BY ALEXANDRA TIRADO
Sandra Torres, 58, always wanted children. In fact, she wanted them so badly that when she became a mother, first to Alessandra, 22, and then to Ricardo Vega one year later, she let them know that they were not ordinary children.
“I used to tell my kids that there are two kinds of children: those who are born from the belly and those who are born from the heart,” Torres said. “You guys are extra special, because you were born from my heart.”
A successful business woman from Nicaragua, Torres is facing an unimaginable situation: the death of her son, Ricardo Vega, a junior entrepreneurship major at UT, who died this past December in an automobile accident, according to Nicaraguan news outlet, Canal 8. He was just 21 years old.
“The best way to describe Ricardo is to say that he made up his own government,” Torres said. “I used to tell him that he was ungovernable.”
Vega had many talents growing up. He was an all-star swimmer, a performer and a musician who, at just 9 years old, was giving piano presentations in front of hundreds of people.
“He was so brilliant that he didn’t really study, yet he passed his classes,” Torres said. “He would figure out anything technology-related, anything.”
However, Vega, who spent the last two and a half years of his life studying at UT, was never keen on academics. He was, instead, more interested in making friends and meeting people.
“Ricardo was one of the first people I met when I first arrived,” Lucia Kretz, a junior business major, said. “A friend of mine, Jenny, introduced him to me. She said, ‘I’m going to introduce you to this really crazy but nice guy, loves to go out,’ so that is the first reference I got of him.”
Slowly but surely, he started to build a web of relationships within UT that would last him for the remainder of his life.
“I swear, I would go out with Ricardo to Hyde Park Cafe [HPC] and he would say hi to literally everybody,” Jhonny Uray, a junior business major, said. “He was super nice with me and with everybody. He always wanted everybody to be having a good time.”
Kretz and Uray are part of the close-knit group of friends who Vega spent most of his time with last semester. From going to HPC on Tuesdays, which Kretz admits was one of Vega’s favorite pastimes, to laying on the couch all day talking about life, Vega was always the life of the party.
“I feel that whenever someone dies, people usually tend to speak about how they used to light up the room and how they brought joy to everybody around them,” Kretz said. “But, I feel like with Ricardo, that really was the case.”
Vega’s biggest passion was music. He competed on the show The Voice and got a call from Adam Levine himself. He would later decide to give music up at 19 in order to have a career.
“When he told me he was giving up music because he didn’t think he could make money out of it I said to him, ‘Ay Ricardo, but when have you ever cared about money?’” Torres said. “He then looked at me and laughed and said ‘well, I have to prepare for when you guys are no longer here.’”
Gloria Rios, one of Vega’s friends and a sophomore management and economics major, has been dealing with Vega’s death in the best way she can. Some days are good, some are bad, she said. Everything she does, she said, reminds her of him. Rios, who is is also from Nicaragua, was taken under Vega’s wing after she arrived to UT one year after him.
“He had this power of making you feel so important,” Rios said. “I am an only daughter so, to me, Ricardo was actually like my older brother.”
With countless anecdotes about their time together, she remembers a bittersweet foreshadowing from one of their moments together.
“Once, we were in the car, he was driving, and we were smoking cigarettes,” Rios said. “He tried to light up the cigarette and let go of the steering wheel and the car swayed to the other lane and I just started screaming ‘Ricardo, Ricardo!’. He laughed and and started to actually pay attention to the road. He used to drive like a crazy person, and wanted to get everywhere really fast.”
Perhaps one of Vega’s biggest legacies is the way he treated the people around him. When he was in middle school, classmates would laugh at him for being friends with everybody’s Nanas.
“One of the things I admired the most about my son was his way of seeing the world,” Torres said. “He didn’t think some people were better than other, the only difference was the range of opportunities that they had had. The other Nanas used to say to Flor [Ricardo’s Nana], how lucky I was to have a son like Ricardo and how they wished everyone could be like him. They said that he treated them with love and respect, called them by their name and made them feel like he actually cared about them.”
Vega’s biggest concern though, was with his friends. Meilyn Boutet, a junior in business and one of Vega’s close friends, remembers Vega as someone who put his friends’ problems before his own. Uray recalls how in the last week of classes, he was having family issues and Vega, who was having some of his own at the time, was there for him and helped him talk through the problems.
“We talked for an hour or two and he just listened to me and gave me some advice,” Uray said. “He then told me ‘don’t worry, everything’s gonna be okay, you are gonna get over this.’ That was the last time I ever saw him.”
Vega had gone back to Nicaragua after finals to visit his family and friends for the Holidays on Winter break. However, on the morning of Dec. 17, at approximately 2 a.m., he lost control of his vehicle and lost his life on impact, according to Canal 8. A service was held for him on Dec. 19. Friends and family from all over came to pay their respects to Vega. In fact, so many people showed up, his mom said, that the police had to control traffic around the place where the service was being held.
Since most people from UT couldn’t make it to the service in Nicaragua, his friends decided to organize a memorial for him back in Tampa. Kretz reached out to UT, and was told that they could not issue a statement because, even though he had been a UT student for almost 3 years and was still taking online classes, he was not a full-time student.
“As Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students, I was saddened to hear of Ricardo’s passing,” Stephanie Krebs said. “Our Wellness Center supported Ricardo’s friends as they held a Catholic mass in the Sykes Chapel and Center for Faith and Values on Jan. 18 to celebrate his life.”
Through the service in Sykes Chapel, his friends were then finally able to get some closure. However, even after death, it is Vega’s vibrant personality that has helped his loved ones find happiness amidst the pain.
“I have a very strong message in my heart, and that is that life is short and every moment counts,” Boutet said. “That is why every moment should be an unforgettable experience. That’s how Ricardo lived. Each moment was an adventure and a story to tell.”
Uray said that Vega taught him so much, but that being in the service and seeing all the people that came through to say goodbye, was one of the most important lessons.
“To me, Ricardo was the kind of person who, no matter who you were, what language you spoke, or what your cultural background was, he was always interested in knowing you and being there for you,” Uray said.
Torres said that, to her, one of the turning points of his life and one of the things that has helped get through the pain was when, at 14, Vega made the choice to accept God in his life.
“He stood [in the front] and said ‘I accept Christ in my life’ and then, he said ‘I want to be a better man’. And that gives me the certainty that, even with all his flaws, he is with God now.”
As Torres reflects about her son’s life, she reckons that a part of him must have known he was going to die young, which is why he lived his life to the fullest, with no terms, and with a government of his own.
“The best way I can remember my son is as a rebel without a cause,” Torres said. “A rebel without a cause who truly loved life, every second of it, of that I’m sure.”
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.