Women Run These Streets: How These Runners Are Reclaiming Boyle Heights

It’s 8pm on a Wednesday night at Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights. The full moon hangs low over the buildings, and a sundry of runners have begun to gather. Boyle Heights Bridge Runners (BHBR) isn’t your typical elitist Los Angeles running group. Their Facebook page states they “welcome all levels of runners,” and a quick pan of the scene finds women and men of all ages, colors, and shapes filling the plaza. Newcomers are easy to spot with their feet shuffling at the edges of the square while core Bridge Runners encourage everyone to move in and come together.

“We’re about community here. We aren’t into clicks,” Lizette Perez, BHBR core member and group stretch leader, is proud to say. When Lizette leads the group stretches, she begins by encouraging runners to move to another location in the circle and to introduce themselves to the people next to them. On this Wednesday, everyone obliges, and one man, a Proyecto Jardin gardener, openly offers he joined the weekly meetup to show support for the Bridge Runners who organized a solidarity run to the community garden in a previous week.

“That was a cool run,” says Perez, “because the garden is between an industrial building and two homes, so most people don’t even know there is a community garden here.” She wears a Proyecto Jardin t-shirt and  says she rushed over from a community meeting. The Jardin farmers, including Perez, are currently in a lease dispute with the garden’s landowner, White Memorial Hospital.

Amigas Who Run collage
A group of Boyle Heights Bridge Runners trained and represented at the Los Angeles Marathon. Photo courtesy of Boyle Heights Bridge Runners.

She mentions the lack of open space in Boyle Heights and encroaching gentrification. Rolando Cruz, another core Boyle Heights Bridge Runner, speaks to the community’s concern with gentrification when asked about the running group’s growing popularity within Boyle Heights and beyond. “People will always be welcome, [but] we also understand that it's a delicate time for the neighborhood, and we are very conscious about battles taking place over open spaces…We don't shy away from those issues, but for the most part, the runs are dedicated to empowering the community…for individuals in the community and people from the greater Los Angeles area.” For Myra Vasquez, core Amigas Who Run founder, running can be a personal act of pride: “There are people who run sometimes who are like, ‘I didn’t know this mural is here,’ or ‘Wow, look how beautiful this garden is.’ Running where you live is a way of embracing your roots. I know the feeling when I’m running, and I’m like I live here. This is where my children live. This is where I met all these people. There is a special connection.”

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Vasquez and other women runners within the Boyle Heights Bridge Runners are currently preparing for their second annual Amigas Who Run, “an action of solidarity with women athletes and activists worldwide,” on Sunday, March 13th.

The name for the event came out of the hashtag #amigaswhorun created by co-founder, Elisa Garcia. “When you run with your friends,” Vasquez explains, “it is something extra special and therapeutic to your soul. It’s something that empowers you, like when you meet your comadre. It’s getting together with your sister, your comadre, your aunt.”

The importance of these relationships among women is highlighted in th Boyle Heights Project, a study conducted in 2013 by the East Los Angeles Women’s Center and funded by the California Endowment, and the role comadres and promotoras play within the community. The study states: “A Promotora is a trusted community member who can effectively create change… building trust and breaking silences within communities. The Promotora concept existed as a culturally specific model that recognized that a great part of learning among the Latino community occurs through conversation and interaction with friends, family members, and comadres. Within Latino culture, comadres are women friends who may assist in the raising of children as godmothers, share advice and insights about women‘s roles and lives in the community, and generally serve as a support network for women.”

Amigas Who Run Founders at Espacio 1849
Founders of Amigas Who Run at Espacio 1839. Photo Courtesy of the Boyle Heights Bridge Runners

For Vasquez, a mother, licensed childcare provider and community promotora, this run is about reclaiming women’s health. “Health nowadays is colonized, like doctors know everything, [but in the past] our doctors were our grandmothers, curanderas, herbalists, la sobadora. These were all women, and I feel like we’re born healers…And in [Amigas Who Run] I see the sisterhood, the checking in on each other.”

