Juan Parras gives one hell of a tour of Houston’s east side. He’s charming and funny. Wearing a beret, he strikes an old-world look, like he might lead you to a cafe on a plaza. He doesn’t charge a fee for his services. After all, you’re on a “toxic tour,” and Parras is on a mission.
Parras grew up in 1950s West Texas. He remembers segregated schools, the restaurants that wouldn’t serve him, the unpaved roads, and the people who lived closest to the local refinery. Those experiences led him to a career as a social justice advocate. The resident of Houston’s heavily industrial east side has worked in a city housing department, for a union, for a law clinic, and on a campaign that stopped a PVC factory from being built in Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley.”
For the last decade, he has served as executive director of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (better known as t.e.j.a.s.). Part of his work is leading tours past the heaping piles of scrap metal along Houston’s Buffalo Bayou and by Cesar Chavez High School, which opened in 2000 within a quarter-mile of three large petrochemical plants.