HOUSTON – Ana Parras was only a high school student when she organized her first walkout.
She was attending Incarnate Word Academy in Corpus Christi, Texas. The Catholic private school had a communal dressing area for girls to change into their gym clothes. On one cold winter day, she persuaded her classmates to avoid changing in the room, because it was too frigid.
“We basically said we weren’t dressing out, and we walked out,” Parras said. The head nun retaliated by making her clean classrooms for two months. “’You’re going to have to learn to fall in line,’” she told Parras.
“But I never fell in line,” she said.
Ana Parras and her husband, Juan, have made questioning authority their lives’ work. Over more than 30 years, the Parrases have become some of the most prominent environmental justice advocates in the U.S. The Biden Administration named Juan Parras to the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council in March 2021.
Juan and Ana’s organization, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, or t.e.j.a.s., is known for its “toxic tours” of Houston’s industrial neighborhoods, areas with some of the highest risks in the U.S. of cancer and other public health problems. Surrounding their neighborhood in East Houston is a collection some of the largest refineries and petrochemical plants in the world, and some are planning expansions. For example, south of the nearby neighborhood of Manchester, the TPC Group’s Houston chemical plant is planning an expansion of its butadiene production facility, which could release an additional 168 tons per year of health-threatening air pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, according to public records available on the Oil & Gas Watch database. Not far from there, a Chevron subsidiary this year began an expansion the Pasadena Refinery that would lead to nearly 760 tons per year of smog-forming volatile organic compounds and 650 tons per year of nitrogen oxides.
The Parrases have fought major energy projects such as the Keystone XL pipeline and the 2015 lifting of the ban on exporting U.S. oil.
Bekah Hinojosa met the Parrases through protests against the Keystone XL pipeline, where she’d painted signs for activists to carry at their events. The couple had asked for her help creating a pamphlet for their famous toxic tours of their neighborhoods. Ahead of a protest of the removal of the oil export ban, she made waterproof banners that could withstand intense Houston downpours.
Hinojosa now works as a Sierra Club organizer in Brownsville, a Gulf city on the Texas-Mexico border targeted for massive oil and LNG export terminals. She’s hosted the Parrases on her own tours of Brownsville and the Rio Grande Valley.
“We call them colonization tours or toxic tours, where we show the border wall and also where there’s all these detention centers and fossil fuel industry proposals, and just make that connection,” Hinojosa said.
That’s the kind of work the Parrases’ group has done for a long time, she said.
“They’re at the intersection of all these different issues, showing people what’s happening on the ground, protecting the people who are directly impacted,” Hinojosa said.
Juan Parras grew up in the West Texas pumpjack town of Big Spring; Ana in the coastal refinery city of Corpus Christi. Both attended Catholic high schools. Juan – who grew up with nine brothers and sisters –credits a Boy Scout leader named Charles “Bird” Andrews for helping him get enrolled in St. Anthony’s Seminary in San Antonio. Andrews even flew him the 260 miles in his small twin-engine plane.
Like other schoolchildren whose families couldn’t afford tuition, Juan paid his way by helping keep the campus clean. Dozens of boys would sleep in a single room lined with bunk beds. Some would cry all night from homesickness, but Juan said he felt “lucky” to have three meals a day and “all the luxuries I need.”
“Just going there, I was privileged,” Juan Parras said.
He never became a priest. Instead, he enrolled at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, then transferred to the University of Houston, though he found it impossible to keep up his studies while making basic ends meet. He ended up finding work in the county’s welfare office. That’s where he organized his first walkout.
Everyday, the welfare office would fill with people seeking help. The office closed at 5 p.m., but they would often stay much later, because the office was understaffed and the employees felt they had to work through the line of people who were left in the waiting room after the workday was supposed to end. Juan’s workload was even more intense because none of the other employees spoke Spanish.
Juan talked with his fellow workers about leaving at quitting time. When 5 p.m. came the next Friday, they all got up to go home. One of the managers, a “big guy,” as Juan describes him, demanded to know where they were going with all these people to see.
“Basically, they got mad and we left anyway,” Parras said. “So Monday, they started having meetings with us.”
The conflict led to better hours for the office staff and, eventually, a job for Juan with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents local government workers all over the country.
“The word spread around that we basically closed down an office,” Juan said. “So the union came down and said, ‘Hey, you guys did good. What happened here?’… And so they offered me a job organizing with the unions.”
Juan and Ana first met in the lobby of the Nueces County Courthouse, where she was working for the county. By then, Juan had become an experienced union organizer, traveling all over the U.S. With his mustache, hat, and big wool coat made for Northern winters, she thought he looked like a “mobster.” She wasn’t sure about him at first, but she wound up being among the county workers protesting, holding signs, and even getting arrested – twice.
“He showed up at first, and the adventure began afterwards,” she said.
Juan’s union organizing job kept him traveling throughout the South and Southwest, but the couple ended up settling in Houston. During a period in the early 1990s, Juan couldn’t find work because some businesses didn’t want to hire someone with his union background. So, Ana Parras found a newspaper ad for a job as an organizer for a group called Louisiana Labor Neighbor.
The organization was a project of the Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers union. The group had in 1989 reached an agreement after a 5½-year lockout of union workers from a BASF Corp. chemical complex inGeismar, Louisiana. Many workers lost their homes during the lockout, but surrounding communities established a fund to help them. As the Parrases describe it, the Labor-Neighbor Project became a way for the union to help the communities that supported them.
