As Rosy Martinez lay on her deathbed, suffering from a cancer her family members believed was related to working with radioactive materials at Los Alamos National Laboratory, she raised her hands as if crossing a finish line and shouted, “I love my people!”
The memory sticks with Artemisio Romero y Carver.
A 17-year-old activist and spokesman for a vibrant advocacy group called YUCCA, Romero y Carver says his aunt’s death led to his passion for environmental change. And his uncommon commitment is about more than making posters or chanting slogans.
“The danger increases every single day,” he says of the threats due to climate change. “Action is needed now.”
Romero y Carver is one of 11 teens on the steering committee of YUCCA (its formal name is Youth United for Climate Crisis Action). The group was front and center in the recent Global Climate Strike that drew hundreds of marchers to Santa Fe in September, delivering a letter of demands to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office, and recently played part in a sit-in at the Roundhouse in which more than 20 adult participants were cited.
Romero y Carver has been perhaps the most public face and voice of YUCCA, holding a microphone at every public event and raising his fists at any local strike. His mission, he said, is to raise awareness on what he believes is undoubtedly the most urgent issue the world faces today.
“Crisis, calamity, apocalypse — those terms are almost moot right now,” he said, adding those who deny climate change is “like having a gun pointed at your head and having someone walk by and say, ‘That gun isn’t real.’ ”
Bianca Sopoci-Belknap, co-director of Earth Care, a local nonprofit that oversees YUCCA, said Romery y Carver has “a sense of what the immediate impacts are for communities that are marginalized and underrepresented in decision-making spaces. … That makes him a very fierce advocate for those whose voices are normally ignored. I really admire that about him.”
A student at New Mexico School for the Arts, Romero y Carver said he identifies as queer and lives with his dad Jon Carver. He said he spent a great deal of his childhood in the forests of Lamy where his dad lives off the grid in a solar- and wind-powered home.
Carver, who has lived without electricity since 1999, said his son was “brought up certainly in an environmental lifestyle.” The two of them hiked a great deal together when Romero y Carver was young; Carver noticed that his son also enjoyed spending time alone drawing nature-inspired artworks.
“It was very healing for him,” he said. “Anyone who has gone through these kind of custody issues, it hits home. … Any other conflicts in the world, they know ‘I can handle this.’ ”
Growing up, Romero y Carver said he had a tumultuous relationship with his mother.
“I found a lot of refuge in the woods,” Romero y Carver said. But more than that, “I found a lot of refuge in people.”
As soon as he realized the depth of the climate crisis — he cites scientific data released this year that says climate change could become irreversible by 2030 — he said he got involved in environmental activism as an effort to save family, friends and mentors who have shown him support and encouragement over the years.
“I want to continue [my aunt’s] legacy: ‘I love my people,’ ” Romero y Carver said.
He got involved with YUCCA this summer before the group even had a name. Since joining the group, Romero y Carver said he has hope.
“For a long time, I was very cynical. I took the position a lot of people in my generation do: That the deck is already stacked against us,” he said.
However, “I’m an optimist now. You have to be if you’re in this fight.”
In its letter to Lujan Grisham, YUCCA called for creation of a so-called Just Transition Fund, which would move revenue from oil and gas toward implementing strategies to eliminate New Mexico’s dependence on fossil fuels, and passing a moratorium on fracking, specifically in indigenous communities.
Romero y Carver said the governor has yet to meet with the group and has still not agreed to declare a climate emergency.
Though climate change can be confronted on an individual level — recycling, eating less meat or turning the lights off — to have real change will require a governmental shift, he said.
“When I don’t see [state leaders] doing anything of substance, I feel betrayed and abandoned to fight the crisis on my own,” Romero y Carver said.
Romero y Carver said he felt “the most hopeful I’ve ever felt,” when more than 100 people came to the Capitol to support YUCCA’s request to move a deadline to achieve renewable energy from 2045, as outlined in the recently passed Energy Transition Act, to 2030. Lujan Grisham signed the measure after the 2019 legislative session.
Though the young people left early to avoid potential criminal charges, 21 adult protesters risked arrest and were escorted out of Lujan Grisham’s office by security. They received citations for declining to leave when the Roundhouse closed.
“That means something,” Romero y Carver said.
“Arte,” as he is known, is quick to point out that many feel as he does, and that the group is much bigger than a single individual.
“The story of YUCCA is not just the story of me,” Romero y Carver said, noting the steering committee is comprised of men and women, Latinos and Native Americans, gay and straight youth.
After graduating from the School for the Arts, Romero y Carver, who creates ink drawings and does performance art, said he plans to continue his creative pursuits as well as a political science degree in college.
“Organizing is a kind of art. It’s the kind of art I want to pursue,” he said. “It feels like the right thing to be doing with my life.”
And Romero y Carver said he will uphold that same commitment to the cause he cares about.
“My entire life I’m going to have to be in this fight, simply by merit that I want my life to be longer,” he said. “If in 2050 the world is ending … if I didn’t feel like I did enough, I couldn’t live with myself.”