On July 5, 2015, Councilwoman Rebecca J. Viagran gave a speech in Bonn, Germany, when the San Antonio Missions were formally recognized as a World Heritage Site.
“The world now knows what we, in the South Side and the City of San Antonio, have always known,” she said before the 21-country committee, “that we have a world treasure in our very own backyard.”
Over an afternoon video chat, Viagran, 46, tells me that of all the experiences she’s had representing District 3 on the San Antonio City Council, that day stands out the most.
“I cried, then, too,” she says, eyes welling with tears.
Changed and motivated by the experience, Viagran brought that same message home to her constituents.
“We have to own that value and that worth in ourselves, and really demand more, because we are world class,” she says.
Now in her fourth and final term on council, Viagran says she’s proud of all she’s accomplished over her seven and a half years in office — even though COVID-19 has taken center stage during her closing stint.
In March, Viagran was one of the first public faces to precautionarily quarantine. At the time, it seemed to bring the reality of the impending health crisis that much closer to home. She had just returned from a meeting in the nation’s capital, where she and other leaders had met with Vice President Mike Pence.
After she and her colleagues put the finishing touches on the 2020-2021 city budget in September, she reflected on the economic, political and public health repercussions of the coronavirus crisis.
“I was ready to get all of this money for my district, and for programs, and for outreach, but we have to focus on our COVID response,” she says. “We’re still going to get a public safety substation in the district. But [this] is not the way I had envisioned going out of my tenure.”
I ask her what the COVID experience taught her about flexibility in leadership.
“What it’s taught me is you have to be ready for anything,” she says. “And that just when you think it is tough, it can always get tougher. Just when we thought COVID and [the] pandemic was tough, then all of our businesses [started] shutting down. There are always tough decisions. [But] leaders lead. Especially local elected officials.”
She draws a sharp contrast between council’s work during the latest pandemic surge and that of federal lawmakers.
“They’re having debate after debate about stimulus bills. Local officials? We don’t have that luxury. We have to do something.”
Viagran says she doesn’t want San Antonians to see the health crisis as something that redefines the city in negative terms.
“Let’s take what COVID-19 magnifies and turn it into our new revolution, our new story of San Antonio,” she says.
While the pandemic brings myriad hurdles, Viagran says the most challenging time on council was her entire first term. During those two intense years, she dealt with the nondiscrimination ordinance, the Mission Trails rezoning, the resignation of Julián Castro as mayor and the installation of his appointee, Ivy Taylor, as successor.
Over the years, Viagran has been both praised and criticized for sharing her faith on the dais, once being told that she wasn’t a good Catholic, then on a separate occasion that she wasn’t Catholic enough.
Despite the flak, Viagran says her devotion continues to inform her decision making.
“I stick with the tenet of you ‘Love the Lord with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself,’” she says. “We’re going to have to reach out with compassion. We have to reach out with empathy and with grace — a lot of grace. Grace that people have in dealing with me,” she says with a gentle laugh. “And then grace that we extend to others, because everyone is going through something and we don’t know their story. So, we have to extend kindness and reach out.”
I ask Viagran if she was ever pulled aside and given any council-maneuvering advice prior to taking office.
“Yes!” she says enthusiastically. “Learn how to count to six!”
Shifting from that sage advice, I ask her what wisdom she’d pass on to her successor about representing the city’s largest district.
“I would tell my successor in District 3 to be very clear when you’re talking about the South Side and the Southeast Side, because I-35 is our differentiator [between] the South and the Southeast Side.”
Does the dais have a different feel now that there is an elected female majority?
“Absolutely,” she affirms. “It does. I love it. The energy level is there, and [we are] really amplifying one another’s voices, and encouraging one another. We just have to look at each other sometimes to know that one councilwoman needs backup from another councilwoman. We know the key words to home in on when somebody is not listening [or] when somebody is trying to dismiss them.”
Pre-COVID, women on council would greet each other with hugs. “But, unfortunately, we don’t do that now,” she laments.
I ask if she’ll seek higher office.
“I never count anything out,” she says. “Absolutely. I am willing to serve in a higher-office capacity, and I believe that I’m going to continue to serve this community, and I think, the community at large. Whether it is mayor, whether it’s county, whether it is state rep, I think I can move within all of those areas. I think eight years [on council] and just growing up where I have has trained me very well.”
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