a book to publication.
Álvarez: Just like when people asked me how I prepared for the run, it feels the same as writing a book. It’s absolutely my upbringing. Having an understanding of how many hours my parents worked, and how many hours so many other folks work, I started to expect a lot out of myself in my writing. If I was not writing for longer than four hours, when everyone else is working eight, ten, twelve hours, I would think, come on.
Rumpus: You would say “come on,” pushing yourself to do more than four hours of writing? Because that’s a lot.
Álvarez: Yes. At the same time, I still feel so much anxiety sitting down to read. Sitting down to write. Just sitting down. I think, what if my dad saw me, sitting here, what would he be thinking? I remember what it was like to be a kid. I was always mowing the lawn, or doing something, and he was always putting me to work—and work meant movement. Your body is the representative of production.
I still struggle with that, but I value the lessons that he taught me, and that is why I can sit down and write, even though I am restless. Before COVID-19, I rarely worked in my apartment. I always would go work somewhere new.
Immigrant communities and their spaces are very comfortable to me. I guess I’m still searching for my family in those spaces, and still looking for meaning, and I’m still looking to honor that past while recognizing that I’m a much more privileged place. But, I feel most at home in working-class spaces, and I feel safest in those spaces.
Rumpus: So you have to reconcile the idea of production and what that means, how it looks, how it is measured.
Álvarez: For as much as I majored in philosophy when I went back to school, I can’t work in the abstract. A lot of me writing is an ability to process what I’m living and I have to be living. I will continue to write, but I will also work just as hard, if not harder, to continue to be engaged in these communities. That is my fire and my medicine. Writing is my therapy, my medication. When I can connect to both people and writing, it’s beautiful magic.
Photograph of Noé Álvarez by Mia Concordia.