Young people are speaking. Listen up.

A 6-year-old boy stands on a small stage. Gaze fixed on the audience, he says: “I came to talk to you about how sacred the earth is.” Fast forward 12 years, and that boy is still at a microphone with a story to tell. Only now, the words tumble from his mouth in rhythmic procession, gliding between melodies as they rise and fall to a beat. Xiuhtezcatl (shu-TEZ-kaht) Martinez is a hip-hop artist and indigenous environmental activist.

Raised in the traditions of the Meshika people, the Aztec people of Mexico City, he was taught that he has a responsibility to protect the land, the water, the earth and his culture. His family encouraged him to find his voice and to use it — and he has. At 11, he lobbied for a moratorium against fracking in his home state of Colorado.

“I was always in love with the culture of hip-hop … Understanding and recognizing it as a voice for marginalized communities, for oppressed peoples who were ignored and left behind by the system.”

At 15, he addressed the United Nations about the urgency of acting to combat climate change. At 17, he published his first book. And this past fall, the 18-year-old released his debut solo album, called “Break Free.” Xiuhtezcatl (who goes by his first name) will tell you he’s trilingual, speaking Spanish, English and Nahuatl, the native language of the Meshika. But music is his language, too. “I was always in love with the culture of hip-hop, with the energy and the movement of hip-hop. Understanding and recognizing it as a voice for marginalized communities, for oppressed peoples who were ignored and left behind by the system,” he said. At a young age he began playing keys, writing lyrics and making beats on his computer, and it grew from there.


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His music is a source of self-expression and, he hopes, a way to inspire a movement. “I’m on the stage so that the brief spark of my life doesn’t go out,” he says on the track “Tiahuiliz / Light.” Xiuhtezcatl wrote and co-produced every song on the album, where he raps about mobilizing the masses, planting seeds to grow a movement and the dangers of putting “profits over people, progress over the planet.”

These aren’t new ideas for him, but hip-hop has provided a new way to amplify them. When he’s not producing music, Xiuhtezcatl travels the globe in his role as youth director for Earth Guardians, a nonprofit that empowers kids to make change in their communities.

He’s also one of 21 youth plaintiffs suing the federal government for the legal right to a safe climate. Juliana v. United States — sometimes called the children’s climate case or Youth v. Gov. — was first filed in 2015, and is supported by Our Children’s Trust, a nonprofit based in Eugene, Oregon.

The young plaintiffs, now between the ages of 11 and 22, assert that the federal government’s affirmative actions to promote the use of fossil fuels violate their Constitutional rights to life, liberty and property.

“The United States government has known for well over 50 years that if they continue to promote a fossil fuel energy system that the pollution from that system would cause catastrophic climate change and put later generations in danger,” said Julia Olsen, who represents the youth plaintiffs. “Notwithstanding that longstanding knowledge … [the government has] continued to facilitate and promote and permit and subsidize and invest in a fossil fuel energy system for the nation.”

Xiuhtezcatl and Olsen have been working together on climate litigation for eight years. “I love her so dearly,” he said of Olsen. “She is such a fucking badass.”

Olsen said the feeling is mutual. “I always just saw in [Xiuhtezcatl] this deep wisdom and strength … It’s a good synergy to be doing this work together,” she added.

In what other legal experts have called “creative lawyering,”the plaintiffs argue that allowing atmospheric pollution violates the public trust doctrine — which holds that the government must protect and maintain certain resources that are preserved for public use. The case employs a concept coined Atmospheric Trust Litigation, which reasons that the atmosphere is one of these public resources.

“The Trump administration is pulling out every tactic they can to try and stop us, [but] we keep overcoming those tactics.”

Therefore, the government has a responsibility to protect it, both by preventing future damage and repairing past harms. As Xiuhtezcatl puts it, the lawsuit deals “directly with survival” — that of his and future generations, who have contributed the least to climate change yet stand to lose the most.

The plaintiffs are asking the court to “prepare and implement an enforceable national remedial plan to phase out fossil fuel emissions and draw down excess atmospheric CO2 so as to stabilize the climate system and protect the vital resources on which plaintiffs now and in the future will depend.”

“If the climate recovery and the remedy that we’re demanding were to be put in place, that would be monumental,” Xiuhtezcatl said. The government counters that the lawsuit is “an unconstitutional attempt to use a single court to control the entire nation’s energy and climate policy,” according to a statement from Jeffrey Wood, acting assistant attorney general for the Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.

