Recently, on the east side of Manhattan, there was a dignified gathering to discuss the end of the world. At the U.N.’s high-level event on climate change, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon criticized what he called the snail’s pace of the last negotiations before the COP21 – the major climate conference coming up later this year in Paris. Anote Tong, the president of Kiribati, delivered a mournful report on the massive relocation of his drowning island nation.
And then, a relative unknown took the mic. Dressed in a donated suit, with dark hair skimming his waist, Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, the youth director of Earth Guardians, issued a brief prayer in both Spanish and the Nahuatl language. As befuddled U.N. staffers reached for headphones, seeking translation, he began an extemporaneous speech on the folly of climate dithering.
“I stand before you representing my entire generation,” he said. “Youth are standing up all over the planet to find solutions. We are flooding the streets and now flooding the courts.”
“We need you to take action. We are all indigenous to this earth.”
When he finished just over nine minutes later, climate negotiators and representatives from nearly 200 countries had seen the face of America’s next-generation environmental movement: a 15-year-old trilingual Indigenous hip-hop artist from Boulder who sits on Obama’s youth council and who’s already organized youth crews on six continents.
Rolling Stone recently spoke to Martinez about young people fighting climate change, his Aztec heritage and dancing to Kendrick Lamar.
You’ve talked about changing human consciousness around climate change. What does that mean?
We don’t have to all stop using fossil fuels entirely and go live in the woods. That’s not what this is at all about. It’s about understanding — seeing — that the way we’re interacting with the world is destroying the planet. We see the Earth as something we can use, something we can take from — cut down the last forest, fish the last big fish in the ocean. There’s a disconnect between the problem and the cause, because we don’t want to admit to ourselves that we have created this catastrophe. To make that connection is tough. That’s asking people to change the way they think. Which is tougher than asking people to change their light bulbs.
In your talks on the environment, you always mention your Aztec heritage and traditions, which you learned from your father. Explain what those are.
It’s a really complex question; it’s almost like trying to explain Christianity. The way I was raised, the Mashika people, the Aztec people of Mexico City, we share many of the same ideas and beliefs that Indigenous people around the world do: that sense of caretaking of the planet, that everything around us is a gift, and we have to protect it. That there’s not one god, but everything around us has spirit, everything around us has an essence.