Fighting For What Makes Us Come Alive: A Conversation With Climate Activist and Musician Xiuhtezcatl Martinez

International Clash Day, Interviews
Dusty Henry
photo by Josué Rivas

While many of us are still wondering what we can do the combat the effects of climate change, Xiuhtezcatl Martinez has been fighting for the cause since he was six years old. 

To be fair, Martinez came by this work naturally. His mother Tamara Rose is the founder of Earth Guardians – an organization that trains youth to be leaders in environmental, climate, and social justice movements. Martinez now serves as Earth Guardians' youth director. Martinez also credits his values as coming from his father who is of Mexica descent, an indigenous people of Mexico, instilling in Martinez respect to the environment and all pieces of creation.
Now 19-years-old, Martinez has spoken at the United Nations several times and was awarded the U.S. Volunteer Service award by President Obama in 2013. He is currently one of 21 plaintiffs in a case against the U.S. government for neglecting to take action against climate change. He put out his debut album Break Free in 2018 and authored the book We Rise: The Earth Guardians Guide to Building a Movement that Restores the Planet in 2017.

As KEXP heads into our Clash For Climate focus for International Clash Day, we caught up with Martinez to learn more about the work he's doing in activism, finding sanctuary in his music, and getting his advice on how people can help do their part to fight for their future.


KEXP: You've been speaking about climate change since you were six years old. What inspired you to take up this cause of such an early age?

Xiuhtezcatl Martinez: I think very few young people, especially at the age of six, are encouraged to be as public about how they see the world as I was. I grew up in a family that was... My mom was the director and the founder of an organization called Earth Guardians. So organizing and underground activism and environmental justice, all these conversations were all around my household. [They] were what my mom was doing every single day. My older siblings were heavily involved. We had a long, super rich history of engagement in nonviolent movements and in different arenas of empowering young people to use our voice to create change.

It was very inherent for me to latch on to that and to really admire my older siblings who had been very involved in it. Obviously as little kids, we idolized our parents. Seeing what my mother accomplished in that space. At the same time on my dad's side, just a lot of values that many young people don't traditionally carry around respect for nature and for the environment, around understanding of ourselves as pieces of creation, of many these teachings that we are all connected, came from my upbringing on my father's side, who is Michiko – a descendant of the Michiko nation, the indigenous peoples of Mexico City.

It was a very alternative upbringing. I wasn't in school at all until I was like 10. So I think all these things combined, I educated myself and I learned a lot. I carried a specific perspective that gave me a lot of strength and courage to go up and to share my voice and to feel as though I had something to say. I really did believe it. I was very distraught about the state of the planet, about the environment. Learning and hearing and being exposed to it at such a young age, I was very called to get involved.


Especially getting involved so young, you talk a lot about like fighting for your future. Being a kid at that age, that's got to feel especially daunting. Have you always felt driven to see that future through or feel like it's your role to fight for this?

The crazy thing is that when I was younger I was relatively isolated from the world, being very much closed off in my community. I experienced a lot of things. I actually traveled a lot as a little kid, so I saw a lot of the world, but at the same time, it wasn't the same level of interconnectedness that I'm experiencing now as I'm moving into being an adult.

The crisis and the threat from climate changes is so much less of a conversation about the future in the circles that I'm running in now and in the way that I'm perceiving and the standing and reactions to the world around us because that is it is so presently affecting people all over the world right now.

In 2012, I began to experience the impacts of the climate crisis in my community at a scale where many of my close friends that lived in the mountains were losing their homes to wildfires. Our basement was flooded. We have resources to deal with these things in the community that I live in. I grew up in a low-income community, in a very rich city, in a very wealthy city.

But overall, in the United States, the way that we're hit by climate disasters is so different than many nations all over the world. The way that many black, brown and indigenous communities are experiencing climate impacts all over the world. So for me, the conversation has shifted from like, 'OK, we are standing to protect our futures,' to 'We are mitigating damage to avert the worst of the crisis that is yet to come, despite the massive, immense amount of suffering that is happening right now. The loss of human life, the loss of species, the loss of traditional sacred land, the exploitation of resources of water, of our air.

