by Frances Madeson for Current Affairs
Seventeen-year-old climate activist Artemisio Romero Y Carver has the androgynous features of an aristocratic youth one might see pictured in the National Gallery, intense and unsmiling–jet black hair, broad forehead, sensitive intelligent eyes, and full lips brimming to speak monstrous truths, part Oscar Wilde, part Langston Hughes. Truths about the climate future bearing down on his generation, and more personally, concerning the hellscape of extreme poverty on Santa Fe’s south side, where he has lived half his childhood “among the people who do not bring in the tourist dollars, where the people are not represented by our government.”
Furthest away from the historic downtown plaza and amenities like parks and teen rec centers, it’s the part of Santa Fe decidedly not at risk for gentrification. The families that live in the mobile homes, apartments and townhouses in the poorer tracts are survivors from several persistent waves of gentrification since the 1970s. Or they’re first generation immigrants from south of the border. Per U.S. census data, a third of the south side’s roughly 4,000 people are living below the federal poverty line, and the remainder are not wealthy, at least not materially. The zip code encompassing the south side has been testing highest by far for COVID infection, with more positives than the other four zip codes in Santa Fe County combined.
Romero Y Carver is a poet, and in his work, he illustrates common experiences of growing up in poverty–an unheated home in the wintry cold of the high desert, or baking his own cakes for his dinner meal, at times with no milk–an ersatz life with his desperately unhappy mother who holds him close in her arms and whispers: “You don’t deserve love.” To cope he trains his mind on inventorying the details of his reality. In Vanilla Extract, he writes of the:
…cheap lock, the only protection I’ve got…me and the dogs sound the same when we whimper…my room is a meat locker…my reflection looks back at me and I still can’t convince him that I’m not just her victim…
In April, he became Santa Fe’s 2020 Youth Poet Laureate. “You see bad things happening to people you care about—drug abuse, mental illness—the kind of issues that are going to happen when you treat people that way for generations,” he told Current Affairs. “You’re a kid, and you don’t have access to socio-economic theory and you just ask, Why?”
The year Romero Y Carver was born, New Mexico was ranked 46 out of 50 states in overall child well-being by the Anne E. Casey Foundation. Last month in its 2020 Kids Count Data Book it was announced that the state is 50th, dead last, for the third consecutive year.* The blighted economic prospects of the approximately 124,000 children living under the federal poverty line in New Mexico have been aggregated into a kind of tithe to the oil and gas oligarchs. The stasis has endured through three Republican and three Democratic governors since 1990, the year the Casey Foundation began its rankings. Then, 27% of the state’s children were living below the federal poverty line; in 2020, it’s 26%. There has been only one year–2010–that there has not been a full quarter of New Mexico’s children living below the line, and that ranking was just on its other side, at 24%.
The picture becomes even more unsettling when New Mexico is compared to the other 49 states: There has never been a year since 1990 that the state has not been ranked in the bottom ten. Even before the pandemic there were 166,000 children in New Mexico whose parents do not have secure employment and 122,000 living in families with a high housing cost burden. Both were contributors to receiving a ranking of 49th state for economic well-being, a subheading of the overall ranking.
Oil’s been flowing in New Mexico since 1922, and the state budget has long been a roller coaster that ascends and plummets along with industry’s booms and all-too-frequent busts. The rough ride routinely ejects children from under the lap bar. Each dollar in price per barrel of oil, up or down, translates into a $9.5 million impact to the general fund, and in 2020 oil and gas revenues in New Mexico account for 39% of general fund revenue, recklessly exposing the state to extraordinary fiscal risk. When busts happened, New Mexico’s answer was to cut, every year from 2008 to 2018, slashing programs, services, and children’s chances of surviving, much less transcending poverty.
Just weeks after the state finalized its 2021 budget, fat with projected revenues, oil prices tanked. It left lawmakers with an empty promise instead of a workable plan, which James C. Jimenez, executive director of New Mexico Voices for Kids, likens to “an education moonshot, but with no rocket or fuel.” Jimenez, a former tax and budget policy analyst for the state, was for a time former Gov. Bill Richardson’s chief of staff, and has been tracking New Mexico’s economic fortunes for over 30 years. He says the current crisis offers an opportunity to do things differently from the 2008 bust, and the one before it in 1986.
“What is the kind of state that we want to create for our children now and our grandchildren and great grandchildren?” he said. “What are the ways we need to invest in New Mexico’s people in order to make that desired future happen?”
