In many ways, Xiuhtezcatl (pronounced Shoe-Tez-Caht) Martinez is a typical teen. He’s passionate about music, concerned about his homework, and peppers his speech with words like “yo” and “damn.” In other ways, he’s not so typical: At just 16 years old, he has more experience fighting for the environment than most people twice his age, more than most people, period.
Raised in the Aztec tradition and aware early on of the connection between people and nature, Martinez made one of his first public speeches on the environment at age six, reflecting on the sacredness of the planet and noting that “every choice we make is for or against our future.” He hasn’t stopped speaking on behalf of Earth, or his fellow humans, since.
Martinez is the youth director of Earth Guardians, an organization of young people working to address climate change, founded by his mother, Tamara Rose. He’s also an eco hip-hop artist, a plaintiff in an innovative lawsuit against the Obama administration for its failure to act on climate change, and a public speaker at venues around the world, including at the UN General Assembly on Climate Change in 2015. Oh, and he’s also a high school student in his hometown of Boulder, Colorado.
When I sat down with Martinez at the Bioneers Conference in Marin County, California — where I saw him perform a hip-hop set with his younger brother, Itzcuauhtli Roske-Martinez — he was clear about his goals and why he works so hard to raise awareness and engage other youth. “There should never be another need for action at the level that I’ve taken in my life from anyone else ever again after my generation,” he said. “I’m hoping that it ends with me.”—Zoe Loftus-Farren
Zoe Loftus-Farren: You’re only 16, and you’ve already been an activist for a decade. How did it all start? How did you develop this unique awareness of climate change, let alone this intense commitment to address it?
Xiuhtezcatl Martinez: My mama had been involved in activism — she started an Earth Guardian school in 1992 in Maui, Hawai’i — and all of my siblings were involved in speaking and activism, performing and making music about it. My father had been an ambassador for Mexico, talking about culture, environment, and spirituality. So [there was] just a great amount of awareness in the way that we lived our lives as a family, in trying to use as few resources as we could, and [we were] just very aware and conscious.
[There was] also my connection to my roots, my ancestry, the indigenous part of me that felt a sense of responsibility as a person to protect and connect and be a part of something. And I guess growing up and learning about the world and seeing things getting worse, I was like Yo, action needs to be taken on such a greater level.
Part of your philosophy seems to be that youthfulness specifically can be a powerful tool as an activist. Can you explain your thinking around that?
I believe that young people in the world are often seen as the future, like, Oh, you’re going to make a difference in the future; you’re going to be a leader in the future. For me, meeting kids all over the world, there’s such an understanding that there is a need for us to take action now and to be engaged today because our voices are so powerful.
I saw that when I was nine years old and I started taking action in my local community. There were like 12 of us, going up on stage, each delivering a speech about pesticides and how we had to ban them in our parks. The amount of impact that that had on our city councilmembers, that was so huge. We created change. Our voices are incredibly powerful as youth.
More and more we’re seeing empowered young people standing up to take action on the frontlines of all these movements. We’re going to be inheriting every problem that we see in the world today, and every crisis that is currently happening is going to be so much worse when this world has been passed on to us, so the amount of action we do today will determine the world and how it will be in the future. It’s important to start now.
Do you have a sense that youth are becoming more active in the environmental movement than they have been in the recent past?
In the last 10 years I’ve seen an explosion of diversity in the environmental and climate movement. When I first got involved, [the movement was made up of] all of the people that had been involved in the peace and environmental movement in the 1960s, so a lot of older people, and I was that one kid that was at all of the events. Now I see things like the Bioneers Conference, and over 500 young people have come on scholarship, courtesy of Bioneers, and even more young people [have come] independently to participate in this event. It’s amazing to see. You know, I just had a jam session with 50 kids, just hanging out, playing music.
So definitely there’s a greater sense of awareness, greater sense of necessity to take action, and greater opportunities and tools for young people out there to create change. We are really working as a global community to uplift and empower young people. It’s amazing.
You mention new tools, but my understanding is that you have mixed feelings about new technologies, that you think technology can serve as something that disconnects us from each other. Do you also think it can serve as an important tool in the climate movement?
Definitely. The reason I’ve been able to have such a huge reach with the Earth Guardian movement is because of social media, and the way it connects us all as a global family. We’ve never been so connected in human history as we are today. It just [depends on] the way social media is used. If it’s used in the right way for the right reasons it can work as a catalyst to create a lot of opportunities to share information, to connect people all over the world, to create amazing collaborative projects, to offer new opportunities for solutions that we’ve never seen before. Every solution that we are seeing is coming from amazing opportunities with new technology, as well as an understanding of these old ways of life that have been passed onto us. So I think that it’s a balance, for sure, that is very necessary.
