Bryan Parras remembers a time in elementary school when he accompanied his father on a work trip to the Netherlands, in the Golden Triangle of Texas. The warehouse where his father organized county workers was “just an empty open room with a bunch of chairs like you would see in a movie.” Bryan, now 44, remembers running outside, playing on a mound of sand, while his father discussed strategy with Jefferson County employees. Meanwhile, Juan Parras, who was there to try to negotiate Martin Luther King Jr. Day as paid time off for unionized workers, recalls what was going on inside. In the eastern Texas region that has long been home to the Ku Klux Klan, Juan says the mayor, whom he describes as resembling KFC Col. Sanders, took him to a back room during council deliberations. municipal to tell him that he thinks he is “a smart Mexican”. but it is not going to give workers “a ***** vacation”.
âI never understood the dangers of the job, but I know they were there,â Bryan says of Juan’s longtime activism across Texas. When he could keep up, he liked the chance to spend time with his father, who was away to work often, leaving Bryan and his brother at home with their mother, Jesusa Moreno. Juan’s union trips took a toll on the marriage, and although the organization reunited the couple when they were young in Big Spring, the two separated when Bryan was young. He describes his father as coming from a generation where âthey’re all in it. The boundaries between family and community are completely blurred â. But as Bryan got older, his father’s activism rubbed off on him and he found himself wanting to keep the work of intergenerational organization going, “to keep the good things from previous generations.”
Today Bryan and Juan are environmental justice organizers and co-founders, along with Juan’s wife Ana Parras, of one of Texas’ leading local environmental organizations, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS ). The nonprofit has gained national and international attention for its advocacy for low-income communities of color in Houston, which are disproportionately affected by pollution from the city’s petrochemical refineries. Juan even won a nomination to President Joe Biden’s Environmental Justice Advisory Board last year. But for the Parras family, the work has always been personal.
Growing up in Houston in an area nestled between a historically Latinx neighborhood and a historically black neighborhood, Bryan has felt the impacts of environmental racism firsthand. He remembers having headaches and mysterious rashes on his arms, which he attributed to pollution from the chemical refineries that lined his neighborhood. Years later, he would be diagnosed with asthma.
Juan, now 72, entered his union career after organizing workers to deal with backlogs at the Harris County Welfare Office in the 1970s. The American Federation of State, County Employees and municipalities (AFSCME), the union that represented county employees like Juan, took note and offered him a job. At the time, he was the only Latinx union representative for AFSCME. âI was like a token,â Juan says. âEverywhere they organized, where they needed a Latino, they would send me, and I was like, ‘Look, hire other Latinos. I’m not the only one in this goddamn nation.
Soon Juan’s job brought him to Corpus Christi to organize Nueces County employees. This is where he meets Ana, a young organizer who works at the information desk. With each visit, he would stop for instructions and the chance to chat with her. âIt took seven years, however,â Ana tells Juan, laughing. âYou didn’t organize me right away. Ana became president of the AFSCME local chapter at just 24 years old.
In 1993 Juan left the union. He and Ana married soon after and returned to Houston. Juan did odd jobs for a while but couldn’t find anything permanent – he says it’s because companies feared he would unionize their workforce. Then one day, he received a phone call from an organizer of the Louisiana Labor Neighbor Project in Baton Rouge offering him a job. “I’m like, ‘What the hell is he talking about? Â», Says Juan. He looked at Ana across the living room, who said she had sent her resume and a cover letter. The two moved to Louisiana, where Juan supported the Oil, Chemical and Atom Workers Union amid a five-and-a-half-year lockout and Ana worked for a domestic violence shelter and a union for injured workers while raising their youngest children.
In the late 90s, Juan and Ana returned to Texas. Every day, on his way to work at Texas Southern University in Houston, Juan passed a huge sign that read: “Future site of the new high school.” He didn’t think much about it until Ana drove him to work one day and showed him what was behind it. Juan had never noticed the chimneys in the distance, dumping pollution into the surrounding neighborhoods, potentially exposing future students to the same health issues Bryan faced as a child. Bryan had been interested in photography and video in college, an interest fueled by Jesusa, who introduced him to Nuestra Palabra, a Latinx reading series, and a radio show on Pacifica radio station in Houston. He documented Juan and Ana’s activism as they fought to prevent construction of the school within a quarter of a mile of three large petrochemical plants. Although the group lost the battle to stop construction, Unidos Contra Environmental Racism, the organization that would become TEJAS, was born.
In 2019, TEJAS partnered with the Sierra Club to file a complaint alleging that the Texas Center for Environmental Quality’s public clearance process was inaccessible to non-English speakers, in violation of civil rights law. They won, and the proposed new rule, awaiting final approval from the Commissioners, requires translation of key documents and live interpretation to the public.
The intergenerational work that launched TEJAS remains at the forefront of its mission. âWe’re like a training ground,â Ana says. “We hope to teach the importance of caring about what is around you, where you live, what you do, and what people are exposed to.”
Today, while Juan and Ana remain with TEJAS, Bryan now works at the Sierra Club, where he aims to support local groups like the one that shaped his life and pass on the lessons his family taught him.
âOrganizing is not just a profession, but a daily practice,â says Bryan. “All the things we have learned from the environmental justice movement and our elders and the personal experiences of being ripped off, unappreciatedâ¦ I wear it all again.” Young organizers of color may not have that history, he says, so it’s important to make sure they also understand “the process and the struggle that brought us here.”
Top image: Bryan Parras says he first felt the impact of environmental racism growing up in Houston.