So I think the framing has changed a lot since I was a little kid because it's not some distant fight that is like, 'We need to stand up for future generations!' We are the generation that is getting wrecked right now by this crisis. And I think that's really important to communicate and to speak with that kind of urgency when we're talking about this issue. This is not some far off distant problem. This is not just an environmental issue. It's not just about the earth and about our trees and about species. It's about our politics. It's about our economies. It's about our access to clean food. And water is about our access to jobs. It's about the way that all the different issues and in our community and in our world are all very interwoven and the climate crisis underscores that every step of the way because of how it ties together racial and economic injustice with environmental injustice.

So I think the framing in which I've viewed everything, it's like, yes, future generations, of course. When I was raised in the culture of my people, we are taught that the work that we do on this earth is in honor of our ancestors, of those who came before us. And in honor of the future generations. So there's still that consideration. But at the same time, this is survival. This is what kind of world my 11-year-old little sister was going to be living in 10 years when she's in her 20s. What kind of world I'm going to be living in ten years when I'm 29. Am I even going to be able to, you know, feel safe bringing kids into this world? I think that it's much more high risk than like this vague notion of future generations. It's much more real.

I think that comes through in a lot when you speak and the topics you continue to bring up. A message we have heard from you, though, is how youth have the power to make a change. What encourages you about your generation in fighting for this very vital need to survive?

I think young people are very resilient and we are a generation that is quite unlike any before us. We have a very unique place in the movement and in the world. We were born into a changing world. I think some of the most drastic changes, we grew up with that being very second nature to us. In the technological world we live in, an interconnected world through digital media.

But I think what encourages me about young people, I mean, if you look back through history, young people have always played a pivotal role in pushing the envelope and speaking truth to power and demanding justice and rising up and breaking free from a lot of the patterns from past generations that have kept us from creating and making progress. That has fought for the right for women to vote, the right for black people to vote, to desegregate schools. So many of these different movements, revolutions, young people have pioneered have been at the forefront. And now this generation, it's a new kind of struggle. Because for our generation, we are the first to experience and feel the impacts of the crisis the way we are. And we are the last generation that is going to be able to do something to significantly change the course of where we're headed.

]We have this brilliant level of ambitiousness. Our generation is the largest in history, the most diverse, the most interconnected, the most educated. So we have all of these things that are on our side, all these benefits. And at the same time, we are placed on Earth at such a time that it's going to take absolutely everything we have to reverse this crisis, to mitigate suffering. I see it in the eyes and I experience that every time I travel when I'm connecting with young people around the globe. There is such a powerful emphasis on and understanding of young people everywhere of the power they have to help shape our future. There is a sense of belonging. They get it. We get that this is our moment, this is our movement, this is our time to shed a lot of the boundaries and barriers that have been placed and the divisions that are in place by past generations.

I think there's a lot of power in a generation that understands its place in shaping history. I think my generation, a lot of my generation, really gets that and is stepping up to the plate. Young leaders, young activists and storytellers that are championing for their future, that's becoming a ubiquitous story in communities everywhere. Young people all over the world are rising up and taking their voice into their own hands or taking action or fighting back. And it's such a powerful thing to experience and to be a part of. And for me, who's been doing this since I was six when there were no other young people involved and there were very few of the young people at a global level involved in this, to see the growth of it... I'm so proud and glad I'm not the only one. And I'm glad that they saw this on all of us. A connected feeling for sure.

One thing with our Clash For Climate event, we find when we talk with people about the climate they get discouraged and say, 'I don't know what to do, it's out of my hands.' We're trying to encourage people to support solutions that are within reach and the people who are working towards those solutions. Where do you think that begins and what do you see within reach and what people can do now?

The biggest thing I've been pushing in the last couple of years is [that] your involvement in this movement is so necessary for everybody, regardless of who you are. Whether you're a journalist or an actor or a storyteller or a student or a parent or a Lyft driver or a CEO. Regardless of what role you play or what job you have or what expertise you carry, everybody is going to be needed because of how large the scope of the issue is. We need people from all sectors and all walks of life, all places. It doesn't mean that we need everybody to become activists. I think there has been kind of a negative connotation when we communicate around the story and the way people see activism as an external cause and use of energy to tap into something that is outside of your world, where in reality the climate crisis either is or will affect each and every one of us.

