Xiuhtezcatl (pronounced Shu-Tez-Caht) is an indigenous climate activist, hip-hop artist, public speaker, and all-around a titanic, young voice for the environmentalist movement. He is only 17 years old and he has spoken around the world from the TED stage, to the Rio+20 United Nations Summit in Rio de Janeiro, to the United Nations General Assembly in New York. He is the Youth Director of Earth Guardians, a movement to empower other young people to step us as leaders and amplify their message and impact. He is also a plaintiff along with 20 other young activists suing the U.S. government for failure to act on climate change, jeopardizing our youth's future. Xiuhtezcatl is an incredible voice for a neglected generation and has a rare wisdom for a such young man. Without further adieu we give you Xiuhtezcatl Martinez...
Where were you born and raised? Tell us a bit about your heritage and how it has formed your belief system.
I was born in Boulder, Colorado and was raised between Boulder and Mexico. I was very young the first time I went to Mexico and my first language was Spanish. I grew up as a young kid with all my time and energy spent exploring and playing; falling in love with the world. I traveled so much as a young child. My parents took me all over mexico. I would go to a lot of different tribal ceremonies and I very much grew up with traditional dances, traditional songs and exposure to the culture of my people. It gave me such a sense of connection with the world. It really helped shape my identity as a Meshika person and someone who is a representative of the Meshika people. I also feel a sense of responsibility fighting as my ancestors did. My father and my grandfather used to tell me stories of my ancestors fighting for our people. It gives me the feeling of being a warrior. I have the same connection to our land and our water and resources that come from nature. I began to learn about environmental issues from my mom and the work that she has done with Earth Guardians. I gained a sense of urgency to fight and protect the planet. It has all helped to shape the way that I am today. My cultural heritage, to everything I learned from mom mother as well. Activism. Resistance. Non-violent disobedience. It was just very much a part of my childhood growing up.
When kids are younger you'll catch them at the park or playing sports or playing with friends. How did you come to feel so passionate about the environment at such a young age?
My parents taught me to love and respect nature. Love and respect the earth. It was very much a ceremonial practice with my father. We would celebrate nature with dance and songs and prayer. That allowed me to establish a really strong connection. My mom always took me outside. I used to run around in the first and catch snakes in the grass outside. As a little boy I didn't got to school until third grade. I was maybe 9 or 10. The first time I ever went to school. Everything I knew as a young child revolved around tribal ceremony and nature. I was simply able to form a really strong bond. In my household, it was emphasized to protect and respect the natural world. I did all the fun things that little kids do, I just did it specifically outside.
With your constant travel and your mission, how are you pursuing knowledge? Are you attending school? Do you plan to attend university in the near future and what do you plan to pursue as a focus?
It has been wild. The last several years of my schooling have been in and out. Taking semesters off to travel. Taking weeks off to travel. I have always loved learning. I love everything from science to history to mathematics, just learning about the world and my place in it. The last school that I went to was an absolutely incredible experience. I am extremely passionate about learning. I stopped attending school last November. I am just finishing online in order to just graduate high school, just to get the certificate. However, the knowledge that I am receiving from the world, is just so much more than I would ever receive in a classroom or from a professor. I am meeting the most incredible, knowledgable people. From economists to politicians and analysts, scientists, entrepreneurs, historians, indigenous leaders, and people that care indigenous wisdom. Leaders on the front lines of different movements. The spectrum of knowledge that I am receiving just by being in the world, living and experiencing it, traveling; all of these things are so much deeper than I would get in a classroom. College is not in the plans right now. I think the institution of university right now is a little bit limited, in terms of what the world has to offer as opposed to paying tens of thousands of dollars to attend a school every year. I think there are a lot of things about our education system that are currently broken. I think education is one of the most important things in the world. I think a lot of things need to change in order to do it appropriately and adequately to help prepare the next generation for the world we are going to grow up in as well as provide the adequate tools to build in it. So yes, I pursue education for the rest of my life but maybe not in the traditional sense. But I am always learning.
How did you discover your love for hip-hop and what else do you like to do when you're just enjoying some free time? What does your music help you communicate?
