Refinery29 Somos is dedicated to elevating, educating, and inspiring a new generation of changemakers committed to Latinx visibility. It’s through this platform, created in partnership with Ulta Beauty, that we’ll explore the unique issues that affect us and dive into the parallels and contrasts that make our communities so rich‚ all while celebrating nuestras culturas. Here, Afro-Latina marathoner Maria Solis Belizaire shares her mission to make the running industry more inclusive by inspiring future generations of athletes. This story was told to Jennifer Mulrow and edited for length and clarity.
I’ve wanted to be a runner ever since I was a young girl. In elementary school, my teachers would line us up to race and I remember always beating my classmates. As kids, my parents had us play all types of sports, and when I started playing soccer, I watched one day as my coach pulled my parents aside and suggest they put me on the travel team because I was one of the fastest runners. It’s a select team that gets to play against tougher competition; that’s when I knew running was my thing.
I grew up in South Florida (a very outdoorsy place) in a culturally diverse family. My father is Belizean and Mexican with family from St. Lucia, and my mother was Puerto Rican. Some summers, they would send us down to Puerto Rico to spend time with our grandparents. As Latinxs, we do everything as a family. That means showing up to a sports event with the whole crew in tow or teaching each other how to cook our meals — Belizean, Mexican, Puerto Rican food — at family dinners on Sundays.
Looking back at my younger years, I am often reminded that outside of my family, up until 8th grade, my school in south Florida was not very diverse. I saw myself as a dark-skinned girl, and I was one of maybe two or three Black kids in my class. And even though there were plenty of Latinos in south Florida, they were mostly light-skinned, so I felt confused about how to identify as a Black Latina.
Years later, when I was in high school, my life took a turn when my mother became incarcerated. One day she just didn’t come home. A few days later, my grandmother arrived from Puerto Rico to care for us. I remember crying to my mother on the phone after hearing she wouldn’t be coming home anytime soon. It was difficult, as I was just a teenager. At the time, my father worked late, so he suggested we find after school activities to kill time. That’s when I joined the track team.
However, after coming in close to last place in my first few long-distance track meets, I eventually stopped running. I went to college, got a job in fashion, and didn’t get back into running until a birthday trip to Florida in my 30s, when my twin sister called me up and said she had signed us up for a 5K Color Run. My sister, niece, and I all dressed up in these matching tutus and raced together. Years out of practice, I couldn’t run to save my life. But, even though I was out of breath, it reminded me of my childhood dream to "be a runner" and that inspired me to get back into it.
I was living in New York City at the time, so I called up a runner friend of mine who suggested that I run the New York City Marathon. Honestly, it didn’t even cross my mind that I would be eligible to run in the marathon, because whenever I watched it (I lived a few blocks away from Central Park), I never saw Latinos in the first group of fast racers. I never thought that someone who looked like me could run in it. I immediately went online to sign up, but in order to qualify for the marathon, you have to run in nine races and do one volunteer first. So, I set a goal to qualify for the following year and signed up for every race that was left that year.
After running the first race by myself, I realized how much more I would enjoy running with a team. Running can get lonely, and I needed that extra push if I was going to run the famous New York City Marathon. So I joined a few well-established running groups, but found that they all shared one thing in common: They consisted mostly of super-fast white men. I wasn’t always able to keep pace with the group, so I would sometimes find myself left behind on long runs. That was when I knew I needed to create a group that felt like a safe space, where people weren’t being left. I had to create something that was for us.
So, one day after a race, still feeling the need to find a group that fits me, I went online and searched “Latinos run.” Nothing popped up. The domain name itself was actually available, so I went ahead and bought the website and began asking people if they wanted to start the group with me. Initially, no one took me seriously. They thought it was a joke. They would laugh and say, “Latinos don’t run” or “Latinos are fat,” which only made me more passionate about changing this misconception. Because it wasn’t just anybody saying this to me, sometimes it was Latinos themselves. We needed to change this perception of our own community — that we don’t work out and that we don’t run — because it’s simply not true.
I ran into this same stereotype when I was looking for companies to sponsor the organization. I sent out thousands of emails to every news outlet, magazine, and brand you could imagine looking for sponsors, and they all turned a blind eye. I thought, Why wouldn’t they want to spend some of their budget on a community like ours, one of the fastest growing demographics? Ironically, after the recent protests in our country and the attention on communities of color, I can barely keep up with the amount of messages coming into my inbox today — many from the same companies I had previously reached out to for years.
Despite initial difficulties getting support early on, I eventually reconnected with a coach in 2016 to help me start Latinos Run, an organization that promotes running as a way to improve the physical and mental health of the Latinx community. Once we got it up and running, the response from the community was amazing. In the beginning, we had about 20 adult runners. We focused on the New York City area before expanding across the country. Shortly after Latinos Run took off, I launched Latinas Run as a safe space for women. Today, four years after starting Latinos Run, we have around 25,000 runners (both adults and kids), and groups all across the country and abroad, in places like Latin America and Europe.
For me, I always believed running is a universal sport — almost everyone at least owns one pair of sneakers — so why is it that there is such little Latinx representation in one of the most popular activities in the world? We know that people emulate what they see, and if they don’t see themselves in places or positions that matter to them, it affects their desire to participate. That’s why my hope for these organizations has always been to increase Latinx representation in the fitness world. When I flip through running magazines or scroll down the Instagram pages of major running brands, I rarely find a person of color in any advertisement. And that has to change. Because the image of running isn’t a 30-something-year-old white man — it should be as diverse as our country is.
It's worth noting, also, how the global pandemic has impacted Latinx communities — those who are most affected by the virus tend to be people of color. But, on a positive note, since we cannot gather indoors, I've never seen so much participation in outdoor activities: picnics, walks, bike rides. There are plenty of free virtual runs now, too. People are opening up their minds to new things that will improve their health — both mentally and physically — and for many, that means starting their fitness journey.
I also believe that what you do echoes through generations. If a mom is out there running, she is teaching the next generation, who will go on to teach the next generation, and so on. It starts with something as simple as finding a walking trail or getting a mile in every day. Every year, we host our Hispanic Heritage Month Run where we award medals to hundreds of kids across the country who participate. I always think of how many kids it might inspire to get out there and start running. Fifty years from now, they might look at that medal and tell their own kids the story of their first race.