‘We Have to Start Questioning What Systems We Are Participating In’

Mexican climate activist Xiye Bastida says her generation is ready to learn from the Indigenous values of reciprocity and appreciation for Mother Earth to build a flourishing future.
Analysis
‘We Have to Start Questioning What Systems We Are Participating In’
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Xiye Bastida at a Fridays for Future strike in New York City. Credit: Felix Kunze

Xiye Bastida is a 20-year-old climate activist from the Otomí-Toltec community in central Mexico, a leading organizer with the Fridays for Future movement in New York City, a co-founder of the Re-Earth Initiative, and a champion of Indigenous and immigrant engagement in climate activism.

In an interview with the online Collective Trauma Summit 2022, Bastida spoke with Laura Calderón de la Barca, a co-host of the nine-day event, about the relationship between the struggle for climate justice, Indigenous worldviews, inter-generational collaboration, and reciprocity.

The interview has been translated from Spanish to English and edited for length and clarity.

Laura Calderón de la Barca

I would like to start by asking you, what led you to get involved with this topic of climate justice?

Xiye Bastida

I think that the phrase “climate justice” isn’t something many have heard until now. The word is still conservationism or environmentalism. I think it’s very important to explain my story for people to understand what climate justice is.

I always start with the fact that my parents met at the first Climate Summit in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro. I grew up with my parents in the middle of the United Nations negotiations. My dad was always talking about Indigenous rights because we are from the Otomí community in the State of Mexico. That’s how I grew up, with a very, very strong sense of what we’re doing to Mother Earth and what solutions exist.

Although I grew up with it, I kept seeing it as something remote. Then, my own village became “the perfect storm.” It hosts the Lerma River, which is one of Mexico’s most polluted rivers. We have a lagoon, which is now a protected area after my parents worked very, very hard to establish this protection. We also have a lot of waste materials going into the wetland and the Lerma River. The train from Toluca to Mexico was built on top of our aquifers. This happens because we are a marginalized community, a poor community without resources or support. We are seen as a disposable community.

My town was flooded in 2015 when I was 13 years old, something that had never happened in the 80-something years of my grandparents’ lifetime. The flood did not happen just because it rained. Yes, it rained a lot, but it wasn’t just clean water. It was water with toxic waste. At that moment, I realized that everything my parents had told me was at my doorstep, it was tangible, and I couldn’t wait to be my parents’ age to go get a master’s degree and a doctorate and then start doing what I had to do. I needed to start right then.

From there, I began to mobilize at my school as best as I could. I was already in the United States because my parents got jobs here. So I decided to start because it was feeling like it was going to be too late for my generation, and we can’t keep giving up that space.

CALDERÓN DE LA BARCA

Could you talk to us about colonialism, how Indigenous communities are being treated, and what relationship you see between this and the climate crisis?

BASTIDA

When I think about the climate crisis, I don’t think about the last 200 years when our emissions began to rise. I think back to when colonizers, such as the Spanish and other Europeans, decided that it was okay to exploit entire continents. The climate crisis is the consequence of a mindset: the mindset that people can be oppressed, that you can go to new territories, loot them, appropriate them, and get rich from them. The same thing is still happening now in a different, more subtle way: We still have many mines in Mexico whose owners are Canadian or U.S. companies. It’s a new type of colonialism.

The knowledge Indigenous people have built for thousands and thousands of years is being ignored. We know what it’s like to live in harmony with Mother Earth and all that surrounds us. This is the kind of knowledge that needs to be saved and it’s what we must accept as a solution because the mindset that created this crisis cannot be the same mindset that we use to solve it.

CALDERÓN DE LA BARCA

It’s obviously a very big problem. However, that didn’t stop you. Your will and intelligence were put into making a difference. Something empowered you, your family, and your community. Can you tell us about that? What drives you all?

BASTIDA

I think that for me, it’s about respecting everything my family has done, my family’s resilience, realizing that the two to three years that I have been an activist is nothing compared to the 30 years my grandma spent going to Mexico City to sell tortillas to give my uncles and my father a decent life. Or my grandfather’s resilience as a member of a communal land council, where he has had to go to many lands and occupy them (do sit-ins) so that a company can’t use them.

It’s the kind of resilience that many Latino communities have, but specifically Indigenous peoples. We, as a generation, must respect and defend that. The organization Initiative for Indigenous Futures hosts the motto, “The future is Indigenous.” It’s the notion that all the knowledge there is, we, as a generation, have to translate it for the modern world, and say how we can integrate that reciprocity, that intergenerational collaboration, that wisdom into the systems we have today.

We have to grab that pencil and rewrite that narrative because if not, someone else will write it. I think that’s what empowers me, knowing that we can all make a difference. My parents have always believed in me. They’ve always told me, “We know that you can be whatever you want to be in life. When I was 8 years old, I wanted to be a veterinarian. I realized that I could be much more than that. Now I’m fighting for the rights of Indigenous peoples and the rights of my generation to have a decent future.

CALDERÓN DE LA BARCA

When you speak of this wisdom that you have received, about resilience, this intergenerational collaboration as you call it, it reminds me of something I heard you say in an interview when you were talking to your grandma: “You taught me to take care of Mother Earth.” It’s about every decision that we make as a collective. That collective consciousness seems essential to me. When you talk about your grandfather doing sit-ins, he didn’t just sit alone on a piece of land. Can you tell us, please, about that collective dimension of the vision that you and your people have to transform the world?

