Robert Vega escapes ‘the pits of hell’ to graduate this spring

Senior+commercial+music+major%2C+Robert+Vega+will+be+graduating+at+this+year%E2%80%99s+spring+commencement+despite+previous+setbacks+such+as+spending+time+in+prison.

Maria Esquinca

Senior commercial music major, Robert Vega will be graduating at this year’s spring commencement despite previous setbacks such as spending time in prison.

Alonso Moreno, Staff Reporter

Robert Vega stands out in a crowd. It might be his tattoos, which offer a slight glimpse into his past or perhaps it’s the battle scars he has earned from years of martial arts fighting, or maybe it’s the humble, yet intense look in his eyes, which have not only seen years worth of struggle, they have seen the pits of hell.

Vega, 38, originally from Brooklyn, N.Y., is a commercial music major at UTEP. While he is focused on his upcoming graduation, he has also composed 12 songs and sung in operas, but he is also a former prison inmate.

At the young age of 22, already tired from a life of struggle with gangs, Vega was on his way to prison for what would become his hardest challenge yet and this was the moment he said that finally transformed him.

“I shouldn’t be here man,” Vega said, as he sat in a small Mexican restaurant near Downtown El Paso, a place where time seemed to have stopped, much like Vega’s mind as he recalled those troubled years.

“I spent nine years in prison, six of those in solitary, which was only one part of the pits of hell I experienced,” he said.

To better understand how Vega ended up in such a precarious situation, he offered a look into his past. One that, according to him, lacked purpose and discipline, which are the pillars that hold him together today, he said

“My father was in the Navy, so he wasn’t around most of the time,” Vega said. “I was also blessed with the gift of being an extremely proficient learner. I was reading novels by the time most kids were reading children’s books. All that made me into a very bored child that didn’t care much for school.”

His school experience almost sounds like something straight out of a novel–the typical kid with an untapped potential who gets straight A’s, only to be hampered by a lack of motivation, causing him to become the poorest behaved child in the classroom.

However, it was another budding gift that helped him find some purpose, but at the same time also pushed him into a different life.

“Naci para los chingasos (I was born to fight),” Vega said. “By the time I came to live in El Paso, I was older and the then prominent gang lifestyle was very interesting to me. I would go up to entire groups of people and tell them I could take them all on.”

El Monje (the monk), as he was named by his fellow gang members due to his shaved head  and proficiency with martial arts, would spend the following years in a haze of alcoholism, fights and crime, with one incident that still plays in his mind with perfect clarity.

“One day a couple of friends and I wanted to drive around, but we didn’t have a vehicle. My mother obviously didn’t lend me the car, so I just decided then and there that we would go steal a car,” Vega said. “We went to a 7-Eleven to scope out the cars. After sometime, eventually a couple finally pulled up with a truck and next thing you know I am telling the lady to hand over the keys. It was a carjacking.”

Although he was eventually caught, Vega managed to come out of the event relatively unscathed as he avoided prison time because the lady refused to press charges. This would serve as warning of what was to come in the future.

As the life style began to take a toll on him, Vega decided to renounce his gangster days and tried to live a calmer life. However it all changed in October 1999, when Vega was charged with intoxicated manslaughter with a vehicle.

“I was coming back with some friends from a reception,” Vega said. “There was a loud thud, I was in shock and my friend just said, ‘I think you hit someone.’”

The subsequent trial would end with Vega being convicted and becoming another statistic for the prison system.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the inmate population for 2013 was about 2,228,424, which leaves the U.S. in first place in the world for the highest prison population. In Texas alone, there are over 150,000 convicted offenders, with El Paso being responsible for 2,210 of them.

Perhaps even more impressive than the incarceration numbers is the rate of recidivism, which shows that 76 percent of released prisoners are arrested within five years of release for a new crime.

“There is a problem with not only Texas, but with the U.S. penal system as well,” Vega said “I was able to beat the odds and not only make it out, but actually turn my life around.”

From the many stories that Vega shares about his time in prison and solitary confinement, the one that stands out the most is the actual way he lived.

“It was a very small cell, you could maybe walk three or four steps before you hit the wall, the bathroom or the bed. You live without anything, just four walls and reading material,” Vega said. “I remember that there was a small window that I could see from my cell, and I would just imagine how nice it would feel to be out and feel the wind.”

Vega credits faith for helping him survive the ordeal and devoting himself to a higher purpose in order to be able to escape sane from his personal hell.

On October 2008, Vega was released from prison into a new world–now at age 31 he had not only missed his 20s, but had missed the technology boom as well.

“When I went in, people still used beepers, now everyone had cellphones,” Vega said. “To paint a better picture, I immediately went into UTEP following my release, and I remember that one of my first days, my professor asked us to look up a song on the Internet. I raised my hand and asked what the Internet was.”

Much has changed from those days, and now Vega has his sights firmly set on his goal to change the world with his music. As he says, he was given a second chance to use his gifts for the world.

Not only does he want to continue to perform, but he also wishes to establish his own production studio in order to publish his own music as well harness the endless potential he sees in El Paso.

When asked if he had any advice for people who might be struggling with life or school Vega said, “Each day presents a new beginning, because no matter how bad your day is it will eventually end. You will go to bed, a new day will rise and with it, new hope. If you are positive, you can and will be able to come out of your problems.”     

Alonso Moreno may be reached at [email protected]