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When Memory Compels You to Volunteer: a Race The Bronx Conversation with Gina Martinez

Updated: Apr 3, 2023

by Sydney Valerio

Pictured here, at the NYC Marathon, is Gina Martinez, one of many volunteers in the 2022 inaugural Soundview 5K

Photo by George Tewkesbury

In April 2022, Race The Bronx (RTB) successfully launched its first annual Soundview 5K with an operational model that included a team of runners who laced up their shoes that Saturday morning, not to race, but to volunteer their time to make the event run well.

Gina Martinez was part of that team of volunteers. The sold-out inaugural race packed Soundview Park on an overcast Saturday morning. Upon arriving, runners from many different parts of the area were greeted and welcomed into an inviting green space filled with new and familiar faces. Instantly, a line was formed by a large orange RTB media wall that illustrated the entire borough of the Bronx. Area residents looked towards the gathering crowd with awe and smiles. Some also joined in the cheering and became spectators of the event. Along the race path, cheer stations were formed, photographers captured runners, run/walkers, walkers, and families, as each one of them set out to complete their goal of the day: crossing the finish line of the Soundview 5K race.

As we get ready to host the second annual Soundview 5K race on Saturday, April 8th, 2023, I spoke with some of the volunteers from last year’s race who shared with us why this park and event was extra special for them. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

I heard you were a volunteer at Race The Bronx’s 1st annual Soundview 5K. Thank you for taking time to converse with me today. So, amidst all that you do, you actually find time to volunteer. I'd love to talk to you today about that experience and about your childhood experiences at that park.

Yes. I'm so excited to talk about it. When I heard about the Soundview 5K race, I could not believe that it was a real thing. And I say that just because I was just like-

Wait, what? Like, really this is happening in the Bronx and in that area of the Bronx.

I was so over the moon and just happy to know that there were activities happening, especially for runners, in that area of the Bronx. I grew up going there every weekend. So to just go as an adult, and play in you know, I guess in my adult version of playing now, was a really cool moment for me.

So how did you find out about the race event? Take us back to that moment.

So, I am one of the members of WRU CREW (We Run Uptown) and our community is so big. I think that it was on a run on one of our Monday night runs. We do 5Ks every Monday night out of Locksmith Uptown. And I was running with Jose, who's been running with WRU Crew for way longer than I have and on a lot of my Monday night runs, during that time I was struggling since I was recovering from COVID. So he would always distract me with a conversation or by playing some music to just kind of like, you know, try to get through the hard parts of running those hills Uptown, out of the way. And the conversation that night started with, Hey, are you going to the Soundview 5K?

Since he knew that I live in the Bronx. He's like, Hey, are you going to the Soundview 5K? And I was like, What? What are you talking about? And he's like, yeah, the Soundview 5K. And then he told me all about it. He was like, here, I'm gonna give you the sign up link after we're done so you can sign up for it.

We usually make two stops on Monday nights so I think the first stop he sent it to me right away and he was like sign up before it fills up.

And I was like, Oh my God yeah lemme do it.

I was so excited. I was so happy about it. And then, we finished the run that night and we were just hanging out at Locksmith. We probably had a couple beers or something, I took a cab, and literally by the time I got home the race was sold outl!

Oh No!

Yeah. And I was so sad. I was so, so, so sad. I remember writing to the Race The Bronx Instagram and being like,

Hey, like I really wanna run. Let me know if there's any way, like any extra, you know, spots available.

And for me, like during that time when I was running, I think I had recently met, Sol, but I didn't know her know her, like the way that I know her now. And, during that time I wasn't like I am now-running was very hard for me. I'm in a different place now, but during that time, running was very hard for me and it was just me kind of like getting my health back.

Yeah, so I didn't care. I was just like, I know that people wanna be fast for this, but I don't care. Like, I just wanna run a race in Soundview and have that in my memory bank.

And, I was so sad that I couldn't sign up for that one. So I was like, all right, whatever is the next best thing I'll be there, you know?

I'm actually glad that I didn't run. Uh, of course I say that now in retrospect, but I'm glad that I didn't run because I really was able to take everything in. Like, I'm talking about I was able to stand in the same spots where I learned to ride a bike, you know. And I'm watching my friends run down that same path where I learned to ride a bike and one of our WRU girls, which is one of my running friends too, she’s a personal friend outside of running, she ended up winning the women's portion of it.

Oh my gosh, that’s dope!

Yeah, Melanie, shout out to her. So yeah, it was such a great day, like such a special moment for me. I am so grateful whenever I get to have those serendipitous moments, you know, where you kind of connect things in your past to your present life.

That's so cool that she just so happened to be your friend and won the race.

Yeah, that was amazing. She's super fast. I was not surprised, but like I was still in awe, you know, there were so many amazing runners there that day. But it was so cool when I saw her coming down and said what we say Uptown.

We always say: You better get this money!

Like anytime we're running fast or like we're trying to just motivate each other, we'll just be like, Let's get this money, Sis!