Jimenez is a wonk and advocate, not a philosopher, so his questions are accompanied by proposals—health, education, economic development, serious tax reform—with the goal of supporting healthy child brain development and wellness from cradle to adulthood.
“One of the ways is by ensuring that they have the income they need to support their families’ needs whether that’s housing or healthcare or transportation,” Jimenez said. “We’re talking about the basics here. We’re not talking about the ‘nice to haves.’ It’s those fundamental things that all American families want to provide a prosperous future for their children so they can reach their potential.”
Romero Y Carver located an answer of his own in the Green New Deal Resolution, which he calls “a manifesto for a New American Left.” In it he found an argument against environmental racism, generational poverty, wealth accumulation and environmental desecration—some of his main concerns—and a way around “a continuation of colonialization, white violence and white genocide.” It was the first piece of legislation he ever felt was written for him.
He started attending and speaking at some Earth Care New Mexico climate justice events last summer and found kindred GND enthusiasts; then he met another larger group, many queer, Indigenous and POC, some from his school, New Mexico School for the Arts. Inspired by Greta Thunberg, together they formed Youth United For Climate Crisis Action, or YUCCA, to move an action in Santa Fe as part of the Global Climate Strike, September 20-27, 2019.
It has a core group of about two dozen members, and many more who come to their events and participate in their actions. The more their discussions illuminated how child poverty is structured in colonization, they realized that without their intervention, the fossil fuel industry’s dominance over their state’s politics and budgets would not change.
Earth Care’s Josue Damian-Martinez, 23, has worked with YUCCA since its beginnings last summer as a mentor. He doesn’t just “look like” the youth organizers, years earlier, he was one of them.
At high school in Santa Fe, his classes often had 30 pupils, and one English class had a substitute teacher for an entire year. A year he could have been reading poetry, learning to analyze literary works in fruitful discussion, thinking critically and accessing inspiration in literary art, was spent reading a chapter in a crowded classroom, answering canned questions on a worksheet.
“In the past if I saw any kind of climate change movement, I would always ignore it, because I thought…oh…white people are angry about the climate,” he said. “But now we’re shifting the conversation to its economic sphere; this is what it means to our community and this is how we can make a just transition to renewables.”
As a DACA recipient, Damian-Martinez cannot vote in November’s election. But he has helped guide the YUCCA organizers’ electoral strategy. YUCCA developed a candidate questionnaire from a youth climate justice perspective, held three virtual candidate forums, and endorsed candidates in 14 primary races at the federal, state and county levels. Though he now resides in DC, he stays connected to YUCCA and continues to work with the youth climate activists remotely.
When YUCCA steering committee member, 18-year-old Seneca Johnson is feeling hopeless about adult inaction on climate change, she reaches for music and podcasts as a way to be part of a totally different reality.
“There are a few bands and artists that help me feel understood, and uplift me,” she told Current Affairs. Her favorites are BTS, Hosier, and 21 Pilots, and she loves Welcome to Night Vale—a fictional podcast where “the terrifying becomes normal in a desert town,” she says.
This year she graduated from the Santa Fe Indian School, and is bound for Yale as a Gates Fellow. She plans to come back to New Mexico after she gets her degree, but while she’s in New Haven, she wants to establish a two-way communication.
“I want to let people over there know how things are here,” Johnson explained. “Our perspective is so devalued, they don’t know what’s going on here. New Mexico is left out of the conversation.”
Johnson’s tribes are Muskogee and Seminole based in Oklahoma, but her dad’s an artist so she was raised in Santa Fe, a town where Native art is on offer. She draws strength for all the challenging conversations ahead from her Indigenous roots.
“I have the knowledge that my people have been fighting this for hundreds of years at this point; they’ve given everything to give me the life that I have today,” Johnson said. “It can be heartbreaking to see how slow change is. As you know, we’re running out of time to create any concrete change, it’s really scary knowing there’s a time limit to all this.”
She has no “off” button when it comes to advocating for climate mitigation. Though most of her friends, even outside of YUCCA, are likeminded, one girl, a best friend since kindergarten, was a climate change holdout. Johnson says she was shocked at the discovery, and it changed their relationship to each other.
“Over the next several months, I was trying to explain to her both with science and my own experiences and experiences of marginalized people how that’s not correct,” Johnson explained. “It was very hard to do without alienating her.
“At one point I got so emotional about it I started crying, and she was like ‘oh wait, this is more than just a political opinion.’ Having a friend that I really wanted to keep, but wanted her to understand my perspective as well, was really helpful in learning how to defend the positions I’ve taken.”
