YP Exclusive: Indigenous climate activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez on honouring his Aztec ancestors, and what he'd tell US President Donald Trump

We spoke to the 19-year-old about suing the US government for the climate emergency, and how he empowers his people through song

Veronica Lin |

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His waist-length hair is a trait symbolic of his indigenous cultural background.

With his script in one hand and a mic in another, then-six-year-old indigenous climate activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez made his first public speech about climate justice.

He said a prayer in his native language, expressing thanks to all the elements of the universe, and, in an unwavering voice, told the crowd about how sacred the Earth is and that “every choice we make is for or against our future”. 

The now-19-year-old isn’t your typical teenager – at age nine, he started the third generation of Earth Guardians, an international youth environmental group that his mother Tamara Roske started in 1992. 

At 15, he was invited to speak before  the United Nations General Assembly on Climate Change. In 2013, he received the United States Community Service Award from former US President Barack Obama. At 18, he became an hip hop artist.

“I haven’t been anywhere in the world for more than two weeks,” he laughs.

In fact, he was so busy that he stood us up … twice. But we finally got the chance to talk to him over Skype last month – his only interview with Hong Kong media to date – and spoke about the role his heritage plays in his activism, and what he’s achieved so far. 

Xiuhtezcatl started making music a couple of years ago and is now a hip-hop artist.
Photo: Xiuhtezcatl Martinez

His waist-length hair is a trait symbolic of his cultural background as a descendant of the Aztec peoples of Mexico. Xiuhtezcatl said that he was taught to “defend our land, water and people.” 

“I am this way because of my ancestors. We honour them and future generations by thinking of more than just ourselves.”

The Aztecs, however, do not have a perfect track record, as they are known for practising human sacrifices and slavery, as well as reclaiming land to build their empire. While there are many young climate activists in the world today – most notably 16-year-old Nobel Prize nominee Greta Thunberg - Xiuhtezcatl says he is in a unique position to give a voice to indigenous people by sharing his views on the crisis from their perspective.

“We see things differently. [Greta], coming from a wealthy European country, there are a lot of things missing from her language, like how [the climate crisis] unequally affects different people, predominantly people of colour,” he says.

As youth director of Earth Guardians, Xiuhtezcatl has worked locally to ban pesticides in parks, fracking (injecting liquid at high pressure into rocks in the ground to extract oil or gas) and natural gas extraction. In 2015, he and 20 other youths across the country sued the Executive Branch of the US Government, which at the time was President Obama’s administration. 

The case, known as the Juliana v. United States climate lawsuit, urges the government to reduce greenhouse emissions. It was automatically transferred to US President Donald Trump’s administration, and made headlines again after receiving its first court hearing on June 4, the day before World Environment Day. 

So, if given the opportunity to meet Trump, what would he say to him? “I don’t know if I’d want to talk to him – he doesn’t listen to facts, science or the truth,” he says, referring to Trump’s stance on the climate crisis, “but I’d tell him that if he loves his kids he’s got to wake up.” “If I were to become president, I’d cut  all subsidies out of fossil fuels, invest in renewable energy and improve public transport,” he adds.

A public speaker-turned-musician, he started making music a couple of years ago and is now a hip hop artist. He dropped his debut album Break Free last year, and has since collaborated with artists like 20-year-old American rapper Jaden Smith, the son of actors Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith.

“Last year, I did 55 shows all over the  world and toured for months at a time – music has now become the most-inspired way I engage the world,” he says. His activism has had a huge influence  on his lyric writing and vice versa. 

“Fires on the mountainside/rising of the seas/my people sick of oppression/ taken to the streets/cuz more powerful the people more power/I believe/This will be our finest hour,” he says, giving us an example.

“The lyrics are about how art has always been used as a tool of resistance for people to take back power,” he explains. “Both are powerful platforms, and it’s great to have the balance of both worlds.”

Edited by Nicole Moraleda

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