But it is not the first time a matter with broad national implications has been brought before the judiciary. Other landmark civil rights decisions have been decided in court, including Obergefell v. Hodges, which confirmed the right to same-sex marriage. Faced with an executive branch that denies climate science and a legislative branch in a continuous stalemate, citizens are left with few other options than to take the climate fight to the courts.

A victory for the children’s climate case won’t come easy. Neither, it seems, will a court date. For more than three years, the federal government has made repeated attempts to have the case thrown out — first from the Obama administration and now, with increased resolve, from the Trump administration.

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“[Trump] doesn’t play fair, you know?” said Xiuhtezcatl. “He’s trying to avoid being held accountable for what we’re demanding in this lawsuit.” The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has already denied three attempts to dismiss the case. “The Trump administration is pulling out every tactic they can to try and stop us, [but] we keep overcoming those tactics,” Olsen said.

Just days before the case was set to begin, the Supreme Court handed down a temporary stay of trial. So, on Oct. 29, 2018, the young plaintiffs found themselves relegated to the steps of the courthouse rather than the benches of the courtroom. It was a brisk, rainy day, which Olsen described as emotionally heavy.

“If he delays it another five, 10 times, we’re still gonna be here.”

Though the Supreme Court eventually permitted the case to move forward, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals later granted, in part, a separate motion for a temporary stay. Shortly after, the case was also certified for interlocutory appeal — a review before trial, which allows the government to challenge key legal aspects before the case can proceed. In this instance, the Trump administration is arguing that the plaintiffs have “no fundamental Constitutional right to a ‘stable climate system.’”

As of Feb. 15, 2019, the fate of the children’s climate case hinges on a decision by the 9th Circuit Court, which has agreed to expedite the appeals process and schedule a hearing on the next available calendar.

Though disappointed by further delays, the young plaintiffs refuse to back down. “If he delays it another five, 10 times, we’re still gonna be here,” Xiuhtezcatl said. “But time is running out quickly,” he added. “We’re just in a really precarious place.”

Last year, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report stating that the planet could reach disastrous levels of global warming as early as 2040. In the midst of such a climate crisis, millions of people could be impacted by unprecedented droughts, wildfires, floods and food shortages. This is the future Xiuhtezcatl and his fellow plaintiffs want to prevent.

“I’ve been there to give them hugs while they cried, and definitely just try to lift them up as much as we can, and hold them as we get through this.”

As they await a decision on whether their case will proceed to trial, they have asked the Court to block approvals for fossil fuel development on federal land and offshore. Meanwhile, Olsen is left not just playing the role of lawyer, but also of morale-booster.

“I just try to continually remind these young people that movement building and social justice and big, important constitutional cases didn’t come without struggle, and [setbacks are] part of the process,” she said. “I’ve been there to give them hugs while they cried, and definitely just try to lift them up as much as we can, and hold them as we get through this.”

As the lawyers dig their heels in, determined to make sure that these kids see their day in court, life outside the lawsuit rolls steadily on. For Xiuhtezcatl, that means his focus can return to music. When developing a new song, he prefers to start with the instrumentals. “My inspiration to write lyrics comes from understanding the sonic bed it’s going to lay upon. I rarely write without a beat,” he said.

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He admires artists like Logic, Noname and Anderson Paak for their willingness to experiment with sound and stage performance. “I respect the way he does music and the passion and how real and soulful his art is,” he said of Paak. “All these young, new artists that have a different sound and a different vibe … It inspires me to push myself beyond.”

As with most young people, Xiuhtezcatl uses social media to amplify his message. Like music, it’s another outlet to share his story, his thoughts and the way he feels about the world. As a lifelong climate warrior, his social media audience is diverse, encompassing generations of people inspired by his environmental advocacy.

“I am gonna show the world that it doesn’t take being in presidential office to make change, to reach people, to inspire the masses.”

And as he finds his own voice through music, that audience has expanded to include more of his peers. That’s exciting, he said, because “it’s showing people that the life of somebody who is heavily involved in movements isn’t something that is stale and boring and linear.”

As to what comes next, he plans to follow whatever path gives his voice the greatest impact. “I am gonna show the world that it doesn’t take being in presidential office to make change, to reach people, to inspire the masses,” he said.

“I want to be able to do that as an artist, as an entrepreneur, as an activist, as someone that is fighting on the front lines, as an educator, as a movement designer. I don’t wanna have to be looped into this political sphere of change to have people believe my voice will matter. Fuck. That.”

This story was first published in print in November 2018 and was updated in March 2019 to reflect the latest status of Juliana v. United States.

Photos by Josue Rivas. Produced by Davis Burroughs.