Gloria Alatorre: Learning to fearlessly be

Words and Photographs by Joy Davis Ripley. This piece was originally published in 2022.

As an alternative and holistic healing practitioner, Gloria Alatorre is a bold leader who has a profound relationship with the natural world. She is connected deeply to Winona through both the soil, which nourishes the wild herbs she uses, and the water that surrounds the large sandbar we call home. 

"I grew up near the ocean," Gloria says. "I started with salt water and wound up with sweet water." As she recounts her journey northward, to a small river town where the Mississippi flows west to east, she links the river to the way she views the world. "Water is life. We're all made up of so much water, and yet it's also alien to us. Water is a great teacher and tells us, Be like me. Be shapeless and formless. Learn to adapt." She pauses, deep in thought. "Water always brings me back to my original shape, who I am."

I have met Gloria here, in this wild spot, to photograph and interview her. We pick our way to a trail, avoiding both the instability of the loose rocks and the dry seed-pod burs that dot the landscape here. Just like the Mississippi on its west-east divergence, Gloria is deviating from society's expectations in order to find her truest self and calling.

I have known Gloria for years, as a Human Rights Commission member, deeply passionate about social justice issues; as an interpreter for WAPS, dedicated to ensuring that every child's voice is heard and understood; and as a mother, determined to raise a human who will help make this world a better place. Today I'll discover the heartfelt devotion that drives her, as a coach and guide, to help make her community stronger and more resilient.

"I recently had an existential crisis," she shares with me, explaining that a romantic break-up led her down a path she had not envisioned. "I had to ask myself, What do I believe in? I followed someone who could not be there for me, and my break-up led to me losing myself. I lost myself completely before I finally found myself again."

On the narrow path, we wander past river bulrush and sugarberry trees to trace the edges of a pond while Gloria explains further. "When my relationship ended, I broke open. Breaking open has been my greatest teacher in my darkest moments. We need to break open to let the light in. Patience and transformation are the name of the game in this life." 

Gloria knows brokenness. She knows that our culture has resulted in exploitative relationships and a dehumanization of untold millions of people. She knows that the deep divisions in our society have resulted in rage and aching loneliness, the proliferation of mental illnesses and abject despair. She knows there is a much better way to live, and she is forging ahead, creating her own deeply spiritual path as she discovers it, and inviting her community to join her on her journey.

"I am unapologetically fierce in who I am," Gloria says. "It's okay to accept who you truly are.  You must be okay with losing yourself, and finding yourself, and losing yourself, again and again. We must be willing to change." 

"I allow myself to be who I am," she clarifies. "I have embraced who I am, and I hope to help others embrace who they truly are. Again and again, I put myself in the beginner's mind, in the learner's mind. I become childlike." She shows me a quote on a little piece of paper that she has carried with her for over a decade, and I read the words "to learn from, and with, one another."

"This is what true community is," she declares. "I get rid of my ego to learn from my community, even as they learn from me."

Just after her break-up, Gloria awoke one morning to an owl outside her bedroom window crying, whoooo whoooo. "I knew that was a sign that I needed to question myself," she says.  "I had to ask myself who I was and what I really believe in."

To find our truest nature, Gloria believes, we must pay close attention to Nature as she changes around us, and take our cues from her willingness to be diverse in her being.

As we step off the path, a wild tangle of side-oats grama and sandy loam slows our steps to a dry wetland. Gloria sees tall spears of mullein in the distance. She walks straight to a patch, as though it calls to her, and gently touches the tip of a mullein spike. "This is one of the first herbs I took the time to know," she says. Just like the mullein, Gloria too had her dormant period; and just as the spike she caresses will soon burst into a yellow flowering to attract bees, Gloria is cracking open and bursting into her calling. 

Gloria helps individuals in and around Winona to "find balance in relationships and in life decisions." She does this through Japanese energy work called reiki, herbal medicine, and cartomancy. Akin to psychiatrists using inkblots to plumb the psyches of their patients, Gloria uses cards to help others discover what may be inhibiting their joy and obstructing their growth and resilience. "I provide guidance," she explains. "My coaching, which is a dynamic, interactive practice, involves bringing awareness to the fragmented parts of people's beings while learning from self-love and the wisdom of the natural world." In short, she holds "light for others. I know how to hold my own light, and I help support others as they learn to hold their own light."

"It's so easy to be overwhelmed by the expectations of society," she continues. "It's easy to be overwhelmed by an inability to know how to connect with my spirit, and the insecurity of not knowing if I'm doing it right. The rebel in me wants to say, Fuck society and its norms. But we need each other. We need our community, our support. We really need to be connected and engaged with each other." 

It's easy to assume that we're more connected than ever, but Gloria knows how much of this is an illusion. Technology allows us to travel the world through our fingertips, to remain always in contact with friends and strangers, to broadcast our day's choices of food or fashion on social media platforms. But we must learn to make the choice, again and again, to intentionally slow down and not let a fear of missing out cause us to always seek something out there, outside of ourselves. Gloria understands this, and to make a positive impact on her community, she mindfully turned inward. "There's so much pressure," she says, "to be someone. I hesitate to use the word authenticity because it's overused. But it's okay to be unapologetically who you are. When I say, Be true to yourself, what I mean is, Fearlessly be." 

Gloria has learned how to fearlessly be from the natural world. "Nature slows you down, if you pay attention," she says. She quotes a poem by John O'Donohue, the Irish poet-philosopher:

“If you go out into a place that is wild,

your mind begins to slow down, down, down.

What happens is that the clay of your body

retrieves its own sense of sisterhood

with the great clay of the landscape.”

So true is this poem for Gloria that she has dedicated it to memory.  "Nature has been my greatest teacher," she declares. Her willingness to allow nature to teach her what she needs to learn is radical. "Nature is cyclical and chaotic, resilient and nourishing. She lives, dies, revives, dies again, lives again. Nature pulls me closer, and I am someone who is willing to go through very deep introspection to give voice to the alternative."

As she stops to gaze at the darkening canopy of nearby swamp trees, Gloria explains, "Everyone has darkness, which may be a spiritual heaviness or density." In our society, we're encouraged not to heal, not to grow our minds, not to explore how we can help others, but to compete with others for ever-shrinking economic resources, and to accept our own commodification, and to spend money on the next thing that will bring us but fleeting feelings of happiness and wholeness.

"We're fragmented," Gloria says, explaining that cultural demands tear us away from who we really are. "I want to tell people to go through their darkness," she says, "but it's so hard to be with one's darkness. When we practice being with it and giving it a voice, we become more resilient."  She watches the trees sway in the breeze. "A heaviness, a density, in your soul may weigh you down, but we can learn to embody stillness with it, and then learn to set it free."

"We have such beauty and such polarity in ourselves," Gloria continues. "I am guided by what is said and what is left unsaid, and I can see the good and the less-than-good."

With patience, she works through this comprehensive dialectic to help others reach something higher, an integrated synthesis in which her gentle, wise guidance helps others to fearlessly be. 

Find out more about Gloria and all she has to offer at

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Spillway is an initiative supporting artists, culture-bearers, and local organizations in their expression of the diverse cultures, communities, and histories of the Upper Mississippi River region.  

The stories shared here were produced through a collaboration between Art of the Rural and Engage Winona.

This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.