Xiuhtezcatl Martinez Talks Music, Politics and Suing the Government

Earth Guardians' seventeen-year-old youth director Xiuhtezcatl Martinez is one of six young plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging fracking rules in Colorado.
Tamara Roske
Earth Guardians' seventeen-year-old youth director Xiuhtezcatl Martinez is one of six young plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging fracking rules in Colorado.
Behind the youthful exuberance of seventeen-year-old Xiuhtezcatl (pronounced shoo-tez-cat) Martinez is an intensity that far exceeds his age. The tall, lanky teen is on a mission to save the world from fracking.

Since taking up the mantle at the ripe age of six, he has organized youth crews on six continents through the nonprofit Earth Guardians, taken the podium at the United Nations, worked alongside lawmakers, and is now at the forefront of two high-level environmental lawsuits against the State of Colorado and the federal government.

Martinez is one of six teenagers suing the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, arguing that the state regulatory agency is legally bound to put public health and safety first when permitting oil and gas developments — not to balance the needs of the public and industry, as COGCC and the state argue. On Monday, January 29, the state's highest court announced that it would take up the case. The attorney general had appealed the decision to the Colorado Supreme Court last May, after Martinez prevailed in the Colorado Court of Appeals.

"While corporations profit, we are paying the toll," Martinez says. "We need a complete change of leadership from the government and [state] attorney general who would not infringe upon our rights as Coloradans to protect our future. Our constitution was written so that we the people could protect our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This includes our right to clean water, clean air and a safe climate. If our government fails to protect these rights, it is the duty of Coloradans to take these matters into our own hands."

And on the federal level, Martinez is one of 21 youth plaintiffs in a second lawsuit arguing that the U.S. government has failed to protect their constitutional right to a stable climate and that it's the government's responsibility to create scientifically sound environmental policies, especially given the decades-long consensus over the role of greenhouse-gas emissions in man-made climate change.

Martinez isn't the only one pushing back against the industry in Colorado. Municipalities have attempted local moratoriums on fracking. Residents-turned-activists have showed up to COGCC meetings in droves to protest agency decisions and speak out at meetings. Nonprofits have taken to direct democracy to severely restrict new industry developments in Colorado. And representatives have put forward bills that would underline and codify the COGCC's duty to put public health above the interests of industry, affirm municipalities' rights to exercise land-use authority and control where developments occur in communities, and add financial assurances and reclamation requirements.

"Since the explosion in Firestone...there have been a number of other accidents that have occurred in our suburban areas as well as our rural areas. We're done with this. We are done with this," says Representative Joseph Salazar, a Thornton Democrat who is championing HB 1071 to codify COGCC's duty to prioritize public health. The bill was voted out of committee in a 7-6 vote. "It is time that we start regulating this industry in a manner that is consistent with the health, safety and welfare of the public and of our environment."

When Martinez isn't working on youth organizing and litigation, he's in the studio recording hip-hop and touring the country to spread the word about the state of the environment. His latest song, "Blue Ink," which he released on January 28, is an honest reflection about life on the front lines and what it means to grow up as a youth activist constantly in the spotlight.

Westword: You’ve got so much going on in your life right now. What are you up to these days?

Xiuhtezcatl Martinez: I’m so full-force with my music right now; I just dropped a signal. There’s an infinite number of things to do on my list every single day.

How do you find time for yourself with so much going on? What does your schedule look like these days?

Yeah, every day I wake up and hop on my computer. Well, I mean wake up, meditate, brush my teeth and stuff, and try to do some yoga. And then just computer work, answering emails, hitting people up, correspondence, doing interviews, calling people. I’m on the phone with my manager like —

You have a manager?

I have an artist manager that does all my artist management. And my mom is like my “momager,” so she does the rest of it.

I like that, momager.

Yeah. I’m in L.A. half the time, too, working on music and making connections. I just have kind of recognized that one of the biggest ways that I can make a difference in the world is increasing my visibility, getting everyone in the world to know who I am. I think I have a bigger chance of doing that through music than anything else. And also, music changes people’s lives in a way that public speaking doesn’t.

Could you dig into that a little more? What's so powerful about music?

When you go to a concert or you go to a music festival, you see that there’s like an energy that is so — a way that people connect with art and music literally makes them move. I feel that is one of the biggest significant differences to me. When you speak, people listen. You know, the reaction isn’t the same. I think that music moves people. Music changes people’s lives. Music inspires people. Music is something that people listen to every day. You know it’s their pump-up jam; it’s something they listen to when they’re sad.

