Since he was only six, Xiuhtezcatl Martinez (first name pronounced Shoe-Teh-Caht), an 18 year-old indigenous environmental activist and hip-hop artist, has been on a global mission to educate his generation about what is happening to the earth and motivate them to rise up to defend its water, air, and atmosphere. His message and on-going actions are so powerful he was awarded the 2013 United States Community Service Award from President Obama (at 15 years old!), served as the youngest member of Obama’s Youth Council, addressed the United Nations General Assembly numerous times, has spoken all over the world about climate change, and been interviewed by major television and newspaper outlets, including PBS, Showtime, Rolling Stone, The Guardian, Teen Vogue,CNN, NBC, MSNBC, Bill Maherand many others.
Xiuhtezcatl is currently the youth director of Earth Guardians, an international movement based in Boulder, Colorado that provides young people with the skills and platform they need to “address the world’s most pressing issues.” Earth Guardians now encompasses hundreds of teams of young people in over 50 countries who are working in their own communities to challenge powerful industries that are negatively impacting the planet. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, he expressed his primary goal of changing the world through youth activism in the following way:
“The change that we need is not going to come from a politician, from an orangutan in office, it’s going to come from something that’s always been the driver of change – people power, power of young people.”
Using both his music and his activism, Xiuhtezcatl is particularly dedicated to fighting fracking in his home state of Colorado and supporting indigenous issues. To date, he has helped to get a temporary ban on fracking in Boulder County and is suing the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission for not safeguarding the health and safety of Colorado citizens from the effects of fracking. To Xiuntezcatl, the issue of fracking is personal – it clashes with his desire to protect the earth’s resources for generations to come. In an April interview in TeenVogue, Xiuhtezcatl describes how fracking is affecting his own community:
“So my fight is not just about the environment, it’s about our lives — I think about this all the time when I consider its impacts on my little brother and sister, who run around and play outside. In our community, when you look to the mountains today, there’s a gray haze from the fracking. We fought it off for a minute, but now it’s continuing to grow.”
As part of his on-going commitment to safeguarding water, Xiuhtezcatl performed at the Standing Rock Reservation encampment to support the efforts of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and others from around the world in fighting the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline. The pipeline was to run from the Bakken oil fields in Western Dakota to Southern Illinois, and pass under the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers as well as under Lake Oahe in the Standing Rock Reservation. The thousands of participants who protested knew the pipeline would contaminate the region’s waters and damage ancient burial grounds. To Xiuhtezcatl, Standing Rock was “monumental and life-changing:”
“A lot of people are under the impression that because they built the pipeline and shut down the prayer camps and evacuated the Water Protectors, it means that we lost. What happened at Standing Rock was unprecedented. We’ve never seen mobilization that big from indigenous communities worldwide: people coming together to defend indigenous rights; Black Lives Matter standing in solidarity. It was a very connected movement, but it was about protecting children, land, clean water, people standing in solidarity with their brothers and sisters… All people – white people, patriots, veteran who fought for this country – we saw it. We lived it.”
In addition to his solo performance at Standing Rock, Xiuhtezcatl and others contributed a piece to Mni Wiconi (Water is Life): A Standing Rock Benefit Album that combines traditional indigenous music with hip hop.
All of Xiuhtezcatl’s work is grounded in his Aztec heritage. He always refers to the teachings of his father and his people at his concerts and speaking engagements; his remarks and songs include statements and/or lyrics in his native language, in Spanish and in English. Xiuhtezcatl sums up his philosophy in the following statement:
“My dad taught me that all life is sacred. When I was a little boy, we would always talk about our responsibility to protect our land, our culture, our earth as indigenous people. These teachings are the foundation of the music I write and the things I fight for.”
This is a significant moment in Xiuhtezcatl’s musical and political work. His first book, We Rise, a primer for grassroots mobilization, and his first solo album, Break Free, were recently released. And after years of effort, the trial of Juliana v. United States of America is set to begin on October 29, 2018*** in a Oregon federal courtroom. Called by many “the trial of the century,” the case was initiated by Xiuhtezcatl and 20 other young people, now ages 10 to 21. It is a lawsuit against the federal government, claiming that its actions “violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty and property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources.” The Trump administration has made numerous applications for stay that were all denied by a momentous decision on July 30, 2018 by the U.S. Supreme Court. In Xiuhtezcatl words, the case “involves every person on this planet.” In his recent interview with Rolling Stone, he said:
“We’re in a position where 21 young people are going up against one the most powerful countries on the planet and one of the biggest industries on earth – the fossil fuel industry – and so much is at stake. The marching in the streets, the lifestyle changes haven’t been enough so something drastic needs to happen.”
There is no more urgent time for the trial of Juliana v. United States of America. Only a few weeks ago, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its report warning that policymakers have only 12 years to conduct massive changes in the use of fossil fuels to keep global warming to a maximum of 1.5C. After that, the world faces significantly stronger storms, more severe floods, crippling poverty for millions of people around the world, extreme heat, the death of the coral reefs and the loss of Arctic glaciers. If successful, the “trial of the century” will determine once and for all that global warming is not only real but perilously close to being irreversible and that we all have a legal right to a “stable climate and healthy atmosphere.”
At the last minute, the Supreme Court agreed to a temporary delay to the start of the Juliana v. United States of America trial in order to consider whether or not the Justice Department’s claim that it would cause “irreparable harm” to the government is valid. David Bookbinder, chief counsel for the Niskanen Center, which filed a brief in support of the case, said that the only thing that has changed since the Supreme Court made its July 2018 decision to allow the trial to be heard is the addition of Justice Brett Kavanaugh to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy. As a federal judge, Kavanaugh ruled against a number of environmental regulations. Stay tuned.
This article is part of Imagining Water, a series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water a focus of their work and on the growing number of exhibitions, performances, projects and publications that are popping up in museums, galleries and public spaces around the world with water as a theme.
Susan Hoffman Fishman is a painter, public artist, writer, and educator whose work has been exhibited in numerous museums and galleries throughout the U.S. Her latest bodies of work focus on the threat of rising tides caused by climate change, the trillions of pieces of plastic in our oceans and the wars that are predicted to occur in the future over access to clean water. She is also the co-creator of two interactive public art projects: The Wave, which addresses our mutual need for and interdependence on water and Home, which calls attention to homelessness and the lack of affordable housing in our cities and towns.