The first hip-hop album I listened to was made by Michael Franti. He had an album called Stay Human. It's a really old album of his. Was a very Hip-Hop R&B kind of vibe. Super political. That's actually he first album I owned. I was 8 years old when I got that. An obviously learning more and listening to more and surrounding myself with music that was different. I remember the first time I heard Talib Kweli’s album Ballad of the Black Gold, which was about oil and the fossil fuel monopolization of the planet. I was so moved by that song because it was such a dope beat and such a catchy track with such a powerful message. I listened to KwelI and Mos Def, Jurassic 5 and just really exploring hip hop and its presence in shaping social movements, inspiring social movements and being the anthem for change in the past. Hop hop has been such a powerful tool for change to our history which really excited me and inspired me to use it as an expression of my voice. The last year and a half has been the most music intensive year of my life. I have focused on making my record, Break Free — releasing music, recording, learning my voice, learning about writing lyrics and freestyling, learning how to make beats and tracks. It's been a crazy journey for the last year. Working with other artists and collaborating in the studio is definitely my huge passion. It has helped me find my way as just a kid in this world to things outside of music that make me happy. I still love to just be a kid and go on crazy adventures at night time and run around with some of my friends tagging the city. I love sports too. I could talk about it any day. I love to surf and ski and eat good food. Anything a regular 17 year old kid would want to do. I love to go to parties, I love to dance and meet people. I love to make music and freestyle, meet people on the streets and jam. As long as it is creative and positive, I'm about it.
Talking about climate justice, about social justice, about indigenous rights, about my heritage and my story. It's been a major outlet that connects people in a different way and inspires people to wake up in a way that just speaking and giving TED talks won't do. The music is just a different outlet. When I am playing at a club, or a show or a festival, and the audience gives me their energy. When the music is meaningful, you can see it in their eyes and feel them. It is so powerful. Yes there are songs that are just hype and you see everybody dancing and yelling, but they don't really have deep and powerful meaning. You can feel the vibe of the audience. I have had experiences where this energy comes alive when I play these songs. I think to myself, I am not alone anymore when I think these thoughts. All of a sudden the whole world is in my head.
With the environment in such dire straights, how do you envision your mission over the next 5 years?
Over the next five years I plan to take a small step back from all of the work that I am doing publicly. I do a lot of speaking engagements outside to educate people. I've become somewhat of the face of a movement. I really want to focus more on Earth Guardians to build the strongest infrastructure possible. I am working really hard to be a part of shifting the culture of activism to be less about be an activist and focus more on creating change and bringing these ideas into our lives. I am doing a lot of work to bring people together who are going to shape and shift and lead this movement. I want to organize it and begin to be a part of celebrating the intersectionality between the social justice movement, black lives matter, environmentalism, indigenous culture, LGBT community and my participation in a lawsuit against the federal government. We are headed to pre-trial at the end of december and our trial date is in February, taking place in Oregon. I am doing a lot to improve Earth Guardians. We have thousands of kids reaching out to us each year trying to get involved and I feel that I need to spend my time building the infrastructure to help catch all that momentum. There are so many people that want to get involved and I think Earth Guardians can be one of the biggest avenues of capturing the action of all these people.
In general, what is the scariest experience you have ever had?
My mother does not know about this. If she reads this I guess she will now. She's gonna be so disappointed. Love you mom. I was New Zealand with a few of my friends. One of them is my former language arts teacher, now retired. His name is Jim Barnes and he is in his 60s. The other is my crazy producer, my partner in crime, my homie Jazz. It was 8pm and we wanted to get out to the outlook, or peninsula out in the ocean. It was a 2 hour hike to get to. We wanted to do it all but, but time got away from us, so we started super late. We started heading out there and we started walking along the beach. After about an hour we got to a little place where the tide was starting to come in. We had to scramble over some boulders to get to the other side. We saw exactly where we were trying to go at this point. We walked another hour along the beach finally getting to this place which is a beautiful lookout over the ocean. We turned around to head back after kicking it for a little bit and before we new it, the sun was gone. It was a full moon. The waves were insane. We were literally stuck out there. We had to traverse our way back at the bottom of a cliff line where there were smashing waves and there was this moment where my friend actually slipped. It was like he was falling to his death. My 60 year old, former language arts teacher ended up slipping and falling and he was about to land in the ocean. I literally caught his hand and saved his life and it was so so intense. We were super scared after that. We had to take a break and sit for a minute to decide what we were going to do. It was for real a life or death vibe. We were all feeling this way. My friend Jazz, this crazy jungle kid who never wears shoes was also super scared. Obviously we survived and we made it out. We gave thanks to the mood for giving us the guiding light. We made it back to the beach after having to wade through the water. We eventually made it back to the inlet, intentionally jumped in the ocean, had some laughs about the ordeal and just left. It was definitely the scariest experience I have ever had. Also was one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had.
If you could get everyone in the world to do 3 things that would positively change the environment, what would they be and why?
The first thing would be to properly educate yourself. Read articles. Watch documentaries. Talk to experts. The first step is seriously to get educated and informed. Then to integrate the solutions into your lifestyle.