Art is everything. When you look back in human history, art has played a significant role in telling stories. If you look at the culture of hip-hop, hip-hop originated in the Bronx in the late ’70s as a tool to battle oppression, as a tool for these kids who had nothing to tell their story, to feel like they can grasp something, be a part of something. So I think storytelling — I think hip-hop has always been a reflection of our times. The corporate money, drugs, women [in modern hip-hop] is just a reflection of where the world is at, you know, of the dysfunction of patriarchy and capitalism. And those different symptoms then come out of our music.

click to enlarge Although Xiuhtezcatl Martinez is well known in environmental circles for his activism, the teen also writes and performs hip-hop to elevate the climate-change discussion among youth audiences. - COURTESY OF XIUHTEZCATL MARTINEZ
Although Xiuhtezcatl Martinez is well known in environmental circles for his activism, the teen also writes and performs hip-hop to elevate the climate-change discussion among youth audiences.
Courtesy of Xiuhtezcatl Martinez

What music are you working on right now? What themes are you tackling, and do they connect with the environmental litigation you’re involved in?

Definitely. I originally started writing music as another way to talk about environmentalism and to talk about Earth Guardians and to make it more relatable when I was giving school presentations. I totally fell in love with the art of it. The different times that I got lost in the activism, music helped me find my way out. Art helped me find my purpose, my voice. Now all the music I’m creating is a very honest reflection of my life, and my life is so much more than these lawsuits. My life is so much more than my organizations, so I talk about all of it.

A lot of my songs are movement-driven, like talking about what it feels to be on the front lines of the protest and bringing celebration to art in those movements. There are songs about growing up and being a seventeen-year-old kid and trying to figure out life. There are songs about suicide among my peers, depression and anxiety, and like what my generation is going through. It’s a very raw reflection through the eyes of a seventeen-year-old that cares about the world; this is what this music reflects. I hope to inspire people, to lift people up, to help this music become a beacon for them in a way that music has been for me.

You’re the busiest seventeen-year-old that I have ever met. You're juggling serious activism, lawsuits, a music career and just being a teen. What pressures do you feel, and is that a reflection of how pressured young people are, generally, as a generation?

Yeah, I definitely feel very pressured by the world often and when I was younger. I was just as much in the thick of it as I am now [with my environmental activism], but I wasn’t mature enough to deal with it. And now, as I’m growing up, it’s easier to deal with it and handle it and just do what’s right to fulfill my purpose and passion. I’ve dealt with a lot of depression and purposelessness through the world pulling me in so many different directions without knowing who I was, what I was. Finding my way has been a part of getting on the right track and finding my own power. Everything I’m doing is because I want to do it, because I’m in love with these movements, I’m in love with this music. So just making sure it's coming from a place of authenticity and of what I want to do. Sometimes I have to do shit I don’t want to do, and that’s a bummer, but a part of growing up is making sacrifices.

We’re at a difficult time with the world, with our environment. Kids aren’t going to get to listen to music in the future if there’s no planet to live on, you know. People aren’t going to be able to drink clean water or breathe clean air unless we fight like hell today to change things. So I feel this sense of urgency. I am invested in these issues and in being a part of the solution.

You’re fighting on multiple fronts, and you’re inching closer to arguing a federal climate-change case in front of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The original date that was set for the federal lawsuit in Eugene was going to be February 5, but because the Trump administration filed a writ of mandamus —

I thought the court chose not to grant the writ of mandamus?

It still slowed down the process, so we’re not going to trial on February 5.

Courtesy of Xiuhtezcatl Martinez
Do you know when it’s been rescheduled?

Sometime in May is what we’re looking at.

Does that give you more time to prepare?

It gives us more time to prepare to really be clear about what message we want to convey to the world, because this lawsuit isn’t just about us. It’s about how the world sees the position we’re taking to defend the rights of every young person in this country and every young person on the planet. So it’s going to give us a little bit of time. I’m kind of grateful for that, but it’s also a bummer.

What’s happening with your other high-profile lawsuit in the Colorado Supreme Court, and how does Representative Joseph Salazar’s bill fit into the puzzle?

I think the bill that Joe is putting through is really important in the way that it’s underlying the existing laws and will hopefully lead to greater enforcement of the protection of public health and safety. The fact that the [Colorado] Court of Appeals sided on our behalf in this lawsuit, I think that says a lot about how things are going to move forward as well. In the [Colorado] Supreme Court, I think we’re at a point in time where we look at the elected officials who have to make these decisions on our behalf in the state of Colorado, and we haven’t seen any kind of significant support from them toward, like, the benefit of Colorado. A lot of people are really bought out by the industry — Governor Hickenlooper, there’s a lot of politicians that aren’t kind of having our best interest, and I think people see that. It’s really going to come to the [Colorado] Supreme Court decision: Are they going to side with these corporations and this industry that has totally had free rein over our natural resources, or are they going to side with the State of Colorado? Even recognizing that it’s not a partisan issue; it’s Republicans, Democrats across the board. It’s not about political parties. This isn’t about power. It’s about our future and our children. I believe that story is going to be well communicated, and people are going to listen to that, and the decision is going to be based upon the question of who are you going to side with and how you want your legacy to go down based on that.