But Vasquez is clear to point out that women’s health is also about creating safe spaces for women to practice healthy exercise. “Unfortunately, we live in a society where people think it’s ok to harass you or to cat call you. I feel like Amigas Who Run and Boyle Heights Bridge Runners have created a space where women feel safe because, I know as for myself, if I’m going to come out and run, and it’s past a certain time, I always think twice, [and] if I’m thinking about it, how many other women have this same feeling? When we say health issues… ‘health should be every woman’s right’ that falls under that.”

Roxanna Curiel, Youth Program Coordinator for East Los Angeles Women’s Center also sees a need for education on this topic and works with teenagers in East L.A. schools such as Garfield, Roosevelt, and Mendez High School to create programs that have “a conversation with youth around what is public safety in regards to street harassment, [and] how to create safety in the streets for everyone.” Though ELAWC is not directly involved in the run, Curiel says she plans to run as a community member: “What is amazing about this event is that it’s bringing people together and is making the streets less scary.”

Besides creating safe spaces, the event is also creating personal space for self-care. According to ELAWC’s Boyle Heights Project report, “women have also become the main economic provider for their families and in Boyle Heights this is no exception as single mothers head 27% of households.” As wage earners and caregivers, it is common for women to lose track of themselves while juggling duties such as helping the kids with homework, picking up medication for the parents, prepping lesson plans, grading papers, watering the neighbor’s lawn, etc. On this point Vasquez quotes Audre Lorde:  “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.” She says she keeps these words close to her heart and hopes the run can inspire some of the same spirit within other women. “Everyday we’re mothers, we’re sisters, we’re teachers, we’re community members, but we forget to take care of ourselves. If we can create this one day that can spark up that fire to keep going, then that’s what we’re going to do.”

Amigas Who Run at City Hall
Part of the Boyle Heights Bridge Runners, Amigas Who Run has consistently grown and now will host their 2nd annual women's run. Photo courtesy of The Boyle Heights Bridge Runners.

Back on the 1st Street Bridge, a string of runners bob below the moonlight on their return to Mariachi Plaza. Traffic sounds fall away as the bridge crosses over the concrete L.A. River. In the glow and quiet it is possible to ruminate on past generations. Historically, Boyle Heights’ population has been made up of immigrants, and in the last 40 years the majority has become people of Mexican and Central American descent. Many people at some point have crossed these same bridges to search for low-wage employment in the districts of Downtown Los Angeles, and for some new immigrants, running for exercise may not have always been an option, but Vasquez, a person who has lived in Boyle Heights for 13 years and whose husband was born and raised in the area, says running on the eastside isn’t anything new. “There have always been runners. I guess because I work with children [I notice] when you see children giggling and laughing, they’re running. [I see it in] the Tarahumara, and I feel like it’s in our blood.”

A woman in her early 40s joins this night’s run for the first time. She lives around the corner from Espacio 1839, the community collective and storefront that currently acts as the Amigas Who Run headquarters, and made the decision to come out after crossing paths with the runners one night while getting tacos for dinner. She brings una amiga with her and is clearly nervous as she joins the beginner two-mile run that starts at 1st and Boyle, runs to Alameda Street in Little Tokyo, and circles back. By the time she and her friend return they are both smiling and laughing.

For those intimidated by running, Vasquez says she often has people telling her they aren’t runners, but she tells them, “you are a runner, you just haven’t refreshed that memory.” She is filled with joy to know the Boyle Heights Bridge Runners and Amigas Who Run have created a space where women, and their friends, can feel comfortable to join and rediscover that part of themselves.

The March 13th, 2016 event will begin with registration at 8:00AM at Espacio 1839. The run is free, and run packets will be on a first come first serve basis. The day’s events will include opening words by Jollene Levid, National Chairperson of AF3IRM and a community stretch with BHBR core member, Lizette Perez. Security will be provided by Los Angeles Derby Dolls, a Southern California all-female roller derby league. At the end of the run three women drummers from Felicitas & Gonzalo Mendez High School will be welcoming the women. In addition, runners can commemorate the day at a photo booth by Las Fotos Project, a non-profit dedicated to “empowering Latina youth through photography and self-expression.” 

For more information on Amigas Who Run or for information on how to support this grassroots, community event visit their Facebook event page.

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