Lawrenceville Mailroom Clerk Keila Santiago was inducted into the Vega Baja City Hall of the Fame in Puerto Rico on December 19. This honor, celebrating her achievements in softball, is the culmination of years of sacrifice, hard work, and unwavering commitment to the sport and to her family.
Santiago grew up in Vega Baja, on the central north coast of Puerto Rico, and started playing softball at age seven. “There was no girls’ softball in my town, so my dad took me to play in the boys’ Little League that he coached,” she said. The game runs in her blood, she says, and Santiago has fond memories of neighborhood match-ups with her father, brother, uncle, and cousins. While softball remained her focus and passion, Santiago also threw javelin and played volleyball and basketball.
Her father coached her until she was 12 and, at the age of 14, she was offered a scholarship to Puerto Rico’s Bayamón Military Academy, about 20 miles from her home, to play softball. This was an otherworldly experience for Santiago, and she was determined to make the most of the opportunity. In one of her first games, a coach from a competing school - who also happened to coach the national team - took note of Santiago’s talents. “I had two home runs that day … he invited me to practice with the national team, and that’s where the next part of my journey started.”
Santiago’s tenure with the Puerto Rico National Softball Team ran from 1992 at age 16 until 2003. She completed high school and college during this time, graduating from the University of Puerto Rico in 2000 with a degree in physical education. At the time, athletes on the national team were required to live in their home country, so Santiago turned down college scholarships elsewhere in the United States to advance her softball career.
She played in Puerto Rico for the Central American and Caribbean Games, earning a gold medal to qualify for the Pre-Pan American Game in Guatemala in 1994, where she nabbed a bronze medal. She earned a silver medal in the Pan American Games in Argentina in 1995, which catapulted her to the Pre-Olympic Games in Puerto Rico in 1996 where she earned a gold medal and qualified for the Olympic Games in Atlanta, Ga. Because Santiago was one of the youngest players on the team, she was one of three athletes cut from the competition, which allowed only 15 players -- a devastating blow to her career. She continued playing, with her final competition being at the Pan American Game in the Dominican Republic in 2003.
While the medals, trophies, newspaper clippings, and photographs are precious keepsakes that Santiago looks upon with fondness, it is her family’s support through her softball career that fuels the person she has become.
Looking at the memorabilia, she says, “All of this … for me … it all means sacrifice. I come from a low income family. My dad is disabled and couldn’t work. My mom was the only one working. When I was offered a full scholarship to the Academy, many people who were more financially stable said no, because it was too far away from home. My dad asked, ‘Is this what you want to do? Let’s make it happen.’”
Santiago recounts, with great emotion and gratitude, her mother working long hours to support her, her father, and her siblings. She recalls her father waking up every morning at 5 a.m., making breakfast and packing lunch, packing a school bag and a sports bag, walking miles with her to the bus station, putting her on the bus, and praying for her to arrive safely to school that day. “I had to walk another couple of miles after getting off the bus, to school,” said Santiago. “Everyone had a lot of money at the Academy. They would see me walking, even in my school uniform, and drive right by. After a couple of years, after I played on the national team, people began to recognize me and would pick me up during my walk from the bus station.”
Competition days were exciting for Santiago, but also presented challenges. “We had competitions in the afternoon and I would have to stay at different houses on those days. There was no public transportation that late, so I couldn’t go home to my mom and dad. I was always staying somewhere different from my teammates. So, this was a sacrifice -- for me and for my family. I will never forget this sacrifice -- it is why I am who I am. If my dad hadn’t done this for me, I would never have gotten onto the national team, never gotten a high school scholarship, never gotten a college scholarship.”
Being inducted into the Hall of Fame is particularly meaningful for Santiago because her father is also a member, recognized for his own baseball talents. What does the honor mean to her? “For me, it’s something that I owe my dad. This completes the cycle for me. Because of my parents, I’m a good person, a good citizen, a good mom. I teach my children to be grateful for the opportunities they have, and I make sure they work as hard as they can when they have certain privileges. If you do something, do it with passion. Otherwise, don’t do it.”
Santiago shared the phrase “bendicion,” blessings -- a measure of respect she was eager to bestow upon her family during their reunion in December.
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