A collection of titles and descriptions comes together to identify Dr. Santos C. Vega: educator, historian, author, civic leader, father of nine, and a spiritual guidepost.
The Tempean lived to be 89 until his passing on January 2, 2021, from natural causes.
Perhaps, his hallmark was how he captured the Mexican culture in his exhaustive writings, most especially his 2007 novel, “The Worm in my Tomato.” His obituary described him as a “life-long learner,” a “passionate educator,” an “ambassador for his community” and “a loyal servant of God.” His name was associated with numerous institutions of learning where he earned five academic degrees or taught.
Once he was presented the President’s Volunteer Service Award from U.S. President Barrack Obama in recognition of his broad base of service such as eight years on the Florence Town Council, including being vice-mayor; presidency of the Arizona Association of Chicanos for Higher Education; dedication service to the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC); and his considerable record of membership on community committees in Arizona and Colorado. That included serving on the board of the Tempe History Museum.
But writing identified him.
His body of written work is extensive. It was said Santos “could always be found with a pen and notebook.” He would close out his career with Arizona State University as Director for the Community Documentation Program (CDP), as well as the Community Art and Research Organization in ASU’s Hispanic Research Center. His writing especially focused on Hispanic issues and culture.
Santos was born September 6, 1931, in Miami, Arizona. While in junior high and high school there, he competed in football, basketball, softball, and track. He graduated in 1950. He then joined the U.S. Air Force where he served from 1950 to 1954.
Santos married Edillia Garnica in 1956 and they would have nine children, all still living. Together they gave Santos 23 grandchildren and 24 great-grandchildren. After Edillia’s passing, he married Josephine Ramirez.
Santos went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in 1958 from the University of Arizona, followed a year later with a master’s degree in education. Santos took a job in 1959 teaching at Florence Elementary School and stayed there a decade.
From 1969 to 1975, he taught English and Mexican-American history at Central Arizona College in Coolidge, where he also directed the continuing education program. While there he taught at the Arizona State Prison at Florence and volunteered as a firefighter.
In 1975, Santos earned his doctorate from Arizona State. For the next four years, he taught introduction to public administration at the University of Arizona, where he also coordinated the student support program. From 1979 to 1982, Santos directed the Hispanic Ministry program for St. Thomas Theological Seminary in Denver. He spent four years, 1983-87, on the Aurora (Colorado) School District Board of Education. While there, he directed both the St. Vincent de Paul Society in Denver (1986-89) and the Tercer Encuentro process for Ecclesial Region XIII. A dedicated member of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish, he belonged to the Life-Professed Order of Preachers Laity (CPL) with the Tempe Newman Center. He also was a member of the Tempe Salvation Army Advisory Board.
He earned additional degrees: a Bachelor of Law in 1967 from Blackstone School of Law and a Master of Arts degree in theology in 2004 from San Francisco University.
Santos began his work with the Hispanic Research Center at ASU in 1989. He was elected president of the Arizona Association of Chicanos for Higher Education, 1996-97, was executive director of Braun Sacred Heart Center and was a member of the Arizona Historical Society. He served on the Tempe Historic Preservation Commission and was a member of the advisory board for the annual Tempe Tardeada
A major passion was collecting and telling the stories of Hispanic families. He worked to make sure such stories were not forever lost.
Santos’ historical novel “The Worm in My Tomato” was based on a true-life experience of a Mexican-American family who took part in the federal government’s Immigration Repatriation program established during the Great Depression in the 1930s. Lacking work in the U.S., the father went back to Mexico. There were five American-born children, and to keep the family together, the mother and children joined the father in Mexico. With rich spiritual themes, the book tells the daunting hardships the family dealt with in seeking survival. After the death of the father, the family is able to get back to the U.S. The family challenges the national policies as a result of the Mexican revolution in 1910.
When he gained professor emeritus status from ASU, Santos stepped up his writing. He joined a close friend, Frank Barrios, in a project of identifying Hispanic historic properties worthy of preservation. They captured scores of personal stories in the process. Barrios call Santos Vega “a wonderful writer and a wonderful historian. That was his talent.”
“He was very quiet, easy-going, deliberate when he spoke and thought things out,” Barrios told an Arizona Republic reporter.
In 2009, Santos produced a book in the “Images of America” series titled “Mexicans in Tempe.” It looked at the influences and impacts that Mexican pioneers and settlers made in Tempe and the surrounding area. The major focus was on the early settlement called San Pablo, now a major part of the ASU campus at the south side of Hayden Butte. The book looked at the “vital importance the Mexican settlers had on the area’s economic development via ranching, agriculture, private industries and the defense of our national security,” according to book promotional materials. “Over time, the Mexican settlers of San Pablo were subjected to eminent domain and were dispersed throughout Maricopa County.”
— Lawn Griffiths