Tyrant’s Foe: Homeland Defense


A version of this story ran in the January 2013 issue.

There’s a trope in stories about War that a man defending his home will fight twice as hard as a hired gun. It sounds corny. But spend time with the Parras family, and it rings true.

Bryan Parras and his father, Juan, have battled daily for more than a decade to defend themselves and their home on Houston’s East End against pollution and cancer, and the racism and indifference that engender them. Juan, a former union organizer, got involved with the environmental justice movement in the late 1990s, helping African-American communities in Louisiana relocate from polluted neighborhoods. The long campaign’s success inspired him. “When he came back to Houston,” Bryan says, “he had a new vision of what environmental justice could be.”

Bryan graduated from the University of Texas with a liberal arts degree in 1999 and returned to the East End, a largely poor and minority-populated area of Houston that’s home to some of the city’s worst polluters. “Before I went to Austin, I never realized how bad the conditions are here,” Bryan says. “I would come home for holidays and I would get sick—eczema, rashes. They’d clear up when I went back to school.” Instead of moving to cleaner climes, Bryan started volunteering with his father, who had gotten a job with the Texas Southern University Environmental Law and justice Center. juan was used to traditional organizing, but Bryan knew how to use new media to build broader support. A crack team was born.

Their first project was opposing the East End’s pro- posed Cesar Chavez High School in the 1990s. Everyone agreed the area needed a new school, but the location couldn’t have been worse. “It was in a flood zone,” Bryan says. “It was less than a quarter-mile from three petrochemical plants, and it was within the kill zone of all three, meaning in a worst-case scenario, [students] have no chance of survival.”

The choice of location seemed downright callous. A 2007 Texas Observer investigation revealed that the district performed only one check of air quality at the site, eight years before Chavez opened. (While Texas can deny permits to build petrochemical facilities within 3,000 feet of a school, no law prevents districts from building schools snuggled up beside industrial polluters.) Adding irony to injury, HISD designated Cesar Chavez an “environmental magnet school.”

Juan and Bryan rallied community support and approached the school district, then city and state leaders. “none of them wanted to listen,” Bryan says. “They just said that the students lived in the area and there’s a plot of land there.”

That’s exactly what environmental injustice is: the belief that where there’s one landfill, there may as well be two, and that children stuck living by refineries may as well attend school there too.

Bryan recalls, “What they said was, ‘Parras, if we don’t build the school there, what about all the other schools in the area. Do you want us to move those too?’ We were like, ‘you’re right! They should move too.’

“We need to do one of two things. We need to either have zero emissions, or get the community out of there. We began to beat that drum. Studies began to happen in the area, and what we were worried about came true. There were cancer-causing chemicals in the air”—like 1, 3-butadiene, linked to leukemia and infertility.

The Parras team founded Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, a minority-run organization that collaborates with environmental groups including Houston’s Mothers for Clean Air. TEJAS hasn’t shut down Cesar Chavez (yet), but it has changed the conversation in Houston. “We started to raise issues of environmental justice specifically focusing on communities on the East side, communities of color,” Bryan says. “[Mothers for Clean Air] had never done that. Everyone took note that if you go where the worst problems are and you help them, everyone benefits.”

Bryan, now 35, funds his full-time volunteer work for TEJAS and other groups through fellowships and support from his family and community. “There are other ways of living that are more sustainable,” he admits, and he wouldn’t mind living somewhere healthier. But, he says, “Who better to advocate for a community than someone who grew up there?

“I realize it’s not the best place for me to be,” he adds. “But it’s where I want to be. It’s where I can do the most.”