Braulio Acuria ’13 is on a mission. Affectionately known as the Boogie Down Bronx, Acuria is determined to get more young people to explore beyond his home borough and into the wilderness—any wilderness.
“I’m a big guy,” says Acuria about his 6-foot, 300-pound frame. “So, nobody is going to mess with me.” He knows how hiking in the middle of nowhere for most kids from the Bronx can feel unfamiliar and unsafe, and how the absence of city noises can create an unsettling ringing in the ears. “It can be just too quiet,” he says, describing how the silence of the North Country can be, at times, deafening to someone who is comforted by the companionship of trains, planes, and automobiles. Once acclimated, however, Acuria is the first to breathe in the surroundings and all the benefits that come from building a stronger relationship with the natural world.
“I was born and raised in the South Bronx in New York City,” says Acuria, whose family is originally from Ecuador. “I think I always wanted to be outside and to be in nature,” adds Acuria, “but, for me, there was no direct connection to it.”
It wasn’t until high school, when Acuria started to explore what was beyond the Bronx, through buildOn, a nonprofit that organized overseas service learning trips for high school students. The program took Acuria and some of his classmates to Malawi for two weeks to work with local Malawian communities.
“It was my first time leaving the city,” says Acuria. “My first time getting on an airplane. It was very wild,” he admits, but it gave him the confidence to explore outside of his Bronx community.
For his next adventure, Acuria decided to travel north, enrolling at St. Lawrence in 2009. College wasn’t necessarily something he had in mind, but with encouragement from Bill Short, director of the Arthur O. Eve Higher Education Opportunity Program (HEOP) at St. Lawrence, and a birthday bus ticket to Canton from his mother to visit the campus, Acuria decided to commit to the seven-hour trek to be the first in his family to attend college. With a major in environmental studies, he immersed himself in North Country hiking, canoeing the Grasse River, and jumped feet first into the Adirondack Semester, an unusual choice for a kid from the Bronx.
It was during the Adirondack Semester when Acuria visited Bittersweet Farms, located in Heuvelton, New York, and met Ann, Brian, and Catherine Bennett ’16, the family that had been running Bittersweet for the last 40 years. The students learned about the Bennetts’ sustainable farming and regenerative agriculture practices. “The family was so knowledgeable and had a way of explaining our dependence on land and animals, why they are important, and how we’re connected to them,” says Acuria.
“What I learned,” he says, “is that when I’m in nature, everything slows down. I become more reflective because I’m not on social media. I’m off everything. I’m more present—a lot more present—and not worried about the future, and not thinking about the past.”
“And, so, the day I graduated from St. Lawrence,” Acuria recalls, “I said goodbye to all of my friends. I packed up my stuff and went back to the farm for two weeks. We drove to Heuvelton, and my family dropped me off and left me there.” That day, in May 2013, Acuria remembers that everything just slowed down and he was able to live in the moment.
“I remember I was just planting, so many tomatoes, onions, and it was so delicate,” he says. “Me, you know, a 300-pound guy, transplanting these small plants. I would be in the field for hours just focusing on these plants and then focusing on the animals. And those two weeks were amazing, seeing the stars from the cabin so clearly. I loved that.”
It was experiences like these that brought Acuria full circle working for six years with buildOn in the Bronx to organizing high school service projects in community gardens, beautifying parks, planting trees, or working in soup kitchens. He also took students on trips similar to the one he experienced in high school, traveling to Haiti, Nicaragua, Senegal, and Malawi.
Now, Acuria works with 30 students as a program associate for Summer Search, a nonprofit that helps students from the Bronx be successful in their education and beyond. Before COVID struck, Acuria had taken students on hikes and nature walks north of the city, and even camping in Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn.
“It’s not the best camping,” says Acuria, “but for my kids, this is amazing. Just seeing raccoons in the wild is a new experience.” It’s not the Adirondacks, but for Acuria, it was a step in the right direction. That all came to an end in March 2020, when everything had gone remote and Acuria found himself at ground zero of the COVID-19 pandemic, sheltering in place and helping family members in the Bronx survive New York’s tragic losses.
“April was the worst,” recalls Acuria, who lost an aunt to COVID and was, at times, the only member of the household who could pick up medications and go to the supermarket. Once Acuria’s supervisor announced that they would be working remote through September, his immediate impulse was to get outdoors. He emailed the Bennetts at Bittersweet with a proposal to volunteer at the farm, and within minutes, they responded, “When can we pick you up?”
After spending the month of June back in the North Country, Acuria has had a chance to reflect. Being both a Bronx native and a Laurentian with a love and knowledge of the outdoors, Acuria is uniquely qualified to foster new relationships with the natural world, especially for young New Yorkers.
“There’s a whole world out there,” says Acuria, always at the ready to give advice on how to prepare for a safe excursion, what to bring, who to notify, and how to be mentally prepared to explore the outdoors for friends and families not familiar with hiking and camping.
“It’s the mental space,” he says that gets in the way of young people getting outside of the Bronx. “They just don’t believe they can get out there.” But Acuria doesn’t mind being the first person to introduce the concept of wandering through the woods, understanding that fears and concerns come with outdoor adventures.
“I love dispelling stereotypes,” says Acuria. “I’m doing things that people don’t really think we do, especially as a male person of color.” Bringing his city and rural experiences together to explore and appreciate the beauty of New York state, is his new mission. “Once you have bridged the gap,” says Acuria, “or proven to people this is possible, it’s totally worth it.”
This October, Acuria is back, only he is not alone. He has convinced one of his former students, Bronx native and St. Lawrence junior Manny Salazar ’22, to join him, bringing more of the Boogie Down into the Barn.