The central Mexican town where 18-year-old climate activist Xiye Bastida grew up has experienced environmental exploitation for generations. Mexico City began pumping water from San Pedro Tultepec in 1942, and ever since, the area, home to the Indigenous Otomi people, has experienced droughts and floods that have derailed people’s ways of life. In fact, Bastida’s family moved to New York City a few years ago because of the environmental destruction in their home. However, Bastida says it was not the destruction she witnessed that initially inspired her climate activism — it was the way she was raised.
Bastida’s father, Mindahi Bastida, is Otomi, and worked to revitalize the Indigenous culture and language in San Pedro Tultepec. He now travels the world teaching about Indigenous philosophies. One of the values he and his wife Geraldine instilled in Bastida was to live with the Earth, not from it, Bastida said.
“I was raised with philosophies that my dad learned throughout his life, like reciprocity to Mother Earth, which basically means that everything we need to survive and thrive, Mother Earth gives us. And all they ask is that we protect it,” she said.
In the 1940s, when Mexico City began sucking water from San Pedro Tultepec — which was formerly surrounded by a lagoon — it changed not only the landscape but the ways of life of the people there. Once a fishing town, San Pedro Tultepec’s primary economy became reliant on furniture production as the lagoon surrounding it dried up. In 2015, floods caused further destruction on the traditional way of life.
“Indigenous communities’ culture and tradition comes from their places of origin,” Bastida said. “What type of land they’re surrounded by, what type of ecosystems they’re surrounded by. So, when those ecosystems or surroundings change, the whole culture and the tradition of the community changes.”
San Pedro Tultepec now relies on water from Mexico City and other towns. This dependence on water from other areas sometimes leaves it without water between deliveries, Bastida said. When her family moved to New York City in 2015, Bastida witnessed the remaining effects of 2012’s Hurricane Sandy and began to realize the widespread disasters the climate crisis caused.
“That’s when everything came together about the global scale of climate disasters and how they really hit. Everything becomes clear that we have a broken relationship with Mother Earth and that broken relationship is manifesting itself as the climate crisis,” Bastida said.
Bastida spoke at the World Urban Forum in 2017 when she was 15. She also created a youth climate activism training program, which took place in the months leading up to the Sept. 20, 2019 global climate strike.
“Forty kids showed up at the beginning and 40 kids left at the end with more knowledge about how to communicate their climate stories, the interconnection between business and climate, transportation and climate, architecture and climate, art and climate,” Bastida said. “They all left knowing that whatever their passion was, they could do it through a climate lens and help the climate movement,”
Bastida also worked with other youth activists to organize the climate strikes with the organization Fridays for Future, alternating occupying the U.N. and City Hall for more than 40 weeks. These strikes brought 400,000 people, most of them young, to the streets and gained widespread media attention. Bastida also co-founded the Re-Earth Initiative this year along with other youth activists around the world. The campaign works to make the climate movement accessible to all.
Her most recent work involves an open letter to Caribbean and Latin American politicians to ratify the Escazú Agreement, a treaty that links environmental protection to human rights. The Escazú Agreement, which was negotiated over six years, is designed to ensure citizens have the right to accurate information and education about their surroundings, a say in any environmental decisions in their areas and legal protection for taking climate action. She and other youth activists with Re-Earth Initiative wrote an open letter to the governments of Latin America and the Caribbean. Out of the 33 countries in the Caribbean and Latin America, 22 have signed the Escazú Agreement.
I was raised with philosophies that my dad learned throughout his life, like reciprocity to Mother Earth, which basically means that everything we need to survive and thrive, Mother Earth gives us. And all they ask is that we protect it.Xiye Bastida
Despite the destruction she has witnessed, Bastida said she does not come to the activism space from a place of mourning.
“I feel like a lot of youth activists come into the activism space because they see their communities affected,” she said. “They see their hometowns burning. And although that did happen to my town — my town was flooded — that was not the thing that made me aware. It was being raised in a way that was different from how I saw the world behave.”
Bastida has been compared to other youth activists, and for a while, made headlines as “the American Greta Thunberg,” a comparison she has grown to resist. Thunberg, the 17-year-old climate activist from Sweden, has become a global celebrity for her strong words and dedication to the climate movement. Bastida said at first, she felt this comparison was validating, but then realized the flaws in being compared to Thunberg. Thunberg has Asperger’s and has experienced debilitating climate anxiety and depression to a degree that Bastida says she has not felt. But Bastida has experienced the destruction of her hometown and is a product of the resilience of Indigenous communities fighting against repeated marginalization, experiences Thunburg has not had.
“You just can’t compare two people who do the same thing but come from different backgrounds,” Bastida said.
Bastida hopes to help create a future where the image of a climate activist is not a monolith. For example, some people may live in food deserts and/or cannot afford going vegan in a healthy way. Others may live in countries where striking is illegal. However, Bastida said, she wants to share the message that everyone has a role to play in the climate movement.
“We don’t have to idealize climate activism because then people feel excluded,” she said. “We want people to feel included and like their actions matter and their actions are recognized. That’s why we want to shift away from the homogenization of the movement and what climate activism is.”