So I just remember yelling at her like, You better get this money…but don't fall!

It was super wet that day because it was raining. We were standing in the rain screaming. I just remember running to the halfway point and then running back to where the finish line was and she was out.

What are some other memories from that day?

So our community from Uptown pulled up strong. Like everybody pulled up and I remember at one point I was like holding the stuff on repeat because the wind kept blowing it and then we were just kind of like running around.

What else did you do in your volunteer post?

So I was making sure that the runners were going in the right direction and I was definitely bringing the energy. So if we ever meet in person or in community, you'll see I am the loudest person within the vicinity. And the reason that I'm loud is usually because I'm cheering somebody on and I get like just so much energy exchange from that.

Like, I just love it, especially because I knew so many of the runners, so being able to call them out by name, and just let them know like,

Yo, you're killing it. You got this!

You know, calling out the photographers and because a lot of our friends are personal friends. We're the ones with the cameras. Yeah, just calling them out like,

Hey, this person's coming up. Like, you know, don't miss this person.

I have a curiosity. Did you get to sign up in time for this year? Are you running the second annual Soundview 5K?

So I am not sure if I'm running only because I am going to be in Dominican Republic more than likely. I'm also doing The Speed Project (TSP) this year and TSP is at the end of March. So hopefully if I am in New York I can make it but if I'm not then I'll just have it transferred to somebody that would like to run.

Ah, so you definitely secured your spot! So let’s talk about your childhood and being in that space. I know you touched upon it before-how that was a park where like you said you learned how to ride a bike. So I’m sure you noticed the renovations, right? What did that park look like then compared to what it looks like now? Can you tell us a bit about your childhood there and what your thoughts are about Soundview Park?

I came to the Bronx from Dominican Republic. I was born there and my family and I migrated to the Bronx. So, while I'm not a first generation New Yorker I consider myself a New Yorker because I grew up in the Bronx. Soundview Park was the park where my uncles, their wives, my cousins-we all got together to bring back a little bit of home. And what I mean by a bit of home is baseball. Baseball in my family is a holy sport. Everyone knows the sport is popular in many Dominican households but in my family it is such an important time that brings us together, even if it's just to watch the game on the television. My dad was a major league baseball player and that's actually why we even got the opportunity to come to the U.S.

Oh, really? Your family has an MLB legacy. This is remarkable.

Yes, he used to play for St. Louis Cardinals. He was a pitcher. His name is Julian Martinez. He was number 22. So baseball was our entry into the country. Baseball is a really big part of the legacy in my family. So, my dad retired and went out to do other things in his life. One of the things that he did was opening up a taxi cab company in the Soundview area.

It's called DAT Car Service. 718-328-8888 has been its number for like 30 million years.

I love that! Your dad created pathways and connections for other families to also find their way in New York.

Yeah, so any Dominican who will hear this knows what I'm talking about when I say like, every weekend you would go to parks like Soundview Park and you would see a bunch of grown men playing softball. And usually most of these softball teams were represented by taxi cab companies or other businesses. The taxi cab companies were a big part of it because that's where all the Dominicans were during that time.

You’re right. My uncles, my dad, cousins, and even my mother were, and some still are, cab drivers.

Yes, Dominicans are cab drivers driving all over New York, you know, hustling, and making money. Many of my uncles were those people. So, they would put together these softball teams and every weekend that's what we did. We went over there, they would compete, and they earned trophies-it was a legit league.

The kids would go and the wives would make spaghetti in the big pot and would bring trays full of rice, sandwiches and everything. We made it a whole day thing. We were there early in the morning on Saturday all the way until it got dark. So many memories.

I specifically remember though being told:

Do not pass from that point and from that point there.

We were only allowed to go so far, of course, as kids because, you know, they didn't want anything to happen to us, but it was just truly not a safe area in the Bronx. So they were like, you can play, you can have fun, but I don't want to see you pass that point. And if you want to go past there, we'll go take a walk together later, you know, and the adults would come with us or our older cousins.

Did you live walking distance from the park?

So I didn't I live in the South Bronx but on Southern Boulevard and Longwood Avenue. Today it is part of my Saturday morning runs. I get up, run the Bruckner and make a right. I go all the way down to the trail that connects the Bruckner to the Bronx River and then to Soundview. So for me it's less than a five mile run. And it's something that I do often as my long run.

So you're saying that the connecting path wasn't there before?

It wasn't there before. Not even that long ago it was super unsafe to even run in that area. There was barely a sidewalk.

So it wasn't pedestrian friendly?

Exactly. The South Bronx at the end of the day now was so much of a different South Bronx than it was 20 years ago. But the literal, just the literal act of physically trying to run through there was impossible, there were not enough pedestrian walkways. They started an initiative about five years ago, and they connected all of that stretch and I think that was a big part of the Soundview Park renovations.

What's something unique about the park that was part of the renovation that makes you step back and go--Wow, this is different but it's pretty cool?

