10 Times Latino Activists Fought for a Better World in 2016

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2016 was the year of “wokeness”; in certain circles, telegraphing one’s awareness of social justice issues took on social currency, and being (or appearing to be) politically engaged became cool. But in the midst of this occasionally performative rising consciousness – one that was all but demanded by a terrible year – were activists doing the tough, on the ground work of pushing for change. They organized, they risked their livelihoods and lives in acts of civil disobedience, they used their platforms to amplify the voices of those who needed to be heard.

And in a year when many felt hopeless and powerless – as we witnessed the tragedy of the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis unfold, saw politicians in the UK and US win on racist, xenophobic campaigns, and watched as more names were added to the long list of black lives lost to police violence and brutality – these activists were a model for the type of work we should aspire to and support.

After a particularly difficult 2016, here are some of the Latino activists and movements who inspired us and helped make the world a better place this year:



Xiuhtezcatl Martínez

At just 16 years old, Xiuhtezcatl Martínez already has more than a decade of environmental activism under his belt. Martínez – who learned at an early age that as an indigenous person, he’s a descendant of the original caretakers of the land – has more than a decade of activism under his belt. The self-described “indigenous environmental eco-hip hop artist and activist,” heads up the Earth Guardians activist organization, has spoken at the UN and TED talks, and in 2013 was recognized as a “Youth Changemaker of the Year” by President Obama (he was 13 at the time).

This year saw Martínez stand out like never before. He and a group of teens sued the United States government for their inaction on climate change in April. The group accused the government, the fossil fuel industry, and other federal agencies of causing irreparable damage to the environment, and therefore, encroaching on their constitutional rights to life and liberty.

On November 10, he and his fellow environmentalists got one step closer to their goal by winning the right to sue the US government. Just days after their victory, he and his co-plaintiffs called on President Barack Obama to meet with them before his term is over on January 20, 2017. They’ve asked Obama to denounce the fossil fuel industry and to settle the case out of courts. They argue that this is the way for Obama to cement his legacy. “We are defining the future we will pass on to generations to come,” he said. “This is a pivotal moment in our nation’s history. We need President Obama to stand with us.”

To top off his already incredible year, Xiutezcatl also won the Children’s Climate Prize at the end of November. Each year, Swedish company Telge Energi awards a kid between 10 and 16 for their contributions to the environment. The jury commended him for taking on the powerful fossil fuel industry and for mobilizing others.



In 1995, the late Mexican poet Susana Chávez used the words “ni una mujer menos, ni una muerta más” to protest femicides in Juarez. Two decades later, activists resuscitated the phrase after the murders of Argentine women Daiana García and Chiara Páez. The words became slightly shortened to Ni Una Menos, but the message remained the same. Soon enough they became a rallying cry across all of Latin America as young women all over the continent organized to protest violence against women and the femicide epidemic that plagues many Latin American countries. Argentina’s first protest came in 2015, but the movement continued to grow in 2016. Subsequent protests followed in Mexico, Peru, Chile, and Uruguay.

In Peru, President Pedro Pablo Kucyznski attended the march in Lima – an important step toward his government addressing a prevalent problem in the country. Peru’s minister for women Ana María Romero vowed to re-evaluate the way they handle cases of domestic abuse and violence against women and offer solutions, including offering more women’s shelters, better psychological support, and more targeted police training.

On October 19, 2016, tens of thousands of Argentines marched to President Mauricio Macri’s house and called for justice after a group of men killed 16-year-old Lucía Pérez. People from 58 other cities around the cities joined the protests that day – proving that this movement has resonated with people everywhere.


Standing Rock Water Protectors

Photo by Josué Rivas

In late 2014, Energy Transfer Partners LP applied to build a pipeline capable of carrying 570,000 barrels of crude oil from North Dakota to Iowa. It immediately garnered protests from a group of indigenous and climate activists concerned that the project would not only run through lands sacred to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, but also threaten the community’s sole water source. Nearly two years later, the battle has grabbed the nation’s attention. When April rolled around, Native Americans began camping out in Standing Rock in an act of civil disobedience. As the protests largely flew under the radar, indigenous groups arrived to stand in solidarity.

By September, more than 280 tribes from the United States and the world arrived on the plains of Dakota to show their support – including Mayan elders from Guatemala and indigenous activists from Peru, among others. Organizers called it “the largest, most diverse tribal action in at least a century, perhaps since Little Bighorn.” Despite cultural differences, Native tribes see themselves as protectors of the land, says Ruth Hopkins, a reporter for Indian Country Today, in an interview with NPR. “This is part of a larger issue we face as Native people,” she said. “It’s something we’ve always faced…fighting for our lands and our survival.”

Facing escalating violence from law enforcement and private security hired by the oil company, including mace, security dogs, and water cannons aimed at protestors in 26-degree weather, the sacrifices of the water protectors finally resulted in a major victory. On December 4, the  Army Corps of Engineers denied the final permit needed for Energy Transfer Partners LP to build a key section of the North Dakota Access Pipeline beneath the Missouri River. Whether this decision will stand in the new administration remains to be seen, but regardless the example set at Standing Rock is an inspiration for our nation.