The Colorado lawsuit has played out for years, so give me some background. How did you decide this is a lawsuit worth fighting and that you could bring a suit like this?

We were working with an organization called Our Children’s Trust, and they have helped implement state lawsuits for climate regulations and climate recovery plans in all fifty states. We tried that in the state of Colorado, and it was dismissed. What we decided is one of the biggest impacts of climate change that we’re going to be having here in Colorado is the amount of methane that comes out of the fracking wells. Considering that methane is seventy to one hundred times more potent of a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, it’s absolutely critical that that is the way we focus this language. And instead of targeting our state elected officials, which we knew was going to be a dead end surrounding fracking and the climate, we directly put the focus on these state regulatory agencies that have seemed to fail not only their own mission statement, but also the laws that are already in place in Colorado. So it’s been two, three years of this battle, and we have a long way to go still. But I think this was a different approach, and it focused specifically on an industry that wasn’t just talking about climate impacts. A lot of people have a hard time grasping how large-scale the conversation around climate change is, and this was really personalizing it, and localizing it, and looking at our community.

Does this mean that you’re totally anti-oil and gas? Is it feasible for the industry to exist and actually care about the environment and people, where everyone exists side by side in harmony?

I don’t think there’s any safe way to frack. Regulating fracking is not really an option unless the regulations make it impossible for people to frack. What I’ve seen personally from friends, family, communities that I’ve met, people that I’ve connected with is that this industry has failed time and time again — and documented their own failures — as to really proving that there isn’t a place for balance. It’s not about balancing corporate interests and health and safety; it’s really one or the other. Considering that the health of the community isn’t the only thing that matters — we have to look at a stable economy, job creation — those things are very important to me. Looking at the last few years, we have paid out more taxes as citizens [to the oil and gas industry in tax credits] here than we have made from the industry [from severance taxes]. So we’re actually losing money on fracking, on the oil and gas industry in the state of Colorado. I think that’s a reflection of where we need to go, a transition away from fossil fuels entirely.

Fossil fuel is a finite resource, and it’s going to run out anyway. We’re going to have to transition away from it anyway, and we’re at a point where people are dying. People are getting sick. People are getting hurt because of an industry that has free rein over our natural resources. So really finding how can we cut the ties before the infrastructure really ties us down? We can transition toward renewable energy. We have more sun in the state of Colorado than Hawaii gets. We have the potential for a massive transition away from fossil fuels toward clean health and sustainable energy in a way that everyone who’s working on a fracking rig can also get a job [in renewables]. It’s not about cutting out the industry entirely cold turkey. We need to transition.

click to enlarge Xiuhtezcatl Martinez on the front lines of a climate march in New York City in 2014. - COURTESY OF XIUHTEZCATL MARTINEZ
Xiuhtezcatl Martinez on the front lines of a climate march in New York City in 2014.
Courtesy of Xiuhtezcatl Martinez
Of all the disappointments that you’ve seen in this industry, whether it’s leaks and contaminated waterways or regulatory policies, what has been the greatest disappointment for you?

I think it’s just looking at the fact that throughout the existence of the COGCC, which is a regulatory agency meant to foster the balance of oil and gas development in accordance with public health and safety and the environment, they’ve never turned down a permit. Ever. In the history of the agency, they have never turned down a permit. We see these wells exploding and killing people. Taking people’s lives. Leading to increased rates of leukemia, birth defects, respiratory illnesses. It’s very obvious they’re failing to do their job. Also, the amount of inspectors to go out to inspect each of these wells to make sure they’re safe is like seven people or seventeen people for the whole state of Colorado. It’s like a ridiculously tiny number of people that are in charge of inspecting the hundreds of thousands of wells across the state of Colorado.

Do you think it’s just a matter of more funding for the COGCC, making sure they have enough inspectors?

I think if they were adequately doing their job and looking at the existing health impacts that we’re seeing from this industry, as an agency that wasn’t beholden to the fossil-fuel corporations — I really believe the COGCC is run by the fossil-fuel industry — if it was independent and it was run by independent science, independent studies, I don’t think there’d be any way the state would allow fracking at all in Colorado. If there were enough inspectors to inspect all of the wells, they’d see how many leaks, they would see how many explosions. It would be apparent that this isn’t a safe practice. Putting more money behind it would improve [regulation], but I don’t even know if that’s the solution. The people who are running this, the people who are a part of the COGCC aren’t actually — they’re not doing this for the best interests of the communities. I think they’re beholden to the corporations as much as our politicians are.