That support came in the mid-1990s, when Louisiana residents of the area known as Cancer Alley were fighting a proposal by Tokyo-based Shin-Etsu Chemical to build a polyvinyl chloride plant in St. James Parish, Louisiana, a predominantly African-American community along the Mississippi River.
“That’s where they go because they consider them the areas of least resistance,” Juan Parras said. “People need jobs.”
But because of their experience with the nearby Geismar plants, people in St. James Parish knew the risks of having a chemical plant next door, Juan said. Their response was: “We want jobs, but we don’t want you to just come into our areas and pollute us, just because we’re minorities.”
The fight against Shintech, the Shin-Etsu subsidiary planning the plastic plant, was a family affair. All five Parras children have at one point or another been enlisted in the family mission, the couple said. Bryan Parras, the son of Juan and his first wife, Susie Moreno, is a longtime organizer in his own right and now works for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Dirty Fuels campaign.
“Every kid that we’ve got has had to do something – writer handouts, petitions, hold signs,” Ana Parras said. “They’ve all had to grow up within the movement.”
Louisiana was where they met some of the early heroes of the environmental justice movement. These included Emelda West and Gloria Roberts, two Convent, Louisiana, residents who had fought for years to get agencies like the EPA to focus more attention on the concentration of toxic sites in minority neighborhoods. These women had come out of the Civil Rights Era of the Deep South, bringing a perspective that changed the way the Parrases viewed environmental organizing.
“They’ve had to deal with racism and injustice,” Ana said. “That’s why I always say the environmental justice movement stems out of the civil rights movement. They should have always been together.”
The fight against Shintech ended in 1998, when the company switched its PVC plant location to Plaquemines Parish, to the southeast. The Parrases moved back to Houston where they applied what they had learned in Louisiana.
They lived and worked in the East End, an industrial and predominantly Latino part of the city near Buffalo Bayou, an industrial waterway crowded with refineries, chemical plants, metal recyclers, energy storage terminals, and heavy freight rail lines.
One of their first neighborhood-level campaigns involved cleaning up Eastwood Park. Ana began meeting with two other neighborhood women over coffee and pan dulce. The group they formed, the Eastwood Park Advisory Council, the first citizen’s advisory group of its kind in Houston.
Jessica Castillo-Hulsey credits the advisory council with sparking her efforts to improve her neighborhood. After working with the Ana Parras and other mothers from the neighborhood, she got involved in other neighborhood councils and civic associations. A 2010 Houston Chronicle profile called Castillo-Hulsey the “go-to woman” for East End issues.
“I joined those two, and we got busy,” Hulsey said. Over years, they worked to transform what Castillo-Hulsey said used to be called the “wino park” into a safe place for children again.
In the mid-2000s, the Parras family became known for their “toxic tours,” taking politicians, fellow organizers, and journalists around the neighborhoods to witness how close massive chemical sites and other industrial zones are next to homes and playgrounds.
One of the main stops on the tour was Cesar Chavez High School, an important site in the history of Parras family activism. Needing a new school for the increasingly crowded East End, local officials picked a dangerously close to a massive petrochemical complex owned by TPC Group, which would have exposed the children to toxic air pollution. The Parrases had “started raising Cain about this,” Juan Parras said.
The Parras fought hard for a safer location for the school. But they realized they needed an official name to put on business cards and letterheads to be taken seriously.
In front of Ana Parras’s computer, they came up with Unidas Contra Environmental Racism. She calls that the “mother group” that eventually spawned the “daughter,” t.e.j.as. They went onto the site and took photos and video showing the plants’ proximity to the proposed schools, then would compare that with other Houston schools in safer areas. One widely circulated photo from 2007 shows a massive flare burning behind the school’s football field.
The Parrases lost the fight over the school’s siting – roughly 3,000 students are currently enrolled in the school, which is just a half mile or so from the petrochemical complex.
With some irony, local officials decided to call it an environmental magnet school, and named it after Cesar Chavez, a Mexican-American labor and civil rights hero. One district official told them that one day, the students attending the school “can address the issues that you care about.”
The prediction wasn’t far off. Nowadays, working with high school and college students on environmental justice issues is a big part of the Parrases day-to-day work.
For the past three years, t.e.j.a.s. has worked out of a building off Wayside Drive. Juan and Ana purchased the former physical rehabilitation center from a doctor. The building came with all the weight equipment, massage tables, and a single-lane pool left inside.
The Parrases filled the empty pool with loaner bicycles and gave away most of the exercise equipment. In his office, Juan hung pictures of his father in military uniform during World War II. Out front, his brother built a wooden gazebo for shade.
Rooms formerly used for evaluations and X-ray scans are now filled with computers, art supplies, cameras, and green screens. Dozens of high school and college students have done study arrangements, internship, and gone on to have staff roles as organizers and grantwriters. On a visit last week, a University of Houston student was drawing the faces of environmental justice leaders for a mural that would go in the main conference room.
Juan and Ana cracked open two yearbooks from the local Furr High School. Alongside the typical sections on sports and music are multiple-page spreads on environmental justice. Students who wrote the sections learned about regulatory agencies such as the EPA, major pollution releases in Texas, and milestones in the environmental justice movement.
The Parrases acknowledge that outright wins are rare in the grass-roots battles they face against big polluters and powerful corporations. But they are optimistic about their work and partnerships with young people, who have time on their side and their own kind of power.
“How do you change the future?” Ana Parras said. “Well, guess what, they (the students) are going to start changing the future.”