Five years ago, 38-year-old Vanessa Puente, an art teacher at Southwest High School, was killed by a hit-and-run driver, within walking distance from the far Northwest Side home of retired paramedic Gabriel Lara.
After unanswered calls to Bexar County Commissioner Sergio “Chico” Rodriguez to do something about the speeding cars on that street, Lara decided to devote himself to the task of getting the representation he felt the people of Precinct 1 deserved.
Lara recounts the story during our video interview. As the uncontested Republican nominee for Bexar County Commissioner, Precinct 1, he tells me that, until recently, he hadn’t received very many interview requests.
I ask him why he thinks that is.
“Because I’m fairly new to politics, or because I don’t have any friends in politics,” he responds.
He theorizes it could also be because he’s running as a Republican in a Democratic stronghold. As he tells me about his upbringing, I can see how the party’s fiscal policies might have attracted him.
Lara, the sixth of 10 children, grew up on the South Side in a two-bedroom, one- bathroom home.
“We grew up poor, but we didn’t know it,” he says.
When he and his brothers weren’t working in restaurants or pumping gas and his sisters weren’t ironing clothes or cleaning houses, the entire family spent summers in South Texas or California picking crops.
“We had the government cheese, the government beans, the mystery meat,” he says. His parents refused the food-stamp option, though. “I think they were really proud.”
“My mom would bring packages of ketchup and she would pour them in the bottle,” he says.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Lara joined the military.
“You know, growing up there was no talk about going to college,” he says, explaining that learning a high-demand trade during the service paid off for him. Though he enlisted in the Navy with hopes of seeing the world, he spent his entire four-year hitch in San Diego, where he worked as a nurse and pharmacy tech.
Once he left the Navy, Lara returned home to seek work and found it as a paramedic with the San Antonio Fire Department, where he stayed for the next 34 years. Tough, on-the-scene decision-making was part of the daily grind.
“Whether it be in a house fire or in a traffic accident or multiple victims from a shooting, it’s just two of you,” he explains. “And to take really good care of one patient requires two paramedics. It’s hard to maintain an airway, it’s hard to stop the bleeding with just one person per patient. When you have four or five people strewn across the highway you look at their color. You feel for their pulse. You see if they’re breathing. There are things that you look at and you can tell, ‘This individual is not gonna make it.’
Seven years after his retirement, some of those images are seared in his memory.
I ask what he learned from those experiences.
“That life is precious. Life is short. You don’t know when you’re coming home, [so] hug you wife, kiss your significant other, because you just don’t know.”
Lara’s granddaughter is doing her homework next to him as we speak.
Though Lara’s two previous runs as an independent were unsuccessful, they were educational. In 2016, he ran against Rodriguez. Then, in 2018, he ran against Nelson Wolff for Bexar County judge.
“I had to get my name on the ballot in the general election, and I thought running as a Republican was the best way to do it,” he said of his political shift.
Lara chose to align himself with the GOP because its platform was closer to his own values. However, he’s quick to point out that his take on local issues doesn’t necessarily reflect what’s happening on the national stage.
“So, I don’t know what it means to be a Republican,” he says. “I’m not sure what they’re looking for. I don’t have any friends in the party.”
And the fact that he doesn’t attend many local Republican events doesn’t seem to keep him up at night.
“I’m not looking to represent a party. I’m looking to represent the people that I’ve worked with for a long time,” he says. “We are supposed to manage [just under] $2 billion of your tax dollars regardless of what affiliation you have. It’s not about red or blue, it’s about you.”
I ask if he’s watching the Republican National Convention. When he replies that he’s not, I ask why.
“I’m busy working,” he replies.
When I ask what the biggest joy in his life is, he tells me that’s an easy answer.
“So, we’ve fostered three kids,” he begins after a long, emotion-driven pause. “About 12 years ago, the first one was a three-year-old girl. We knew she was going home to her grandma.”
He recalls the day the next two children entered his and his wife’s lives.
“We get the call on a Saturday, ‘Hey, we’re bringing you an eight-month-old boy and his sister, a three-year-old girl.’ And those are our kids,” he says, his eyes now welling with tears.
A few days later, Lara invites me to his home to take his photograph. After the shoot, he takes me on a short walk to the spot where Puente was killed five years before.
“There’s a memorial there,” he says quietly, pointing to the right side of the road.
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