Fuerte y Unidas

By Joe Rocha | Monday, November 22nd 2021

Blanca “Bella” Gonzalez’s workout instructions ring loudly. Her students’ grunts are only outdone by the bass of the tribal music emitting from the giant boombox in her garage. For Gonzalez, the jolt she gets from pushing her Del Valle neighbors to finish one more rep is better than any morning cup of coffee.

“When I’m instructing a class, I feel like a different person because I love motivating these women,” Gonzalez says. “I am their motivation, so I need to give them my best.”

Gonzalez opened Fit Strong with Bella at the onset of the pandemic, when the gym she attended closed. What started off as a solo-project has blossomed into Gonzalez hosting multiple workout classes a week. All of Gonzalez's students are Latinx, a group that can be at an elevated risk for health conditions brought on by obesity. According to a 2018 study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, almost half of Hispanic adults are inactive in physical activity.

“It's a cardio-intense Zumba dance. I also teach strength classes,” Gonzalez says. “Some come to lose weight, some come for health reasons. Some come for anxiety, for stress.”

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Blanca “Bella” Gonzalez (center) completes a set of arm raises during a workout class at her home in the Los Cielos neighborhood. Gonzalez teaches Zumba and strength training classes multiple times a week.

Del Valle community member Maria Guadalupe Salazar is one of Gonzalez’s students. She says she dedicates time to working out daily because it helps her keep up with her kids.

“Working out raises your energy levels. It makes you feel better the rest of the day,” Salazar says.

For folks in Del Valle, making the decision to start physical activity comes with caveats. For one, there are no gyms in the area.

“Del Valle is kind of far from Austin, so it was hard to find a place to work out,” Salazar says.

Besides the lack of gyms and workout studios, language can be a barrier for many. An estimated 77% of the population in Del Valle is Latinx. Gonzalez instructs workouts in Spanish, making her classes more accessible to many in her community.

“The majority are Latinas. The majority of us speak Spanish,” Gonzalez says. “It’s important to feel comfortable in any place that you go.”

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Fit Strong with Bella students Lore Ortiz (left), Mirna Barajas (left center) and Claudia Servin (right center) celebrate Blanca “Bella” Gonzalez’s (far right) birthday at an IHOP in South Austin on October 28, 2021. Many of Gonzalez’s students have become friends who rely on each other for support.

It’s not just gyms that don’t offer resources to non-English speakers. Lorena Cruz works as a community health worker for Austin Public Health, often working in Del Valle. She says this community faces challenges when trying to access basic health information.

“If you don’t have anyone to translate for you or help you navigate the system of health support … You don’t have access to it,” Cruz says. “And our community isn’t well educated about chronic diseases like high blood pressure.”

Chronic diseases like high blood pressure and diabetes are common in Latinx communities. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Latinx Americans are more than 1.3 times more likely to die of diabetes than non-Hispanic whites. Lack of access to healthy food contributes to this issue.

“So you start cooking with food from a can or frozen foods,” Cruz says. “Many immigrants move here to work. So they work all day, get home tired and it is just easier for them to eat fast food. There’s a variety of food for them but it's not healthy.”

While Cruz is doing outreach in the health sector, Gonzalez is doing similar ground work in her community. After workouts, Gonzalez and her students often get together to discuss nutrition. Although she says she is not a nutritionist, she encourages her students to eat healthy.

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Blanca “Bella” Gonzalez (left) chats with Mirna Barajas (left center), Nancy Martinez (center right) and Alicia Sorto (right) after class at her home in the Los Cielos neighborhood in Del Valle on October 29, 2021. Gonzalez and her students often hang out after class to talk about workout routines, nutrition and life.

“It won’t help you at all to suffer through an hour of working out to then eat unhealthy food,” Gonzalez says. “Practically, 80% is nutrition and 20% is exercise. They go hand-in-hand.”

Gonzalez hopes to continue to inspire her students to lead a healthy lifestyle. Her dream is to one day see her students turn into teachers.

“Believe me, it would feel great to me because I would feel like I did my job,” Gonzalez says. “For me to say, ‘Come stand next to me,’ and you say, ‘I can do this too?’ I’m gonna say, ‘You can do it.’”

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