Your music is obviously a big part of your life, and a lot of your lyrics have pretty powerful messages. Do you see your activism and your music as interconnected?
I feel like my music sprouted from an understanding that speaking to an audience wasn’t always gonna reach people. I started writing music as a way to just talk, using hip-hop to talk to young people. [I realized] that maybe they wouldn’t listen to an hour-and-a-half speech, but if I performed a song with a message behind it, they would be more keen to listen to that. That’s just what it was. I wasn’t a talented artist or MC or anything. [But] it’s a huge part of my work now. And in just the last year-and-a-half I’ve fallen in love with hip-hop. The ability to use this music to create change in the world and to inspire people is just off the charts and is so exciting. Now I’m producing a lot, and I’m writing a lot, and I’m performing a lot, and just working on refining my skills. I want to be an artist. That’s my passion now.
If you look at the roots of hip-hop, it was created to tell a story. Young people in the Bronx were in the worst conditions that this country had, like ever. Buildings were burning, and drugs were running rampant in the streets, and there was so much hopelessness. Young people used hip-hop to escape that, to tell their stories, to connect to something positive, and to reflect on what was happening in the times.
You know, rap these days is not following what hip-hop was meant to be, and I feel like it is my responsibility as an MC and as an artist to use my voice as a performer to tell the stories of what’s happening today, and to reflect on what’s happening in the times. And today that’s climate change, that’s our environmental crisis, that’s young people and suicide and drugs, the world that I’m growing up in. And being a 16-year-old high school student, there are so many intense things happening in the world, and to be able to communicate that through my art is just a powerful way to reach people.
Do you ever get discouraged by the task at hand?
Oh yeah. I mean, it’s like hopelessness and apathy are the natural responses to really overwhelming stuff. And I think the most important thing to do is to bounce back from that, and to pick yourself up, even when nothing makes sense in the world. To understand that there is a lot of work to do but there is also a lot of hope, more hope than there are any problems.
You’re currently suing the federal government for its inaction on climate change. Why did you decide to join that lawsuit?
I saw the greatest chance for young people to have their voices heard in the legal system. And it was so cool to see that I could connect with other young leaders who were interested in the same things and wanted to get involved in a deeper, bigger way. You know, community activism is great and it’s important, but change has to happen on every level, right? Legal, political, economic, corporate, all these different systems have to change if we want to see a shift in the way that the world is working.
I just thought of it as an opportunity to create really huge, tangible action, to have our voice heard by the world and by a lot more people, and an amazing way to connect with other young people who are passionate about the same thing. It’s a unique tactic that I think we haven’t seen before in the climate movement.
And do you think it’s been successful on those fronts? Is it reaching a broader audience?
Definitely. The things that people know me from are: speaking on Bill Moyers, which is broadcast nationally to millions of people, speaking at the United Nations, which also had millions of views, and suing the government. So suing the government is just a huge story that catches your eye — young people are suing the government for climate change. It’s like Whoa, what’s that all about? It makes people curious.
You mentioned your Aztec background earlier. Could you could talk a little bit more about how your indigenous roots impact your worldview, and specifically your outlook on the climate crisis.
I feel like I got a very good sense of the world at a very young age. My dad, being from Mexico City, had a lot to share about his opinions on the world and on this country, and that just opened my eyes. He came from a heavy amount of poverty and [had] very little. But at the same time he learned so much and he traveled a lot. And he would just talk to me about different things like colonization and colonialism, and how we’ve globalized in such a big way, and how this United States has stolen resources from so many people.
And then being indigenous I connected a lot with the Lakota and Diné traditions in North America, you know, participating in sun dances and sweats, and things like that. My dad was also super involved in ceremony, which really gave me strong roots and spirituality, which helped me understand the world, because the earth is a spiritual being. I was able to understand that through my knowledge of myself, and my cultural identity gave me a greater sense of my place on Earth.
The indigenous resistance movement goes way back, but seems to be gaining momentum and attention at the moment. Do you have any thoughts on that?
There’s such a long line of oppression when it comes to what this country has done to indigenous people. And I feel like there’s been a breaking point, like We’re not going to take no more bullshit. It’s like, We’re done, we’re done. We’re not going to let you put these pipelines through our land, we’re not going to let you frack on our territories, we’re not going to let you mine anymore. It’s still happening, the same kind of oppression that happened all those years ago, the stealing of the land, the stealing of resources, the relocating of indigenous populations.
The fossil fuel industry is rooted in the same mentality that created slavery and genocide among indigenous populations. And it’s just madness. It’s crazy.
