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Juan Parras: Fighting for Environmental Justice
by Geoffrey Castro

From environmental injustices to basic human rights, Juan Parras is no stranger to the good fight. For more than 30 years, Parras has been a voice for low income minorities through his work as an international union representative, anti-pollution activist and as a community outreach coordinator.

Parras has been interested in the environment since childhood. His involvement in the Boy’s Club during childhood led him to appreciate the beauty of nature. He derives much energy, ethics and sense of community from his deeply rooted Mexican American heritage. As a young man, he recalls the work of a Latino doctor that helped to start the GI Forum, which became an organization that fought for Latino rights when many were discriminated against after returning from World War II. It was the work of the same Latino Doctor that sparked an interest in Parras, one that would develop into a passion and life’s work. Parras later became the first person to join the GI Forum in Big Spring Texas.

A recurring theme in Parras’ work, is protecting minorities. He explains that minorities are all low income people, not just African Americans or Latinos. As a member of a minority, Parras is no stranger to discrimination. He recalls many travels as a union worker where he often felt the gaze of others indicating to him that he didn’t belong. Rather than leaving him bitter, Parras has allowed the experiences to only sharpen his sense of humor.

His experience working with unions also showed him first hand that industry tended to locate near low income minority neighborhoods. The culmination of these experiences instilled the need in him to give something back to those in need while also giving him a podium for his voice to be heard. Parras says, “I feel like I have a responsibility and an obligation to help these communities that don’t have the political ties or power to help themselves.”

He recalls one of his greatest accomplishments as an uphill battle against a solely owned Japanese company in Convent, Louisiana. Parras was contacted by the Louisiana Labor Neighbor Project and asked to help several predominantly African American communities in that area to prevent the construction of what would have been the largest PVC (polyvinyl chloride) plant in the United States, and to keep other PVC facilities from expanding. With Parras’ help, the community filed a claim based on environmental injustice. The community was located near a heavy concentration of industry. Local residents had long been duped by false promises made by industry already operating in that region. While undertaking this project, Greenpeace recruited Parras to be a Toxics Campaign Manager. Working with a team of lawyers and campaigners, Parras spent more than two years struggling to set up meetings, retrieve expert information and to lobby in Washington, D.C. At the end of that period, the EPA eventually ruled in favor of the communities of Convent, Louisiana. Stories capturing this intense struggle were later featured in Newsweek and Time Magazine .

Parras’ work concerning Cesar Chavez High School has also gained much needed national attention from groups such as the Center for Health and Environmental Justice. Chavez High School is located near three industrial facilities. Since the school’s construction in 2000, Parras has worked tirelessly to relocate the campus citing child safety as a primary issue. “The school should have never been built there in the first place,” states Parras. Parras has been inspired by Cesar Chavez, founder of United Farm Workers. He recalls Chavez as being one of the pioneers in the environmental justice movement. Chavez brought much needed attention to harmful pesticides sprayed on migrant farm workers.

Parras’s career has defined his principals. He sees events in one of two ways: right or wrong. His entire life’s work has impacted so many and has paved the way for others to live better lives and to organize in other communities. Now working with Texas Southern University’s Environmental Law and Justice Center, he lends his expertise to civil rights and environmental justice issues in mainly southern African American and Latino communities burdened by environmental neglect and abuse. Parras feels proud knowing that when low income communities need help and face enormous odds, they can call and have someone fight for them.

Parras also is the founder of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS), a non-profit organization. The organization will operate with a focus on environmental issues concerning the Houston Ship Channel. Parras seeks to establish an organization for networking and also to provide resources to empower communities and to give them the tools to affect legislation.

Parras still faces enormous odds in the fight for environmental justice. But, he’s not about to give up any time soon.

Juan Parras lives with his wife Anna and is the proud father of three children. Their oldest son, John Parras is a graduate of Princeton University and the University of Texas School of Law. Wanting to give back to the community that has given him so much, he is currently running for city council, District I. Bryan Parras, also a UT graduate, is pursuing a graduate degree in environmental issues. Jessica, his youngest, is a freshman at Our Lady of the Lake University.

Update: As of August 2006, Parras has joined CLEAN as the organization's director of community outreach.

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