Christian Vega (center) and his parents at last month's HawkAID relief scrimmage for Puerto Rico. (Photo: Tommy Smith/CoBL)
Isabella Sanchez Castaneda (@Is_Sanchezz)
Christian Vega had started to accept the fact that he wasn’t going to see his parents for a while. Especially not in the crowd at the St. Joe’s HawkAID scrimmage, which took place at Hagan Arena in late October.
A native of Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, Vega had been preoccupied, with everything happening in his hometown on his mind.
On Sept. 20, the island was slammed by Hurricane Maria, the second major hurricane to make landfall there in just two weeks.
Vega watched helplessly from Philadelphia as the world he grew up knowing was swept away.
“I saw all those pictures of places where I’ve been a million times,” he said, “and probably when I get back, they’re not going to be at all similar to what they were.”
Vega’s parents, Cristina and Reinaldo Vega, were stuck back home in Puerto Rico, still dealing with the aftermath of the massive storms that struck the United States territory last month.
But even a hurricane wasn’t going to prevent the Vegas from making it to see their son. It took a flight to Santo Domingo, an overnight layover, a flight to Miami, and finally a flight to Philadelphia before they surprised him on the Friday night before Saturday’s scrimmage.
What is usually a four-hour direct flight turned into a two-day journey so the Vegas could personally thank head coach Phil Martelli and the Saint Joseph’s basketball program for turning the scrimmage into a fundraiser for hurricane relief in Puerto Rico.
“As soon as we found out about the event we had an overwhelming desire to come because for the university and the basketball program to care about the situation that Puerto Rico is going through is extremely commendable,” Reinaldo Vega said. “Having it be Christian who represents Puerto Rico on this team is something huge for us and we made all the possible efforts to be here.”
Vega played basketball for most of his life in Guaynabo. He played in high school for Colegio San Jose, a Marianist Catholic all-boys school in San Juan.
Vega decided to go to college 2,500 miles away to Philadelphia because of the food marketing major in St. Joe’s Haub School of Business.
He wanted to keep playing basketball, but knew that walking on to the team was not an easy feat. His freshman year he tried out anyway and made it to the second try-outs, but sustained an injury. He went back sophomore year and made the team as a walk-on.
Now in his senior year, basketball has become a welcomed escape from all the thinking and worrying about Puerto Rico.
“When I’m in practice, I just disconnect,” he said. “It’s good, because I’m not thinking about all the mess, all the devastation. It keeps me distracted.”
That worrying started days before Hurricane Irma.
Irma was a Category 5 hurricane, whose eye was directed straight toward Puerto Rico but veered away at the last minute. On Sept. 6, 100-mile-per-hour winds and heavy flooding cut off two-thirds of the island’s power.
Just a week later the coverage turned to the next in-coming storm, Maria.
The National Hurricane Center categorized Maria as a tropical storm on Sept. 16. Two days later it reached Category 4 status, guaranteeing destruction for everything in its path, including Puerto Rico and the 3.4 million people who live there.
Vega spoke to his mother, Cristina, just hours before the storm ravaged the land he calls home.
The hurricane made landfall on Sept. 20. According to the National Weather Service, Maria’s wind speed reached 155 mph. It tore through Puerto Rico for 30 hours.
The island went dark. Everyone in Puerto Rico lost power.
Watching all of this through live news coverage, Christian’s fears only grew.
Vega’s best friend from home, David Archilla, was the first to contact him. Archilla told Vega about the damage he saw as he walked through their neighborhood. Vega said he kept asking how David was able to get signal that day and why his family hadn’t. At that point, it had been almost day without hearing from his parents.
“You keep wondering how’s your family, how’s your home, how’re all your friends?” Vega said.
Finally his mom called.
“I don’t know how she got signal, but she got it,” Vega said. “When I talked to her, she said ‘yeah, this is really bad, but at least we’re safe, we’re good.’”
From the outside, Vega was able to see how bad things were. However, his family had no idea how the rest of the territory was doing. Often, conversations with his family consisted of recounting the news stories he would stay up watching.
“It was a very weird moment, because I was in the States and basically knew more than them,” Vega said.
Now, more than a month later, most people in Puerto Rico are still without power and drinkable water. Official numbers change constantly and full restoration of resources could take until 2018.
With slow-moving relief efforts, it’s been individual communities coming together to rebuild.
“I think that the community in Puerto Rico has united behind the cause of picking the country back up,” Reinaldo Vega said. “Everyone is working toward the same goal, and we say jokingly that kids have gotten off their phones and gone back to riding bikes around the neighborhood and families have starting talking to their neighbors again, and fostering relationships with the whole neighborhood. Those are the positives things among all the negative things that have happened on the island.”
Christian’s family is doing its part, too. The Vegas owns a chain of Cuban-style restaurants in Puerto Rico, and just a few days after the storm his dad reopened the six that were in working condition. Their back-up generators have allowed them to remain open and provide food, water, and safety to many of those who are still living without it.
“It’s a little weird...being able to wake up every day, sleeping in air conditioning, being able to wash your clothes, turn on the light whenever you feel like it,” Vega said. “All those things, well they make you think of how fortunate we are. But at the same time, it’s weird, because all of those things, essentially nobody in Puerto Rico is able to do. It’s like there are two different worlds in this very moment.”
With a microphone on him, the crowd got to hear each of Martelli’s (often humorous) remarks during Saturday’s HawkAID event.
The scrimmage ran like a regular practice, according to Martelli, but it meant so much more.
“Part of this is to do for others, and so our guys got a basketball experience and an opportunity to give back, which is what St. Joe’s is all about,” Martelli said. “We wanted to do this five dollars at a time.”
Between the 10-minute quarters, Martelli picked tickets for raffles and auctioned off items like ticket packages and a signed basketball. One package with two-upper level tickets to the St Joe’s vs. Villanova game, went to Christian’s father Reinaldo for $200.
All the proceeds from HawkAID were sent to a Catholic school and its adjoining parish, near Vega’s hometown.
Afterward, Vega addressed the crowd with his teammates standing with him.
“Everyone on the island has been helping one another in every kind of way and us, Puerto Ricans that are in the states, are trying to do our best to support and lend a hand,” Vega said in his speech on Saturday. “Even just a little bit will help a lot of people back home. I just want to thank everyone that came here to support us.”
He continued by giving a shout out to his friends from Puerto Rico and parents, to which the crowd responded with applause and cheering. He is one of dozens of Puerto Ricans studying at St. Joe’s, and the other Philadelphia-area Universities.
Once he finished, the other students jumped onto the court, hugging him and posing for a group photo.
“We will have to deal with it and get back stronger,” Vega said. “You know, that’s what makes us Puerto Ricans."