For everybody out there, regardless of who you are, how you're living, I think tapping into and understanding which part of the movements are you connected to? Whether that's being politically engaged or whether that's as an artist or whether that's as an organizer or whether that's within the companies or the spaces that you work in professionally. There is a lot of tools and resources to help amplify the work you are already doing. There's a lot of places where your expertise and your resources could be very valued and could be put to really good work.

I think the first steps come with confronting this idea that really you don't have to be an activist. You don't have to conform to a particular way that the media portrays engagement and movements, because really we need everybody involved in this. We need everybody's voices included. and leadership looks different in each community. Leadership looks different in each space that we enter. Whether that's at the front of the march or on the backend doing comms and organizing. It's all important.

Shit is hitting the fan right now. If you look at the global scale from these wildfires that are exploding in countries across the planet. There's just such high intensity of stuff happening all the time. Things are always going to look bad in the eye of the media.

One last piece of advice for people trying to get involved is to find your community, find your people, find those around you that are your allies that will support you in doing this work. They can help have these difficult conversations with you. Like, how do you leverage your privilege to do the work that other communities are too vulnerable or too uncomfortable to do? How do you find your place where you feel good about the work you're doing in here? This should never be at a place of guilt or shame, but this should be at a place of power and hope and inspiration. The action we take is the only true way to combat that despair, that hopelessness and the apathy that is so real in this work.


You've spoken all around the world, including multiple times at the United Nations, talking with people who have arguably more power or leverage in making change and working towards these solutions. How do you feel your message has been received by these world leaders? And what changes have you seen so far since you've been doing your work?

When I step up to the podium at the General Assembly in New York at the United Nations, I realized that this message wasn't for the leaders because they weren't really listening. It's so crazy to me that the people that are these high-level positions that are making key decisions and informing different nations on how to make key decisions about our future are so apathetic and disengaged. I understand because the process is so frustrating and so bureaucratic, so slow-moving. I get where it comes from. But for someone who has spent my life fighting for this, deeply passionately fighting for this, just to walk into a place like that that I felt like I could make a lot of impact and see people were literally asleep in their seats. People were on their phones...And this was before the COP 21, you know, Paris Climate Accords. It's like the big gathering of the General Assembly prior to that to figure out what the moves were, to move into the next conference of parties.

So I got up and I did my thing and kind of abandon my script and I started with a prayer in my native language which got everybody's attention because nobody understood what I was saying. Everybody has translators, earpieces that you put in and there are translators in the booth. Everybody was trying to understand what was going on. It kind of got people's attention. But what I realized is the impact [of] the video was the hope that gave other people outside of the United Nations that have felt left out of that process, that have felt excluded from those kinds of conversations. And for me, my responsibility was to represent my people and my generation, my community when I stepped into that space and hold space for all those whose voices are not heard by those leaders. Who the way that their lives are being impacted and not recognized by the people in those seats of power.

And I've met and received recognition from a variety of different leaders and officials in different places from the United Nations to Obama giving me an award in 2013 for community service for the work that I was doing. What's really exciting for me is I guess in the United States, this new wave, this new political energy that is increasingly putting climate at the forefront of a list of priorities, of conversations, because a lot of these elected officials and politicians recognize that is one of the top issues for our generation, for young voters. And at the same time, just see the impact on the planet and have a good sense of awareness.

With Trump in office, everything is kind of taking many steps back. That's why this election next year is going to be so important, not just to elect a president that's going to fight for climate justice at the forefront of their work in an intersectional, meaningful way, but also to flip the Senate to continue to push for putting more young, ambitious people in office that are going to be fighting for what is really needed.

It’s a very interesting space. It's a continuous learning process to understand how to enter these spaces that are traditionally not held or opened up for members of the public and especially for young people who carry very strong opinions and very strong foundations for the work that we do.

You're one of 21 plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the U.S. government for violating youth rights by allowing activities to harm the planet and our future. How did this case come about and where does it stand now?

In 2015, we filed this case against the Obama administration. This organization Our Children's Trust, they reached out to me. I had been involved with them since late 2012 in a variety of different campaigns and projects from state lawsuits – against the state of Colorado, my home state. It was really interesting to kind of see the evolution of this case and our fight to go to trial It was pretty amazing to see political analysts and different economists and professionals in many of these different spaces had reviewed our case, which is essentially saying that we're demanding that the U.S. government be held accountable for the active contribution to the climate crisis, for knowingly endangering our future for the last several decades and to implement immediately a climate recovery plan.