Jeronimo Saldaña and Mijente

Photo: Jeronimo Saldaña

As a member of Mijente, a nonprofit hub for Latinx organizing grown from the #Not1More campaign, Jeronimo Saldaña made a splash this year in the form of his viral “Make America Mexico Again” hats. A riff on President-elect Donald Trump’s facile and troubling campaign promise to “Make America Great Again” – and a rebuke of his campaign’s anti-Mexico rhetoric –Saldaña’s hats were a reminder that before the signing of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, parts of Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming belonged to Mexico.

All of the proceeds from hat sales went into supporting the important work Mijente has been doing in the Latinx community, including the large #WalloffTrump protest they staged at the Republican National Convention, where they created a literal wall around the RNC using their bodies and sheets.

When he’s not doing work with Mijente, Saldaña – who works for the Drug Policy Alliance – is also working to to address the lack of accurate data on Latinos in the criminal justice system. Teaming up with the Urban Institute, Public Welfare Foundation, and LatinoJustice PRLDEF, a new interactive feature – titled The Alarming Lack of Data on Latinos in the Criminal Justice System – is working to determine the amount of data missing on Latinos who are incarcerated, in the hopes that this will help guide better policy decisions.


Jonathan Jayes-Green

Immigration issues get almost exclusively framed through a Latino lens in the national discourse. However, this erases the experiences of many other immigrants who struggle equally within our nation’s broken immigration system. Panamanian-born Jonathan Jayes-Green has pushed to “blackify” the immigrant rights movement. Jayes-Green works to amplify the voices of those who are often forgotten or ignored in a community that is already heavily marginalized.

“Anti-blackness has played a role in the mainstream immigrant rights movement,” Jayes-Green told Fusion. “Black immigrants are detained and deported at five times the rate of their presence in the undocumented immigrant community. Due to our identities, our communities are more likely to be targeted for enforcement, criminalization and deportation in this country—and that has to stop.”

In college, Jayes-Green began working with the immigrants’ rights movement. He and a group focused on passing legislation that would make it easier for young immigrants in Maryland. However, after Freddie Gray’s murder at the hands of police, Jayes-Green was disappointed to learn that the people he’d worked with didn’t side with the black community. “They were making comments about black people that I expected from white people,” Jayes-Green told Fusion.

From then on, he decided to shift gears and co-founded the UndocuBlack Network to provide resources for the black immigrant community. Only a small number of black immigrants applied for President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which shields young undocumented people from deportation and allows them to work. Jayes-Green explains that it’s further proof that immigration activists haven’t done enough to reach black immigrants.

UndocuBlack kicked off the year hosting a three-day conference for undocumented black immigrants. According to NBC, the event was described as a “first of its kind space for black undocumented folks to heal, organize and be empowered by each other.”


Máxima Acuña

Every year, the Goldman Environmental Prize honors those working to protect the earth on a grassroots level. In 2016, Peruvian Máxima Acuña received that prestigious award for her years-long fight against a mining company.

As Peru’s mining industry grows, it’s the campesinos who suffer. As these companies become richer, they remain poor. And their right to clean water is compromised as it becomes polluted with mining waste. When Newmont – a Colorado-based company that owns and operates the very profitable Yanacocha Mine – looked to expand in 2010, it planned to drain lakes for its new Conga Mine.

Since then, Acuña and her family have fought to keep the company off of their property. In 2011, the company tried to evict Maxima and her family. She and her daughter unfortunately paid for their bravery. Guards knocked them unconscious. Eventually, the company sued Maxima in a provincial court.

Despite teaming up with GRUFIDES – an environmental NGO that helped her appeal the case – and her community, her fight is far from over. In September, hired hitmen targeted Maxima and her husband, according to teleSur. “People hired by mining firm Yanacocha illegally broke into the property and started damaging the lot with various tools,” Ysidora Chaupe, Maxima’s daughter, said. “When Maxima and Jaime approached them and demanded they stop invading the property, the mining firm’s security staff violently attacked Maxima and Jaime, hitting Maxima in the head and body with a weapon, leaving her seriously hurt.”

Latin America is the deadliest place to be an environmental activist. Global Witnessreport, On Dangerous Ground, found that Latin America accounted for most of the murders of land defenders in any region in 2015. Out of 185 documented killings, 100 – 54 percent – happened in Latin America. Due to the constant stress for natural resources, it looks like 2016 will be on par with last year when it comes to the murders of environmentalists. We can only hope that the global attention to the Standing Rock struggle will raise more awareness of similar land struggles happening in indigenous communities around the world, as they face off against the major development projects that seek to displace them or damage their lands.


