Love transcends human-made borders in Xiuhtezcatl’s “El Cielo”

Maddy Erskine

It’s not often that you hear about a young rapper who has spoken at the United Nations and sued the United States government. At only 20 years old, Xiuhtezcatl Martinez has made a name for himself as an Indigenous climate change activist and artist.

Xiuhtezcatl’s music is shaped by his commitment to what he believes in and has always fought for and weaving those beliefs into the stories his songs tell. His passion stems from his father’s Indigenous Mexica heritage and his mother’s work in social justice. 

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“At the end of the day, the music is written for my community, for my people, and as global as the audience and as the opportunities get, we will always come home to cut the records.” -Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, Indigenous artist and youth director of Earth Guardians

Recently, Xiuhtezcatl released a new single called “El Cielo.” Including lyrics in both Spanish and English, the song tells a deep and heartfelt story about the fear surrounding human-made borders.

“It’s a very personal reflection and a story that outlines and explores some of my different experiences around family separations,” Xiuhtezcatl said. “(It’s) looking at the kind of violence … that surrounds and is perpetuated by the United States immigration system. It’s looking at the fear around that and also just the love I’ve always witnessed transcend human-made borders.”

While Xiuhtezcatl has grown a large audience as an activist and rapper, he still produces his music with his friends and family. 

“At the end of the day, the music is written for my community, for my people, and as global as the audience and as the opportunities get, we will always come home to cut the records,” Xiuhtezcatl said.

The backing vocals in “El Cielo” are done by Xiuhtezcatl’s sister, Isa Roske. She performed the song live with him on previous tours and helps bring the track to life by adding an ethereal layer with her vocals. 

“If you listen closely to the track you can hear her voice throughout the whole piece, not saying any words, the sounds and background vocals are really almost one of the main instruments that you can hear that gives it a lot of texture,” Xiuhtezcatl said. 

Working on his music is not the only thing Xiuhtezcatl has been up to during the pandemic. He has taken this break from touring and public speaking to further educate himself and others on climate justice.

“The stillness has really facilitated a beautiful opportunity for me” Xiuhtezcatl said. “Like, okay, what value am I really adding to this moment? What do I really have to bring to this? … (It’s about) really questioning and looking at a lot of the flaws in the climate conversation.” 

The last year has been incredibly transformative for Xiuhtezcatl’s activism. He has been inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and is aiming to refocus the climate conversation on intersectionality.

Xiuhtezcatl said that he feels there has been a “failure of the climate crisis as a whole to be a justice-oriented space” and that he’s grown since challenging his initial ideas about the crisis.

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Many of these organizations that Xiuhtezcatl works with focus on youth activism and education. He is a youth director of Earth Guardians, an organization training youth in environmental, climate and social justice. Earth Guardians originally began as an accredited high school in Hawaii co-founded in 1992 by his mother, Tamara Roske.

Xiuhtezcatl said that a lot of people are mobilizing around the election, but he believes the real work begins following the election, no matter who may be in office. 

“There are the resources, and there is the wealth to enact these projects and do the work that needs to be done,” Xiuhtezcatl said. “Fundamentally, at the end of the day, it’s gonna come from the bottom up.”

Xiuhtezcatl started speaking at local climate rallies at age six and now inspires youth to use their voices to fight for their future. One of the crucial things that youth activism and these organizations do is apply pressure to political systems to act on climate change.

“Youth are the spearheads of transformative change that happens in different generations and different time periods, and I think young people have been pivotal as an organizing force and (in) transforming the conversation,” Xiuhtezcatl said.

Maddy Erskine can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter @maddyerskine_.