For more than three decades, Ana and Juan Parras have fought for environmental justice that has not yet become a reality, but they say they are not ready to give up. They live in East Houston, an area where the most sinister reminders of the fossil fuel industry abound, such as the toxic fumes that cover residential areas located a short distance from the immense refineries that were built throughout the Canal de Navegación or Ship Channel complex, the busiest waterway in the country.
The union of Ana and Juan was born thanks to a union movement. Juan was an organizer for the AFSCME union, dedicated to representing public workers. Ana worked for the Nueces County Courts in Corpus Christi, Texas. Juan traveled to that coastal city in the 1980s with the mission of organizing public sector workers. They met and decided to start a family.
Over time, this couple left the unions behind, choosing to dedicate themselves fully to community work with an emphasis on environmental justice. “In those times, the environment was not as popular as it is now,” says Juan Parras.
His move to Houston in the late 1990s coincided with the construction of the Cesar Chavez High School,
Ana y Juan Parras, directors of T.E.J.A.S
located in Allendale, a sector of East Houston. The campus is located within a quarter mile of three petrochemical plants. Juan and Ana decided to found an organization dedicated to environmental justice that would eventually be called T.E.J.A.S. (Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services). Their first mission was to try to prevent the construction of what was originally called East End High School and would later be named after the civil rights leader. Their campaign to stop the construction failed and the school opened its doors in 2000. To this day, 3,000 students – the vast majority Latino – attend the campus and breathe highly polluted air. “We started this movement here in Houston because we realized that someone needed to fight for the environment and there wasn’t that. We said, we are going to fight to see what we can do”, explains Juan Parras.
For the directors of T.E.J.A.S., this is personal fight since they know firsthand the terrible consequences faced by workers in oil complexes or those who live in the vicinity of the plants. Ana’s father, she tells us, worked for a refinery for 30 years and died of cancer. “It is a daily reality for those of us who live in adjacent communities (to petrochemical plants) or those of us who live in the south because we are close to waterways (which transport toxics). And even though we live in Houston, the energy capital of the world”, says Ana Parras.
One of the most important missions for T.E.J.A.S today is advocating for change in the Manchester neighborhood, one of the oldest communities in Houston. Founded by freed slaves after the civil war in 1866, this neighborhood is now best known for high levels of pollution linked to emissions from petrochemical plants and refineries. Manchester is surrounded by two busy highways, the Ship Channel, and the Valero refinery. Its residents suffer firsthand from the harmful consequences of oil exploitation and the petrochemical industry.
Today, 72% of Manchester’s residents are of Hispanic origin and the vast majority are working class and low income.
Credit: Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Service. Manchester Southeast of Houston, Texas
“Manchester is a classic example of a community adjacent to a petrochemical plant. If you went to Manchester, you would see that their infrastructure is old, there are large ditches and they don’t have sidewalks”, explains Ana Parras.
What does abound in this neighborhood is the relationship between high levels of harmful pollutants from the petrochemical industry and serious health conditions such as cancer and asthma. “I have lists of studies, more than two pages, that we have carried out and they all say the same thing… we have high rates of cancer, we have children with respiratory problems, we have countless health problems,” adds Ana Parras.
According to a recent study by the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, at least seven out of a dozen toxic substances have been detected in Manchester at levels that represent a health risk and that would be linked to cancer. These emissions come in part from the petrochemical complex in the Navigation Channel. Another study, conducted in part by the Houston Health Department, indicates that Manchester’s air has very high concentrations of formaldehyde, a carcinogenic compound that forms from exhaust gases emitted by area oil refineries.
Ana and Juan Parras, as well as many other community leaders, describe the situation in the Manchester community as a public health crisis whose solution is to relocate residents. However, many of the inhabitants lack the resources to move and do not have financial support from either the government or the petrochemical industry. “And they ask us why we live here. Well, where do you want us to go? Where can we afford to move to?” Ana Parras says.
But the reality of Manchester is not one shared by the other neighborhoods in the city. Other residential areas do not have this level of health hazard. There are areas with an Anglo-Saxon majority and higher socioeconomic status that do not face the same threat. A pernicious type of segregation imposes the greatest burden and worst effects of air pollution on low-income, people-of-color neighborhoods, especially in areas bordering the Ship Channel.
“You grow up in a neighborhood thinking that this is how all neighborhoods are, right? And then they start going to school or college and they learn that [those] neighborhoods are beautiful… Communities of color live like this because of discrimination… One has to make that connection that it is not just because they are poor but because they are people of color [and that] the services that other communities have… you don’t have them… It’s environmental racism”, says Juan Parras.
Limits in the neighborhood of Manchester Houston., Texas
Perhaps one of the most serious shortcomings facing Manchester, Parras say, is the unwillingness of the politicians who represent the area to advocate for significant and immediate change. “The representatives know the problems, they read the newspapers, they read the studies, but they haven’t moved to do something [for] the community,” emphasizes Juan Parras.
This activist attributes the lack of action by politicians to several factors, including the apathy that Manchester residents have developed after decades of unanswered complaints, as well as studies that irrefutably prove the health crisis in their neighborhoods and the lack of help from local, state, and federal authorities.
Despite everything, Juan explains that this is not the time to throw in the towel: “They have to talk too, they have to go to (community) meetings, they have to say ‘this is happening to us…’ We need the support of the community also”.
It is a feeling that his partner shares. “We know that change has to be done through public policies and that is why we emphasize the importance of civic participation in our communities because many times our communities are silent… We work with immigrant communities that are here and live in the shadows. But many of them… [especially] young people are citizens and can vote… and we try to encourage them to vote,” says Ana Parras.
Credit: Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Service.
But instead of being discouraged, this environmental injustices are what motivates Ana and Juan’s work. The couple share that they have witnessed positive changes over the years. For example, now the concern about global warming is a topic that most of the population shares and access to scientific evidence of the anthropogenic impact on the environment has improved thanks to digital platforms. These positive developments fuel hope for a better future.
“The message that we have always tried to make Hispanic people understand is that the circumstances that right now affect them in their lives and in their children’s schools… that they can make changes. Right now, what they have to think is their living conditions can change. Do don’t accept that there is no change”, says Juan Parras.