The 297-acre Big Marsh Bike Park on Chicago’s Southeast Side draws herons, egrets, and mallards to its wetlands, coyotes and deer to its meadows, and riders to its bike trails. But as one of the park’s natural environment workers, Luis Cabrales is quick to remind first-time visitors that the surrounding area is far less idyllic.
“There’s a landfill just to the south of us, there’s a decommissioned Acme coke plant to the east, and the Calumet industrial corridor to the west,” he says, pointing a finger in each direction.
This is Cabrales’s hometown. The 23-year-old conservationist grew up breathing air with foul odors and toxic dust stemming from the industries storing manganese, a neurotoxin, and piles of petcoke, a waste product of the oil-refining process, near local homes and schools. Green spaces, like the one where he works today, were scarce.
When Cabrales was young, his family grew a vegetable garden where he would take care of the cucumbers and harvest the tomatoes. What started as love for a garden further developed in high school, when he joined the Chicago Conservation Leadership Corps, part of the Student Conservation Association (in 2020, he was recognized as the SCA’s Corpsmember of the year.)
His hobby grew into a passion for environmental justice when he attended the University of Illinois, Chicago, where his understanding of environmental science changed.