meet the young soul rebel fighting for a better tomorrow
"The difference between my generation and those of the past is that we hold a sense of power, we understand that's a fresh new perspective." 16-year-old Xiuhtezcatl Martinez is taking on the US government and the fossil fuel industry for failing to...
What were you doing at 16? Hanging out in parks with mates and swiping cigarettes? Locked away in your room playing video games? Addressing world leaders at the United Nations headquarters in New York? It's clear that Xiuhtezcatl Martinez (pronounced shu-tez-cat) isn't your average 16-year-old. He was raised with the Aztec traditions of his indigenous father and the passion of his activist mother, who founded environmental justice-focussed school Earth Guardians in Hawaii back in 1992. The school soon became a movement that has grown into a non-profit organization with over 900 "crews" across the world and Xiuhtezcatl as their youth director. "It's so powerful," he beams over Skype. "It's lighting the world on fire with positivity and hope, and starting a burning passion in my generation to leave behind a legacy that we're proud of." Sitting in the study of his family's "really shitty brick house" in one of the most beautiful neighborhoods in Boulder, Colorado, his long dark hair reaches beyond the confines of the camera frame. Dubbed the anti-Bieber by the press, he is charming and full of confidence; racing through his words with enthusiasm and a motivating sense of urgency. Xiuhtezcatl made headlines last month when he filed a lawsuit against the US Government for failing to tackle climate change. Leading a group of 20 young people from across America, the Colorado teen is challenging both a multi-million dollar fossil fuel industry and one of the most powerful governments on earth - and winning. As he awaits what is being referred to as the trial of the century, he busies himself with speeches, a feature in Leonardo DiCaprio's forthcoming environmental documentary, and school.
Remarkably, whether presenting a TED talk or speaking with local students, Xiuhtezcatl doesn't get nervous. He's only ever written one speech - his recent UN address - which he scrapped last minute in favor of freestyling something from the heart that felt, he says, "a hundred times more powerful." For those not up to date with global environmental issues: on April 22, 2016 the signing of the Paris Agreement saw almost 200 countries promise to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. While a great place to start, it has been widely acknowledged that this isn't enough. Having sat alongside heads of state at the New York event, he reports that "they all understood that; they got it. People are willing to take action to fill the gaps of what the agreement itself won't implement; to hold themselves accountable to achieving the sustainable development goals." It was there that he met fellow environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio. "He's a really cool, down to earth guy," he smiles. "We finally got to connect after years of knowing about each other's work."
Since his first encounter with public speaking aged six at a national global warming event (he had seen Leo's 2007 documentary The 11th Hour and wanted in) Xiuhtezcatl has won awards including Youth Change Maker of the Year from Obama, who then recruited him for his youth council. "Oh man, Obama flaked out on us! Being a President is hella tough," he says. The idea was that delegates would present their views to POTUS (President of the United States). They're still waiting to be called upon. Able to communicate his vision so articulately, if it weren't for the occasional burst of teenage chat, it would be easy to forget that Xiuhtezcatl is still so young. Next week is his 16th birthday but there'll be no super sweet celebration. Instead, he's off to Peru. Enrolled in an experiential learning school, he and his classmates will help local communities while studying the development, culture, religion and all that has impacted Peru since the Spanish conquests. "Traveling gives me a beautiful opportunity to fall deeper and deeper in love with the planet that I'm trying to protect and the people that I'm standing to create a better world for. It's humbling; it reminds me what a huge world this is, what a huge crisis we're in, and that I'm just one person among millions that are fighting for change."
"Itzcuauhtli! You still vegan?!" he shouts suddenly to his younger brother (pronounced eat-squat-lee). "Solid, me too bro!" Vegetarians since day one, the brothers have decided to up their game to full blown vegans and see who can last the longest. They started yesterday. Knowing full well that he's lucky to have had the upbringing he has, Xiuhtezcatl uses Earth Guardians to educate his peers in navigating a system that wasn't built for them. "I think the way to get more young people involved in activism and politics is by removing those words." He understands that most kids don't want to be hippies, that they've grown apathetic. "How do we inspire a hopeless generation?" he asks. "We're all so systemically disempowered; from the moment we're born we're told that we can't do things until we're older. The difference between my generation and those of the past is that we hold a sense of power, we understand that there's a fresh new perspective."
Xiuhtezcatl isn't a fan of the American government. "We're blind to the oppression of my people, of indigenous communities and people of color because it's easier to look the other way. Especially when richer people are still benefitting." Although he is too young to vote, he knows exactly who'd get his. "Man... I'm feeling the Bern!" he enthuses. "Bernie's the first politician to run for President that might actually represent the voice of the people. He's literally talking about a political revolution! Me and Bernie are on the same page!" While Xiuhtezcatl sees Hillary as a tough opponent, he cites her as just as bad as any Republican. Our young activist is sure to point out that while our leaders appear to be those in suits and ties, the people who actually dictate the direction of the planet is everybody else. "It is revolutions and uprisings throughout history that have created the world that we're living in today." And by addressing climate change, the greatest issue of our time, in the only language the suits know; legal jargon across a courtroom, Xiuhtezcatl is well on his way to steering things in the right direction. By violating our constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, by permitting and enabling the production of fossil fuels that are irreparably damaging our planet for future generations, the US government is without a doubt abusing the power vested in it. And by shutting down the appeals of the fossil fuel industry and affirming the constitutional rights of Xiuhtezcatl et al, the federal court acknowledge this. Their second court date will see climate science presented to the federal courts and the government ordered to stop threatening the future of humanity. "We've already made history by getting this far and we're excited to see how much of an impact we can actually have; to set a new precedent for what young people can accomplish and how powerful our voices can be," he says, pausing. "We're showing the world that our age doesn't define our ability to make a difference."
Text Francesca Dunn
Photography Dan Martensen
Photography assistance Alux Austin and Jason Acton.
Xiuhtezcati wears Jeans, belt and bracelets (worn throughout) model's own.