That was the messaging of the story of this case. To see everybody saying that there was absolutely no chance that we would ever even make it to trial and then that we would never make it past these different hurdles that we were presented. Every step of the way we continued to defy the odds and we started winning time and time again. Different judges would review our case in would side on our behalf. It has been stated that our generation, that young people have an inalienable, constitutional right to a stable climate. So we've progressed a lot. We've moved through this process very precariously and not really knowing what's going to happen, but understanding that what we are fighting for is so necessary in the way that we have given a lot of people hope and mobilize and inspired a lot of people all over the place has been super significant.

And so for me moving into 2020, looking at where this case stands, we are currently kind of in limbo waiting for a ruling from, I believe, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to determine whether or not we're going to be able to move forward.

It's an interesting position that we're in now. We're kind of the ball's in their court and we're waiting for a ruling on their behalf to see when it is we're gonna be headed to trial. Because, you know, the Trump administration has thrown so many different weird legal maneuvers at us in an attempt to dismiss the case, because as soon as they get to trial the evidence is going to be on record and alternative facts in the realm of the climate is gonna be perjury in the court of law.

We're pushing to fight to get to trial and I'm hoping to see that before the end of the year. It's been a very exciting, intense battle.


Can you tell me a little bit about how you see music in the arts fitting in together to make a change, especially in regards to climate?

Well, what my music has taught me, is that is it the most effective way for youth, for anybody to get involved, this is through doing what we love. I think too many people view the work as like this intense job and chore. When in reality it should be an extension of the things that we care about the most, things that make us come alive because what we are fighting for is for what we love, fighting for the things that make us come alive.

In the last three years, I really discovered that I'm most passionate about connecting with the world as an artist, but above all else. When I'm in the studio and I'm collaborating when I'm on fire, jamming and playing the guitar, when I'm on a stage performing for people, that's where I feel like I know my place and I'm playing my part, not just in the movement, but in realizing my potential and fulfilling my urge to be a creatively realized being.

And I mean, when I started rapping, it was literally as a tool to educate other kids about the environment. It was like a gimmicky thing to get other young people more hype about issues like fracking and to tell these stories and communicate this from a different area, to bring a different energy to the space. And I started doing it because of my older siblings, that's how I did it. They were all super talented, artists, singers, rappers, choreographers, dancers. And when they were touring with Earth guardians in the 90s, they were bootlegging beats off the Internet. They were getting old Grandmaster Flash beats and remakes and doing raps about recycling and about waste aversion and about youth mental health and these different things. The vibes were really cool when they started to include that as a part of how they communicated and really engage people.

When I got really down in 2017 about my place in the world and in this work, everything got really heavy for a little while. And I realized that the music wasn't just a tool to communicate to story-tell about the movement, which it was and which was an important piece of it, but it was also a way for me to find sanctuary within my own role as a leader, within the pressure that I experienced finding with myself.

I went through the phases and got more and more serious about my music and my art. Now that I've done a good amount of touring and played shows – hundreds of shows in cities all over the world – you see how the music brings people together. You see how art influences and changes people's perspectives and understandings of the world in a different way than giving a TED talk or speaking at the United Nations or sharing a viral video will. Because when you're in a venue, people are there to be inspired and to be touched and to experience a profound expression of art. And when you do that in a way that your artistry is matched with a really powerful story and a message, people connect like that [snaps].

The last album that I put out was a reflection on the last several years of my life in the movement and the story that had been told for me by the media vs. the story that I wanted to tell for myself. It talks about every important social issue that I've been focusing on and thinking about. It talks about indigenous sovereignty and taking our land back and it talks about climate justice and my moments on the frontline. So it's been a powerful communication tool for those things. And I've seen how it's inspired my peers and the people around me. As I continue my musical journey, it's just like peeling back the layers and becoming more and more authentic and real with who I am. Because I'm not just an activist. I'm not just an organizer. I'm not just the youth director of Earth Guardians. I think the artistry allows us to dive into the layers of our humanity to the left out of the conversation when we talk about causes or different things like that. So I'm inspired by that for sure.

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