Throughout 2019, we are releasing exclusive interviews from young activists around the country. We believe that no matter your age, you can create real change. Each person featured in this series embodies that belief.
Today, we bring you a conversation with Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, an 18 year old indigenous environmental activist, hip hop artist and youth director of Earth Guardians, a worldwide conservation organization.
Tell us a little about your journey – how did you get involved with the climate change conversation?
I started to get involved in the climate conversation when I was super young, and it drew first from my passion and connection to nature. It’s very much a part of how I was raised. I grew up knowing the importance of connection to the natural world.
My dad would tell my older siblings and me stories about our connection to the land as indigenous people, and really just as humans. I started to educate myself about the planet and even as a really young kid saw myself as someone who had a role to play. It stemmed from a passion for life, for a passion for the beautiful places in nature that remain. The detriment of our planet goes hand in hand with the detriment of the indigenous people who still live on and rely on the natural world.
I think for my people, there is a real mourning for the places that we have lost, but there is also still a hope for the places on our planet that still remain. Many of our ceremonial spaces and our culture has been destroyed, but I still feel hope when I see other indigenous peoples living on their land and keeping their traditions alive.
Protecting the earth goes hand in hand with protecting people. Even though we don’t all live this truth – humanity is connected to the planet. The issue of climate change is bigger than politics or activism. Evolution has made it so that humanity can survive and thrive on the place – are we really going to let that go?
What is your earliest memory of activism? Was it something you read about or observed, or were you an active participant?
Even as a really young kid, I needed to talk about this and to get my voice out. There was a lot of events and protests happening where I grew up around the environmental climate justice movement, and I just felt this need to share my story. My older siblings were all hella involved in the climate movement, and so I could get involved with them.
I think I was six years old, and I just told my mom I wanted to get up on the stage at a protest. She had been raising activists for years, so I think she just thought, “Well, we have another one.” So I got up on that stage and just started calling out the adults and the older generations. I said we have to teach our kids the connection between humanity and the earth. I just started calling them out. Tangible change became really apparent to me in 2009, when I got involved in the movement to stop chemical pesticides from being sprayed around our community.
I got a group of kids together who cared about this issue and we had meetings with the city council and ultimately made it so that our city parks were protected in our own community. This was just with me and my friends, ages 6-12, getting things done. And I think that’s when I we realized that we could actually make a real difference. You can get loud and protest and all that, but policy change can also happen because of what young people are doing. I see kids all over the country are starting to place themselves in positions of leadership and power, holding older people accountable for what they have done.
How do you think that hip hop and music connects to your fight to end climate change?
My older brothers and sisters were all involved in the first generations of Earth Guardians in Hawaii, and they were already using hip hop and using their voice through a musical medium to inspire people to get involved in the climate change conversation in a different way. Music is just a more alive approach to conversations around the environment. I first started rapping when I was 9 or 10 years old probably, but not very seriously at the beginning. A first was just a different perspective and a way to tell my story.
Ultimately, I learned that the music is so much deeper than that for me. Music is therapeutic and healing for me. Because I got involved with environmental justice at such a young age, there is so much pressure underneath this journey that people don’t see. And I’ve also started to feel some apathy, and started to feel disconnected from my work at times.
Music helps me find my way through the work. It helps me reestablish hope and to remember the fact that I have something to offer the world that is deeper than just a narrative. I can offer something that is different than what my older siblings have offered. It’s something unique. I can offer my own voice. I’m now starting to figure out how I can build a life for myself as an artist. And this cause will always been deeply involved in my music and my art.
If you could give SLP students and other young activists one piece of advice, what would it be?
One of the biggest problems that we have in our society is that we don’t listen to young people. Young people aren’t these apathetic, lazy people that others make us out to be. Space hasn’t been held for us to demonstrate leadership or to find our path forward. We’re trying to fit into this educational system that hasn’t been designed to help us find space. So I think there is a lot of responsibility on adults to help young people find their voice and find their individuality.
So if you feel like you don’t have power and you can’t make a change – it’s literally going to start with you getting your people together and doing something with THEM. Seriously, get your homies and your squad together and figure out what you want to do together. Most of my passion comes from my peers and my friends, the people I’ve been privileged enough to connect with through this movement.
If you’re just going to school and doing your thing, you can still create change. Whatever you issue you care about, whether it’s environmental justice, education reform, racial justice, whatever, it doesn’t have to happen on this huge systemic level at the start. Start in your community. Start in your school. Find your people and work with them to make a difference. Every individual has a different way they are going to connect with the world. We just need to figure out how we are going to connect with the world, and then work together to find our way forward. Young people have a massive role and responsibility to make change.
I think the biggest step you can take towards this is FIRST to inform yourself about the issue you care about, and then find some people who will be down to work on that with you. Even if it’s just two of you standing on a corner with a sign, or brainstorming about what you can do in your room. No one wants to do this alone, so find your people, and you can get involved.