Prior to YUCCA’s formation, Johnson was often the only young Native woman in organizing spaces and very much felt the burden of having to represent everybody. Now she’s one of several on YUCCA’s Steering Committee, which fluctuates between 10-15 members, and makes group decisions by consensus.
“Something I really appreciate about stepping into the space in YUCCA is my identity is not only respected, I’m a voice that people will listen to when it comes to my experiences and my perspective,” Johnson said.
The steering committee called a climate emergency in New Mexico and then a climate “school strike” on September 20, 2019, that saw more than 5,000 students from across Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Las Cruces, Silver City, Española, Taos, Farmington and Indigenous Nations in the region walk out. Five demands were put to the state lawmakers (all unmet to date): a formal declaration of climate emergency, the creation of a fund from Oil & Gas Revenues to commence a just transition to renewables, a fracking ban, community solar legislation by 2020 and 100% renewables no later than 2030.
On January 21, 2020, they brought a guillotine to the Round House, the state capitol building in Santa Fe, to enforce their demands.
“I don’t think we intended the guillotine as any kind of death threat to members of the New Mexico state government,” Romero Y Carver deadpanned. He identifies as a “queer Chicano Norteńo person,” and his sense of humor, inflected by a healthy appreciation for the absurd, runs as deep as his instinct to self-preservation.
“We wanted to make visible the way that the New Mexico state government is making our lives forfeit,” he said. “If they’re going to kill us, they should be able to handle seeing the consequences of their very real actions.”
What you’re able to do with direct action is show politicians that there’s pressure on them,” Romero Y Carver explained. “It’s about preparing a government to hear protesters and protesters willing to stand up and be heard by that government.”
YUCCA’s power analysis led them to embrace a dual strategy, pairing direct action with electoral engagement. They decided to hold candidate forums and endorse candidates in key races in northern New Mexico.
“We formulated a questionnaire,” Damian-Martinez explained. “Would you pledge to not receive oil and gas lobby money and to solarize the state? Once we developed the questionnaire, the candidates filled it out, we reviewed them and ranked them, and finally voted in person. Someone was assigned to make the statements, it was all very detailed.”
Johnson said their aim was not to provide a platform for candidates to say what they thought young people wanted to hear, but to make sure that young people would hear what they needed to be informed.
“We wanted to dive deep into where do they get their information, how do they interact with community members, are they involved in Indigenous consultation,” she explained.
They focused on sources of contributions, climate voting history (if any) and diversity.
“We were not giving endorsements just for the sake of giving endorsements,” Damian-Martinez explained. “We want to move towards an increased political influence, so we wanted to establish a good process.” He was listening for candidates who pledged not to take oil and gas money, which said to him, ‘I’m going to fight for you!’”
And a fight it will be, predicts Linda Serrato, who did not accept oil and gas money, was endorsed by YUCCA in her primary race in NM House District 45, and won. She told Current Affairs that as she was campaigning pre-COVID, she talked to people who’ve lived on their land for generations, observing the natural world all their lives from their porches, backyard gardens or hunting grounds in nearby forests, and they confirm, “yes, it still snows, but it’s not like it used to be.” She thinks YUCCA’s climate fears are justified, legitimate, and as a mother of a two-year-old, she shares them.
The cratering of the state budget is important context for YUCCA’s rise, and Serrato points specifically to the fact that three of the four active candidates in her own race participated in their forum. “I do think that signals some change,” Serrato said. “In another year people might have ignored them as ‘just a bunch of kids.’ It speaks volumes.”
Their questions grabbed her. “They said our future is on the line, our future is in your hands, what are you going to do about it?”
Similarly, Roger Montoya, an out HIV+ gay man was endorsed by YUCCA for the NM House seat in the 40th District, and won his primary. The governor had recruited him to run after he brought honor to the state by winning a CNN Heroes Visionary Award for his work with Moving Arts Española.
He’s frank about the steep learning curve and vows not to show up green. At present, he’s involved in the intake of a lot of information, wrapping his mind around transmission lines and energy infrastructure. He’s doing it for the young people, who are “vessels of creativity and goodness.”
If elected, he hopes the YUCCA members will frequent his office.
“I’m going to need that cutting edge to remind me to propel.”
YUCCA organizers brace for more struggle.
“There’s always a moment, it’s hard to escape,” Carver said. “Those moments when you’re on a bus, or taking a drive somewhere, talking to a friend, and it hits you, we might not live past 50. I might never have kids. I might never have that option. These moments hit you like trains. Like a punch thrown at your face. And it’s impossible to ever feel the same after having that thought and knowing that it could be true.