Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, a 17-year-old who describes himself as “a rapper in disguise as an activist,” has mixed feelings when people say he should run for president one day. It’s a sweet sentiment, he told me over the phone, but he wishes folks had more imagination about the ways to change the world.
“Why do I have to be the most powerful man in the country in order to make a difference?” he asked. “Everything I’m fighting for right now is to disprove that, to say that I don’t need to be a politician to make a difference. I can be an artist, a people’s champion, and a community organizer, and make a difference.”
Martinez has already demonstrated that he has the grit to follow through on these aspirations. Since he was six years old, he has been speaking out about environmental issues, especially climate change, and is the rare person who is equally capable of addressing the United Nations or a crowd of hip hop concert-goers (his first solo album, Break Free, is due out in 2018).
No matter the venue or medium, Martinez’s message is focused on empowering youth to take action against the devastation that imperils his own generation, and those that will follow it.
“If we look at how climate change threatens our democracy, our economies, our people, our communities, our major cities—the effect that this crisis has is beyond an environmental issue,” he told me. “A lot of people are not going to act until sea levels have risen to their doorstep, which is really unfortunate because by then it will be too late for the rest of the world. We have a lot of work that needs to be done immediately to readdress and reshape the way we take action.”
Martinez draws much of his passion and worldview from his Aztec-Mashika indigenous heritage, which he explores in his newly published biography and manifesto We Rise. “I grew up out in nature, with my family traveling all over Mexico, diving deep into my culture and establishing my cultural indigenous identity in ceremonies,” he recalled. “Everything my parents were teaching me was about how we have a human responsibility to respect life on Earth.”
As the youth director of Earth Guardians, a conservation nonprofit, Martinez has acted on these values by organizing dozens of protests and participating in several successful initiatives in his hometown of Boulder, Colorado, including a ban on pesticides in the city’s parks.
But he is also making a mark on the international stage. In 2015, he earned the Grand Jury Award in the UN’s 2015 youth music contest, for his song “Speak for the Trees,” which he sees as part of a continuum of artistic activism.
“If you look back through history, movements have songs,” he said. “Artists have been, sometimes, the most prominent revolutionaries. Bob Marley was singing about peace and love, but also standing up for your rights.”
“[Rapping] engages and wakes people up in a different way from when I’m speaking, and unlocks a different audience,” he added.
In addition to sharpening his performance skills, Martinez is also road-testing new legal strategies to advance environmental advocacy. He is one of 21 young activists who sued the US federal government in 2015, arguing that its negligence regarding climate change violated their constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property. The lawsuit, called Juliana et al. v United States et al. carried over from the Obama era to the Trump administration, which has notably deprioritized climate change as an issue, even opting to pull the US out of the Paris Climate Agreement.
While President Trump’s climate denial is disheartening, Martinez and his fellow plaintiffs argue it is only the most recent of a decades-long list of failures on this issue. Thanks to the ruling of two federal judges, their lawsuit overcame the Obama administration’s initial motion to dismiss, but the plaintiffs are back in limbo again after the Trump administration cited a rarely used rule called writ of mandamus to try to stop the lawsuit in the Ninth Circuit Court.
Martinez was blunt in his characterization of the government’s reaction. “They’re being babies about it,” he said. “They are saying: ‘look, this is really inconvenient for us to go to trial, to be held accountable for our actions.”
Given that he has years of experience challenging other power brokers, and has received threats from the notoriously aggressive fossil fuel industry, Martinez has learned to take legal stalling and intimidation tactics in stride.
“They are afraid of the truth,” he told me. “If they’re coming after you, it means you’re doing something right. [But] I think there’s so many of us that it will get to a point that they won’t be able to pick targets like that. It’s a long process, and it’s hectic, but we are optimistic and hoping we will prevail.”
Ultimately, though, Martinez thinks appealing to our leaders through lawsuits, elections, and protests is just one avenue to create change. What’s most important for him is that people recognize that their own choices, which may seem insignificant and mundane, have an enormous cumulative influence on the planet, and its future.
“The change starts within,” he told me. “That can sound corny, and it’s not saying that you have to be the epitome of a sustainable lifestyle in order to get involved. It’s about awareness that just the way you live, every day, has an impact on the world.”
“That’s what I’m trying to do—plant a seed and have people water it on their own,” he said. “I’m just one small piece of a huge puzzle. There’s so many other young people that are like me who have a voice, interests, and excitement, and who are so fired up and ready to be a part of it.”
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