Secondly, don't just focus on all of the bad problems that are happening, but also the solutions. What are the most current and efficient energy technologies? What are the newest competitive companies? For instance, Ferrari is producing a fully electric car to compete with Tesla. What will that look like? There are new ways of turning plastic and plastic waste into building materials for houses in underdeveloped countries. Educate yourself about all areas but don't forget to research the solutions as well. The most important part is integrating it into your lifestyle.
We also need to recognize the way that we eat. Three meals a day, full plates of food. That is a huge strain on our environment. On our water resources which put a huge amount of strain on places like the amazon to produce food for the world. Eating meat and dairy is one of the biggest contributors to climate change because the entire industry of industrial agriculture contributes heavily to emission-based climate change. One of the most environmentally destructive industries on the planet. That ties into the second one which is to not only be educated, but simply change the way that we eat. Become more aware and make better choices. Taking one day a week and not eating meat. One meal a day and making it plant based. Small steps like that are super powerful.
The third thing is to then bring that action to your community. Once you are educated and once you are living it then have that conversation with the community you are connected to. If you are a doctor bring it into your office and talk to people about. If you are a yoga practitioner, while you are teaching classes, tie these messages and these ideas into the studio. It all about bringing these ideas to change lives.
Learn it. Live it and bring it out into the world.
This can be repeated in every area. Social change, education change, women's rights, LGBT rights and so forth. It translates to everyone. I have never wanted to be in a position to tell people what to do or how to live their lives. I just wanted to spread education and lead by example.
If you could meet one person, alive or dead, who would it be and why?
Tupac! The cultural influence that he had with his music. He was not truly a political MC. His music was so powerful and ultimately empowering. Especially during that time. Learning and reading his music makes me realize that he was so accessible because he was so real and so raw. His music wasn't beautifully censored. It wasn't all nice and music you would play in front of your mom. It was about explaining thing that translated to message of justice and empowerment. What I love about Tupac and his music, is that he was not reaching beyond himself to be politically correct. He was not reaching beyond himself to be super radical, or beyond his reality to be super gangster. He lived every single thing he talked about. His authenticity is what is missing from hip-hop on a large scale today. You talk about hip-hop today and it's all about drugs and women. That's not what life's all about. That is what I am trying to portray in my music. I am not trying to pretend I am from some place that I am actually not when I am rapping. That is not who I am.
How did you find such a strong voice at such a young age and how do you manage the responsibility and challenges that come with it?
I always came from a very strong platform. A supportive family, supportive community that were always behind me. I never had a doubt in my mind because of the way I was supported from such a young age. That is something that many of the youth today just don't have. I am incredibly grateful for it. Managing at a young age was really not hard. Sometimes it was frustrating because I was missing out on the normal things of a childhood. I wasn't able to just go to school. I had additional expectations that I had to fulfill. The whole expectation thing has been a battle for me. Find the power for that has been a process over the last few years. Taking responsibility for my role as a leader. Recognizing that this is not about anyone else, this isn't about what other people see me as or what other people want for me. I am finding my way through my music. It has helped me to express and be share. I can be authentic and real. I'm not perfect. I'm not a hero, I'm just a kid with a voice trying to find his way and trying to do something good for the world. It has been a struggle but I am finding my way. I am finding more empowerment in my voice than I have ever experienced.
With respect to the environment and its current critical state, what about the future truly scares you?
There is so much scary stuff that is going on the world right now that I don't often even think about the future. I guess it's connected. Our current rate of species extinction. That scares me. Simply because I am in love with life and knowing that humans are responsible for pushing entire species every year to extinction is just wild to me. Another thing that scares me is the extinction of culture. The loss of indigenous peoples who entire languages, entire tribes, entire voices are actually just gone. In a generation, people are losing ancient, ancient traditions that have been around for so long. From tribes in Australia to Latin America and so many Native American tribes are gone. That terrifies me because it is such a result of genocide and over colonization that has happened at such a systemic level to indigenous peoples. Just my fear that my generation will not take this opportunity to change the world from the way that it currently is. Our generation will not make the right decision and raising the consciousness of others. Our future generations will suffer. I am afraid that when I am an old man and there are 17 year old kids running around the world they are going to have to be doing the same job, but even more intense than I am doing now. I am afraid that people are going to have to live the same kind of life I am now, but maybe even worse.
Lastly, what is earth guardians and where can it be found?
Earth Guardians is a global organization working with young people all over the world to empower their voice and offer them a platform to create change by creating a decentralized support network. Earth Guardian crews worldwide that focus on environmental and social justice through this lens of rebuilding a future we want. It's a tribe, it's a family and we are very much connected. It's called an SMO or Social Movement Organization. It is not just an organization or an initiative. It's a living breathing piece of a large social movement. It is significant.