A few years ago, Maria Solis Belizaire decided to run the NYC Marathon. She looked for a group of Latino runners to train with, but couldn’t find any. This hole in the market, combined with Maria’s passion for running and desire to instigate change in the wellness future of Latinos around the world led her to found Latinos Run. The group hosts free weekly runs in NYC (for walkers through elite runners—so don’t be shy!), as well as other health and wellness events in New York and around the country. Want to make a difference in your community in 2017? One way to do so is to create a Latinos Run team in your area.
We caught up with Maria last week to learn more about the activities of Latinos Run, her purpose and goals, and why this cause matters. Here is that conversation.
HipLatina: How did you first get the idea for Latinos Run?
Latinos Run: I was a runner in high school, and it was a passion for me, but I got away from it as I got older. Then when I was in Florida, my twin sister took me to a mud run. I then did a color run, and a few other short runs, and they were fun but I really couldn’t do them. Then my friend who is an ultra marathoner convinced me to sign up for the New York marathon. There’s a program called 9+1, where you run nine races and volunteer in one, and then you can automatically sign up for the New York Marathon.
I tried joining a Latino group to train with, but there weren’t any. So I joined the back girls running group. And I kept looking around for a Latino group—I looked everywhere, but I didn’t see any.
HL: So you decided to start Latinos Run to fill that gap?
LR: Yes. I kept waiting for someone else to do it, but then I realized, “It’s you.” I met a track coach and he wanted me to join his team, but I told him I wanted to do Latinos Run. I thought about it for years before doing it—I actually purchased the website domain a year before starting my LLC.
There were a few small running teams that I found, but they weren’t exactly what I wanted. I didn’t want to just create a running team; I wanted to create a movement.
HL: Tell me about your concerns about the health of the Latino community.
LR: Sure. The statistics are scary—over 80% of the Latino community is overweight and unhealthy. The Latino community is obese and sick. I lost my mother and I lost my best friend, both at young ages, and both were obese. I thought, we’ve got to start something. I’m trying to do my part to change things.
I don’t think change will happen as quickly as many of us would like, because change is slow in communities. But it can happen if we make an effort.
HL: Obviously prevention is the best medicine, so the earlier people can get informed and get healthy the better. Are you doing any running programs with kids?
LR: Well, our regular running group has no barriers for age, gender, ability—no barriers at all. We’ve had mentally and physically disabled people run with us. We have some people who aren’t even Latino, but they just wanted to find a great running group. So kids sometimes join in, but not generally in our night runs. But we are relocating to The Armory in Washington Heights, and we are hoping to start a youth running program there.
HL: What about expanding Latinos Run? I saw that a group just started in D.C.—are there others in more U.S. cities? Do you want it to grow? What about expanding into other areas?
LR: Yes, we have a group for Virginia, Maryland, and D.C. My goal for next year is to have 30 teams throughout the U.S.
I also want to focus on food. We have to raise awareness about healthy eating and advocate for change in healthy options in our communities. It unsettles me that when I walk around a white neighborhood, there are cafes with healthy options everywhere, but as soon as I get into a minority neighborhood, all I see is McDonalds. That will be another one of my goals for 2017—to promote healthy approaches to Latin cooking.
HL: Are there any programs for non-runners who want to get active?
LR: Yes, we have walking groups and biking as well. We just had an event with Citibike this weekend—a community bike ride. They gave us the use of 40 bikes for a few hours, so we got to explore uptown Manhattan and build our community.
Citibike reached out to us because they want to expand into more diverse areas. Right now their rental stations are mostly in white areas, but they are actually expanding from 110th to 135th in 2017. We are hoping they will expand into the Bronx as well.
HL: I lived in New York between 2004-08, and when I saw people riding bikes in the streets then I thought they were crazy—it looked like you could just get killed so easily. But I recently moved back to the city, and I rented a bike here for the first time last weekend—and it was amazing. So fun! The new bike lanes and the Hudson River Greenway are awesome. And Citibike was so easy to use.
LR: I know what you mean about the safety issue. But things have really changed. Transportation Alternative is the group that advocates for safer bike lanes, and we are one of their partners as well.
HL: Why do you think the stats are so bad? What factors play into that situation?
LR: I always find that there’s a language barrier when it comes to health in communities. We have to find ways to get the message to people across the language barrier. There are also safety concerns in Latino communities. We need to make outdoor areas more accessible for Hispanics—with clean parks and safe places to run and walk outside.
HL: What can people do to make a difference in their communities when it comes to health and wellness?
LR: People can speak to their local politicians and join community boards to advocate for change. There are options out there, tools to promote healthy living, but the problem is learning about them, making them more accessible.
For people who have safety concerns about exercising outside in their neighborhoods, there are indoor facilities that are accessible to low-income people, and that can be the better option depending on your area. Many gyms are ten dollars a month now, and of course there are things you can do at home. Here in New York, Citibike has a low-income program for their annual membership.
HL: What should our readers do if they want to create a group in another city? Should they reach out to you on social media?
LR: There’s a link on my website on how to start a group. It’s easier than a lot of people realize.
click here to learn about forming a Latinos Run group in your local area.
–Eva Gordon is the managing editor of HipLatina