Bazta Arpaio

Photo: Bazta Arpaio

This year, Joe Arpaio, America’s self-proclaimed toughest sheriff, sought re-election, but a group of determined young Arizona residents helped put an end to his 23-year-run. For too long, Arpaio racially profiled Latinos and detained them in his inhumane tent city jail. Coming together as Bazta Arpaio, a group of young organizers used a mix of new and old techniques to unseat the sheriff. Online, they used memes and made lighthearted commentary to draw people to their cause. Offline, members knocked on doors, spoke to their peers on campus, and registered people to vote. Bazta Arpaio also put pressure on Arpaio supporters. For weeks, the group protested outside of Bruce Halle’s Discount Tire after the owner hung a sign that read, “Re-Elect Sheriff Joe Arpaio.”

With Donald Trump’s election, November 8 was a dark, crushing day. But Bazta Arpaio successfully got Arpaio out – a welcome respite for those who have endured his harmful policies.


Erika Andiola

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Undocumented activist and DREAMer Erika Andiola rose to prominence after immigration officials raided her home in 2013. She filmed herself urging for change in our immigration policy, and the campaign she launched got her family released from detention. In 2015, Andiola joined Bernie Sanders’ campaign as Latino Outreach Strategist for the Southwestern Region, which was considered a boon by pro-comprehensive-reform activists. Two months later, the campaign promoted her to national Latinx press secretary. Her work on Sanders campaign (alongside Cesar Vargas) is credited with helping to push the Democratic party left on the issue of immigration – including, during the primaries, pushing Clinton to abandon her promise to deport children fleeing from violence in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.

After Sanders’ defeat against Hillary Clinton in the primary race, Andiola jumped right into her next role with People’s Revolution. Instead of focusing her energy on supporting Sanders after he no longer stood a chance in the race, she focused on down-ballot races and worked to make a change at the local and state level.

“Change happens from the bottom up,” said Andiola, quoting Bernie Sanders to The Fader. “We are all very focused on the presidential campaign. But the fact is that there are a lot of policies that happen at the local level and that were pushed back in 2010. Around that time, there was a huge movement on the right – the Tea Party movement. A lot of those folks were basically making a lot of changes through the local level and introducing legislation that was very, very harmful to our communities. Nobody was paying much attention because we were all so focused on the federal races.”


Luis Jorge Rivera Herrera

Photo: Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo

Just like Máxima Acuña, Puerto Rican Luis Jorge Rivera Herrera received the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2016. He’s fought to establish a nature reserve along Puerto Rico’s Northeast Ecological Corridor for the past 16 years. In 1999, when he learned developers planned to turn the Northeast Ecological Corridor – a 3,000 acre territory with significant biological significance – into two mega resorts, Rivera sprung into action.

He and his friends worked together to get Puerto Rican citizens to stand against the mega resorts, which eventually led to the Coalition for the Northeast Ecological Corridor. He even drafted a bill to get the area, which is a nesting site for endangered leatherback sea turtles, nature reserve protection. The bill didn’t move forward, and he continues to fight for this cause.

“You know that you are doing what’s right and when you are completely conscious about that and see that other people feel the same way, the only thing that you can do is move forward and make it happen, even if the odds are against you,” he told NBC News. “This kind of recognition from a foundation and a prize that is already internationally known, that raises your work to a whole new level of merit.”

On June 30, President Barack Obama signed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) – which set up a fiscal oversight board known as the La Junta de Control Fiscal to address the island’s $70 billion debt – into law. There’s concern that the Junta will sell these lands because of their high natural value in order to pay off some of the debt.

Lands that the Departamento de Recursos Naturales y Ambientales doesn’t own may be under threat, Rivera told El Nuevo Día. Compañía de Fomento Industrial y la Administración de Terrenos, for example, owns parts of the Northeast Ecological Corridor. “As long as there’s someone interested in purchasing this land, la Junta could sell these and many others,” he said. “If la Junta’s role is to repay the debt, we must remember that a lot of public corporations are bankrupt. They owe more than they are worth, and the only assets left that can be monetized is the land.”


Campamento Contra La Junta

Puerto Rico’s $70 billion debt hung in the balance for the first half of the year. On June 30, President Obama signed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) into law. Politicians have touted the debt restructuring bill, but for many, it’s hard to ignore its colonial implications. PROMESA set up a seven-person board – not elected by Puerto Ricans – to negotiate the debt with creditors.

For months, young Boricuas – collectively known as el Campamento Contra La Junta – have camped out at the US District Court of Puerto Rico in San Juan. The movement operates on a three-point platform: No to the federal oversight board, no to the debt, and yes to decolonization. On August 31 – the first scheduled PROMESA meeting – el Campamento Contra La Junta and other groups shut down the conference.

While the group has united because of Puerto Rico’s debt crisis, there are other issues it’s members are fighting for. Many of the protestors are against the CDC-proposed aerial fumigation with a pesticide called NALED, which harkens back to the States’ testing of contraceptives on Puerto Ricans in the ’50s and the testing of napalm in the ’90s. Most are adamant in wanting freedom for Oscar López Rivera, the longest held political prisoner in Puerto Rican history. It’s safe to assume the vast majority believe the 1917 Jones Act, which requires all imported goods to be purchased from American-made ships with American crews, has long stifled Puerto Rico’s economy.

In a tough year for the island, the activists that make up Campamento Contra La Junta are some of the most organized and steadfast the island has seen in recent years.