BASTIDA

The narrative of the oil industry is, “What is your carbon footprint? How much have you emitted?” The Coca-Cola narrative is, “How much have you recycled?” We have to realize that this notion of individual change — that you can use recyclable bags yourself, and all that — is, in the end, a narrative so that you don’t talk to the people around you, so that you think that you alone have the responsibility to do something. [But] we all have that responsibility. We won’t be strong enough if we do it individually. It has to be collective. Systemic change can only be achieved if we work together.

The question is, how can you be part of this movement? The truth is, I don’t believe you have to change your lifestyle to be an activist. You just have to be aware of how you can change what you do, or how the circle you belong to can be changed, how the institution you are a part of can be changed.

Xiye Bastida and other young activists at a Fridays for Future march. Credit: Felix Kunze

CALDERÓN DE LA BARCA

How do you see the contribution of young people in this collaboration?

BASTIDA

There’s an African proverb that says, “The young run faster, but the adults know the way.” So we have this energy, and we want to reach our final goal, but we can’t reach that goal without the wisdom of previous generations.

Young people have historically been part of all social movements. I’ve seen that a lot. I’m half Chilean, so I’ve seen it in Chile and I’ve seen it in Mexico. Every time I pick up a book from before the 1960s, there are always young people criticizing the system and saying, “Hey, this isn’t possible. That’s not fair.”

CALDERÓN DE LA BARCA

Can you tell me about reciprocity in our relationship with Mother Earth?

BASTIDA

Reciprocity basically means, “If I give, I also have to receive. Or if I receive and take away, I have to give.” We humans are taking, taking, and taking from Mother Earth. We are not giving back. We are not regenerating.

That’s why reciprocity is so important. Not only in our relationship with our family and friends but also with Mother Earth. That is why they are called non-renewable resources, for example. Because Mother Earth doesn’t have the ability to renew those resources at the same speed at which we’re taking them.

If they can’t be renewed, why are we taking them? We aren’t being aware that we must be able to discern what can and can’t be taken. I believe that Mother Earth has been very, very generous to us. She has given us everything we need to live. Not only survive but live, and we have to respect that. That’s the heart of reciprocity, knowing that every time you drink water, eat something, or put something on, it comes from Mother Earth. We must learn how to return that favor and do it not only individually, but institutionally.

CALDERÓN DE LA BARCA

Have you had experiences that you’d define as “healing” within all this?

BASTIDA

Yes, definitely. I think you don’t realize that you need that healing until you’ve crossed the point of exhaustion. This has happened to many of us during the pandemic because of this culture where if you aren’t exhausted, you’re not working hard enough. That’s how I was raised, and how my generation was raised too. The damage this does to us is very, very big because we’re not living our lives. We are competing in a system that ultimately doesn’t care.

We are realizing that, and we know that activism is tiring in itself. It’s exhausting because you must be constantly responding to what’s happening in the world. You must be organizing, you must be creating strategies, traveling, and all that.

We have to give ourselves time in the whole process of activism for regeneration. It must be regenerative activism. I do realize that, especially for activists who are Indigenous, this is much more conscious because we know that we must do the ceremonies, that we have to ask for permission every time we go somewhere, that we have to give thanks for the presence of others. What my dad has always told me is, “If you’re not well, you can’t give your best to the world.” And he is right.

CALDERÓN DE LA BARCA

Could you share a little more about the rituals and the ceremonies, so that those of us who didn’t have the good fortune to grow up in an Indigenous community can see a bit of how we can bring that to our lives, how we can take care of ourselves through ceremony and rituals?

BASTIDA

The main thing is our values: the value of reciprocity, the value of collaboration, and the value of knowing that we shouldn’t be competitive but collaborative, not individualistic but working with the community in mind.

Once your mindset has changed, it’s much easier to be aware and thankful. There are obviously different types of ceremonies, ceremonies organized with your community. We give thanks, for example, to the Four Elements, to the Four Directions. It’s easier for me to realize how we live in an interconnected system when I give thanks to things. We live in a world where we see many things as disposable, where we think we can produce everything indefinitely. I think that in order to reach that higher level of consciousness, we have to start questioning what systems we are participating in, and on an individual level, we need to be able to connect, to be calmer, and always ask Mother Earth to give us clarity and direction. It’s what I always do, “Please give me clarity to say what has to be said. Give me directions to be on the right track, and also the strength to discern the spaces that need me and the spaces that don’t need me.”

CALDERÓN DE LA BARCA

What would you ask of the adults of my generation?

BASTIDA

The first thing I ask you is to take a minute to reflect and breathe. There’s a very famous psychologist, I forgot his name, who says, “One minute can change everything.” While you reflect, don’t ask, “What can I do to support the movement?” Ask, “What can I do to be part of that movement?”

You yourselves are going to answer that question because I know that you know what systems or which institutions you have an influence on, how you can tell your family to change their habits, or how you can tell your government to change its legislation. I believe that this is the first step; ask yourself what you can do.

I would tell my generation that it’s our time to claim what we deserve. We deserve a clean planet. We deserve a happy planet. We deserve a future for ourselves and for our children. To my parents’ generation, I say: “All that you’ve lived, the least you can do is make sure that your grandchildren have as good of a world.”

Know that we aren’t to blame for the climate crisis. It’s these fossil fuel companies, plastics companies, who have distorted the narrative for so long. If you’re just realizing that, no problem. What needs to be done is to start taking these companies out of the picture and reimagine the future with clean energy with a well-functioning transport system and with an education that is more on par for young people and generations to come.

CALDERÓN DE LA BARCA

Is there anything else you’d like to share before we end for today?

BASTIDA

Remember to do everything with joy. We’re building a new world, and what better way to do it than with a happy heart and a positive attitude.

‘We Have to Start Questioning What Systems We Are Participating In’

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