Bryan Parras recalls a time in elementary school when he accompanied his dad on a work trip to Nederland, in Texas’ Golden Triangle. The warehouse where his dad organized county workers was “just one open vacant room with a bunch of chairs like you would see in a movie.” Bryan, now 44, remembers running around outside, playing on a mound of sand, while his dad discussed strategy with Jefferson County employees. Meanwhile, Juan Parras, who was there to try to negotiate Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a paid holiday for union workers, recalls what was happening inside. In the East Texas region long home to the Ku Klux Klan, Juan says the mayor, whom he describes as looking like KFC’s Colonel Sanders, took him in a back room during city council proceedings to tell him that he thinks he’s “a smart Mexican” but he’s not going to give workers “a n***** holiday.”
“I never understood the dangers of the work, but I know they were there,” Bryan says of Juan’s longtime activism across Texas. When he could tag along, he liked the chance to spend time with his dad, who was often gone for work, leaving Bryan and his brother home with their mom, Jesusa Moreno. Juan’s union travels took a toll on the marriage, and though organizing had brought the couple together during their youth in Big Spring, the two split up when Bryan was young. He describes his dad as coming from a generation where “they’re all in. The lines between family and community completely get blurred.” But as Bryan got older, his dad’s activism rubbed off on him and he found himself wanting to maintain the intergenerational organizing work, “to keep the good things going from previous generations.”
Today, Bryan and Juan are organizers fighting for environmental justice and the co-founders, along with Juan’s now-wife, Ana Parras, of one of Texas’ leading grassroots environmental organizations, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS). The nonprofit has gained national and international attention for its advocacy on behalf of Houston’s low-income communities of color, which are disproportionately affected by pollution from the city’s petrochemical refineries. Juan even garnered a nomination to President Joe Biden’s environmental justice advisory council last year. But for the Parras family, the work has always been personal.
Growing up in Houston in an area tucked between a historically Latinx neighborhood and a historically Black one, Bryan felt the impacts of environmental racism firsthand. He remembers getting headaches and mysterious rashes on his arms, which he attributed to pollution from the chemical refineries that bordered his neighborhood. Years later, he’d be diagnosed with asthma.
Juan, now 72, fell into his union career after organizing workers to address backlogs at Harris County’s welfare office in the 1970s. The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (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. “I was like a token,” Juan says. “Anywhere they were organizing where they needed a Latino they would send me, and I would tell them, ‘Look, hire some more Latinos. I’m not the only one in the damn nation.’”
Soon, Juan’s work took him down to Corpus Christi to organize Nueces County employees. It was there he met Ana, a young organizer who worked at the information desk. Every visit, he’d stop by for directions and the chance to chat her up. “Took seven years, though,” Ana says to Juan, laughing. “You didn’t organize me right away.” Ana rose to become the president of the local AFSCME chapter at just 24 years old.
In 1993, Juan left the union. He and Ana got married shortly after and moved back to Houston. Juan worked odd jobs for a while but couldn’t find anything permanent—he says it’s because companies were fearful he’d unionize their workforce. Then one day he got a phone call from an organizer with the Louisiana Labor Neighbor Project in Baton Rouge offering him a job. “I’m thinking to myself, ‘What the hell is he talking about?’” Juan says. He looked across the living room at Ana, who mouthed that she’d sent in his résumé and a cover letter. The two relocated to Louisiana, where Juan supported the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers’ Union in the midst of a five-and-a-half-year lockout and Ana worked for a domestic violence shelter and a union for injured workers while raising their younger kids.
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 new high school.” He didn’t think much of it until Ana drove him to work one day and pointed out what was behind it. Juan had never noticed the smokestacks in the distance, spilling pollution into the surrounding neighborhoods, potentially exposing future students to the same health issues that Bryan faced as a child. Bryan had become interested in photography and video in college, an interest nurtured by Jesusa, who introduced him to Nuestra Palabra, a Latinx reading series and radio show on Houston’s Pacifica radio station. He documented Juan and Ana’s activism as they fought to keep the school from being built within a quarter-mile of three large petrochemical plants. Though the group lost the battle to stop the construction, Unidos Contra Environmental Racism, the organization that would become TEJAS, was born.
In 2019, TEJAS joined forces with the Sierra Club to file a complaint alleging the Texas Center for Environmental Quality’s public permitting process was inaccessible to non-English speakers, in violation of the Civil Rights Act. They won, and the new proposed rule, awaiting final approval from the commissioners, requires translation of key documents and live interpretation at public
The intergenerational work that launched TEJAS remains at the forefront of its mission. “We’re like a training ground,” Ana says. “We’re hoping to teach the importance of caring about what’s 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 provide support to local grassroots groups like the one that shaped his life and pass on the lessons that his family taught him.
“Organizing is not just a profession but an everyday practice,” Bryan says. “All the things that we’ve learned from the environmental justice movement and our elders and personal experiences of being shafted, unappreciated … I carry all of that still.” Younger organizers of color might not have that history, he says, so it’s important to make sure they also understand “the process and the struggle that got us here.”
Top image: Bryan Parras says he felt the impact of environmental racism firsthand growing up in Houston.