So I remember the area where we would go with my family and where my parents and my uncles were playing softball, we used to keep it clean. We would get there early to clean it up because it wasn't kept clean. So we would get there early, we would all clean up so that when everybody arrived to play it was decent.

You know, there were a bunch of like needles and bottles and all of these things. So as a community, we just came together to do that because we knew that this was going to be our spot for the day.

And then I remember whenever I got permission to walk around with one of my older cousins, or my mom or my aunt, I just remember it just being like very dirty. Like I remember actually asking my mom like,

Mom, why is the Bronx so dirty? Why is this park so dirty?

You know, it's not something that I remember from Dominican Republic. I had to be like eight or nine years old. And I just could not understand why the parks in the city and not in the Bronx were the only parks I remember being nice. My mom used to make sure to take us to Central Park for walks and stuff. We have always been very active and the softball teams actually played in Central Park sometimes. But most of the time home base was Soundview so I remember my mom just saying like,

Oh, maybe like it's just a different city.

So when I saw the renovations, I saw how there were even places you could not have walked through in the past. When I saw the renovations it was so amazing to me.

The thing that stood out the most to me was the theatre area where they do the plays. I'm not sure what they named it, but it kind of has like an amphitheatre vibe. And that had me like,

Oh my God, we have an amphitheatre in a Bronx park!

Like, I could not believe it because that is so important since as a people, culturally, we love performance, we love to dance, we love it. You know, we might not know Broadway as much as other people might, or you know what I mean, not to say that we're not cultured in that way and we don't go to Broadway.

But like everything for us is a performance, as you know, culturally, as people we stand up, we're in the middle of the room, and we're always dancing. It's just naturally who we are. So for the kids to be able to have a space to call their stage in the Bronx is definitely amazing.

You’re right--the amphitheatre was part of the running route too, I remember.

It was, yeah, it was on the way back towards the finish line.

So when you were volunteering the first annual Race The Bronx Soundview 5K it sounds like you experienced this race as a volunteer and had a fuller experience. It’s pretty cosmic, if I may say, it's almost like you gave us a blessing for the inaugural race in this park since you and your family had a connection to the land, you know what I mean?

We’re so grateful that you were part of making sure everything was organized for runners, including me, I ran the race. Is there something that you would share with people about volunteering? Is volunteering something you've done for a race before?

I volunteer often. We have our WRU Uptown 10k. Josh, one of our WRU Crew co-founders organizes every year and it's an unsanctioned race. There's a lot to volunteering because you have to make sure everybody's safe, and people are going in the right direction and stuff like that. So I volunteer for that event. I mean, our community at WRU Crew is just one big family that volunteers, I think that outside of running, I'm so big on community, because I come from such a big family, that for me, community is everything. So I just naturally show up to a space and for me, it's just natural to be like,

How can I help? What can I do?

My background, for years before I became an aesthetician, which is what I do professionally now, was in the hospitality profession. I organize and know everything from operations, to logistics, to everything you can think of that puts events together.

In my family a gathering consists of like 100 people. So I think, naturally, we just fall into these roles early on in our lives that make us who we are later on. And it just becomes who we are.

So for me if I answer the question, when have you volunteered? You know, it's like, I don't remember a time where I didn't, you know, it's like such a big part of who I am.

Why would you suggest someone volunteer for Race The Bronx?

I think that it is so important for us to always give back to where we come from. Especially when you're from that Bronx area because you're bringing a real experience and real energy. It's not like someone else coming from somewhere else and coming into our community and doing something or changing something.

You know, that's a big problem that we have in New York. And we've been very loud about it in the last couple of years. The way that we avoid that type of gentrification in our own communities is by actually being a part of our own communities. You know, a lot of us go to college, don't go to college, make some money, and don't make some money.

Many of us leave our communities. And because we don't live there, we don't come back and do anything for them. I think if we can change that--like yes, it's important to survive the hood.

When you come from places like Soundview or The Bronx you feel accomplished, right? “When you leave the hood?” I say that in air quotes. But in reality, I find more pride and staying in the hood and building it up and making it better.

You know, even if I leave, you know, like I'm back, and I'm here and we should ask ourselves:

How can I help? What can I do?

So to be a volunteer in races, like the Soundview 5K for me, it's just like, being part of a legacy. Honestly, because who are we if we're not present in our own community and are we just going to let other people come in and do what we can do for ourselves?

Amen to that. You know, Gina, it's been so wonderful talking to you today. I'm sure we've crossed paths many times. Certainly, I am looking forward to sharing future moments with you.

I just want to thank you so much for you also taking the time and also doing all of this and helping Race The Bronx with everything. I think it's so important that we stay active in our communities and make these things special. I love all of this race community building in The Bronx that is happening for us.

Sydney Valerio is a storyteller and writer for Race The Bronx. She is a local Bronx crew runner and marathoner. She believes in the healing power of beets and community.


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