I think indigenous people are understanding our place as leaders in the world as well, and we’re ready to take that next step and claim our place on this earth as caretakers of this land. Because other people are too afraid to take action, and indigenous people are ready to rise up.
You spend a lot of time traveling, speaking, performing, and organizing with other youth around the world. What’s it like balancing that with being a high schooler?
It’s not easy. I come from a super-poor family, and I never thought I would ever see the world, or go to college, or have any of these kinds of opportunities. As soon as I began to use my voice and my passion, it opened up all these different doors, and I was like, Damn! So I’ve been able to see the world and meet amazing young people all over the place, and it’s been a blessing. You know, all the work has been a blessing. I have incredible, awesome, fun experiences everywhere I go.
Balancing school is tough. School is really tough. I don’t know, maybe I’m going to have to drop out and do online [classes]. We’ll see though. It’s all priorities that have to be sorted. The world or graduating with a diploma, you know?
What about just time to relax?
I get plenty of time. Well no, not plenty of time. I get enough that I don’t burn out.
Do you see yourself as a life-long activist?
Hopefully not at the extent that I am now. But I’m never gonna stop caring, I’m never gonna lose my sense of responsibility as a caretaker of this planet. That’s with me for life, for sure.
What do you think it’s going to take to get more people involved in the climate movement, particularly more young people?
The movement is a little stale in a lot of ways. There are all these figures that people look at, like Al Gore and Bill McKibben, who are [seen as] the environmentalists and as the heads of this movement. I think just changing the conversation a little bit [would help], changing the title, because a lot of kids don’t want to be activists. I don’t even want to be a damn activist. [We need to speak] about it in a way that it’s not just about activism.
We don’t just need activists. We need artists, we need thinkers, we need poets, we need entrepreneurs. People have to understand that being a part of this movement isn’t always just standing with a sign at the front of a march or a rally. [There are] so many different ways to create change and be a part of this. We just have to continue to remind ourselves that there’s so much more to this than just the way that we’ve thought of it traditionally. [We need to change] the traditional conversation and dialogue of what this has been about.
There’s also a lot of intersectionality that needs to happen between movements. People have to understand that there’s intersectionality between Black Lives Matter, and LGBT, and climate movements. It’s incredibly important to see that, to be a part of uplifting and making the world a better place, not just protecting the environment or stopping climate change.
I don’t just want there to be, you know, no natural disasters. I don’t want to just stop climate change for future generations. There should be less hatred in the world, and less sexism, and racism, and homophobia. Those are all different things we’ve got to change about the world, and I feel like beginning to build bridges between movements is incredibly important, and having more people want to be interested, so all the Black Lives Matter people are coming to our events, and we’re going to all of theirs.
Even just in the environmental movement there is so much finicky competition over trying to be the leaders of the movement. That’s not what this is about. This isn’t about politics or money or entitlement. It’s about the world.
What motivates you to keep fighting the good fight?
I think, reminders of what I’m fighting for. When people come up to me, especially young people, and say, You’ve inspired me to do these things, and to make these changes, that’s like, Damn, my voice has that power? And to see that I’m making that difference inspires me to continue to touch other people’s lives and to try to make a difference in even bigger ways.
When I can see the beauty of nature and just be by the ocean or in the rainforest and just lose myself in that, it’s like, This is what the hell I’m fighting for. I think just those reminders of what it is I’m fighting for, that is what allows me to be like, It’s going to be worth it. So that 16-year-old kids in the future never have to fight the way that I have today. There should never be another need for action at the level that I’ve taken in my life from anyone else ever again after my generation. I’m hoping that it ends with me.
Is there anything else that you want people to hear?
Action to create global change starts small, one lifestyle change at a time. And it goes from your life, to your family, to your community, to the world. It happens in different ways and it’s never gonna be the same way for two people. We can create change through our passion. Whatever it is we love to do, we can create change through that, whether it’s a woman with Al Jazeera news — I did an interview with them — who told me, I have a knitting group, and we’re going to knit some hats and send them to Standing Rock so they can be warm through the winter. That’s a way to be a part of it. Or riding skateboards and putting together skating events with your homies and raising money for planting trees, or whatever it is.
Change isn’t a one-size-fits-all type of thing, and action to make the world a better place isn’t one-size-fits-all. We’ve all got our strengths, we’ve all got our passions, and we’ve gotta use that to create change in the world. And we can freakin’ do it. There’s never been as much hope as there is today. As a kid that’s on the front lines of probably one of the most depressing issues that our world has ever faced, I can tell you that there is more hope than there is apathy in the world. And there’s so much left to fight for.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.