Zelina Vega is preparing to reintroduce herself to WWE.
The overwhelming majority of her tenure in WWE has been as a manager, but Vega has a dozen years’ worth of experience in the ring. After challenging Asuka last week on Raw, their program marks an opportunity for Vega to redefine and assert herself in an entirely new manner. Standing only 5' 1", she has long heard that she is too short and too small to be viewed as a serious threat in the ring, and she looks forward to proving otherwise.
“That’s why I identify with Zelina,” says Vega, who is 29-year-old Thea Trinidad Budgen. “She’s passionate, fiery and emotionally wounded. In the story, I’m going to show Andrade and Angel Garza why they’ve been taking me for granted. But I’m going to show people a lot more than that. I’m going to prove everyone wrong that doubted me, and I’m going to prove that I am more than just a manager.”
Vega’s rise to prominence in WWE was not the product of destiny, but rather the result of toil, tears and sacrifice. She is especially proud of her success in pro wrestling because of its lasting connection to her father, the late Michael Trinidad. He worked on the 103rd floor of the World Trade Center and was killed in the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
In the moments following the attacks, Trinidad called Monique Ferrer, Vega’s mother, to let her know that he wasn’t going to make it out of the tower. He then shared the unconditional love he had for their two children. Only 10, Vega was home from school that day for a doctor’s appointment. Ferrer placed the phone in her daughter’s hand to speak, one final time, with her first true love—her father.
“That day felt like such an out-of-body experience,” says Vega, who still carries her father in her heart. “We were so passionate about wrestling, it’s something we enjoyed as far back as I can remember. He was a wrestler in high school, and I still have his wrestling trophies. I still look at those, and they still inspire me. I’m doing this for me, and I’m also doing this for him.
“When I was an extra in WWE six years ago, I remember telling the Rock about my father and how we had so many memories watching him on TV. A few years later, Dwayne took his daughter to the World Trade Center Memorial and found my father’s name. That meant a lot to me and my entire family.”
The terrorist attacks left a permanent scar on Vega. Initially, it affected her daily life and carried over into school, where people began treating her differently.
“People didn’t know how to talk to me after 9/11, or how to react when I was around, which made it even worse,” says Vega. “I needed to be in a place where you didn’t even need to think about that.”
Vega’s mother signed her and her brother up at Camp Hayes, a place designed for children who had lost family members in the attacks. The time spent at camp—where she later returned as a counselor—altered her mindset and forever impacted the way she works with children.
“I went when I was 12 years old, and I remember fighting my mother so hard about it,” says Vega. “I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to talk about my feelings. I didn’t want to do any of that. Then, the second my brother and I were on the bus, we met these two kids behind us, and we’re still friends to this day. I had no idea it would bring people into my life that I would consider family for the rest of my life. It was life-changing.”
Vega has spent her life overcoming obstacles. It comes as no surprise to her that there are doubts about whether she can carry the women’s division, especially when she has already established herself as an important character as a manager, which helps to enhance emerging stars like Andrade and Garza. But Vega has a quiet determination. Though she is thrilled to play a supporting role when the story calls for it, she knows that within her exists the strength to redefine women in WWE.
Using traditional wrestling terminology, Vega is a heel. She plays the role of a villain with intensity, doing whatever is necessary to ensure victory. And that story does not stray too far from reality, with the exception being that Vega is one of WWE’s most genuine heroes. Playing a strong, powerful, authoritative female character has allowed her to add a certain flair to WWE’s weekly programming, and hopefully will continue to lead to a more realistic portrayal of women in wrestling.
“It’s truly just me being myself,” says Vega. “I want to show the world that it’s O.K. to be different. For Zelina, she’s so unapologetically herself. She’s willing to get the job done no matter what it takes. That was my belief with WWE. I knew I was going to make it here, and I was willing to make the sacrifices to make it happen.
“I know I’m not the tallest or the biggest. I have a lot to prove, and I am bringing my real emotion into my work. I’m still Puerto Rican from Queens, so when I get mad, you’re hearing exactly what I sound like. I’ve heard enough times, ‘She can’t really beat Asuka.' If that’s how you feel, O.K., fine. But whether it’s Raw, next week, next month or a pay-per-view, it’s going to happen. It makes me think of that Paul Heyman line, because that’s not a prediction, it’s a spoiler.”
Since the time she was watching wrestling with her father, Vega has always admired the work of Rey Mysterio. Her wrestling portfolio now includes some vivid and rich moments sharing the ring beside Andrade and Mysterio, with a particular highlight occurring a day before her birthday in December at the Madison Square Garden house show when Andrade defeated Mysterio to win the United States title.
“One of the people backstage had a camera, and they were taking pictures of Rey,” says Vega. “After the match, I thanked Rey after the match and got all choked up, and then they started taking pictures of us. In this world of giants, Rey makes me fearless.
“Watching Halloween Havoc 1997, Rey Mysterio vs. Eddie Guerrero, that was the match that made me believe I could do this. I watched with my dad, and Rey’s performance made me believe in myself.”
Reality is set to intertwine with story line in WWE as Vega pursues the Raw women’s championship. Vega does not look like Becky Lynch or work like Charlotte Flair, but she plans to add a uniquely compelling piece to WWE’s in-ring action: herself.
Vega will accomplish this, she vows, in her own way, not as a manager or the secondary piece in a larger story. Her time spent underappreciated or overlooked is a mere memory of her wrestling past, with the future now offering a long-awaited chance to prove she belongs atop the most powerful wrestling company in the world.
“My ultimate goal is to become the Raw women’s champion, but it’s deeper than that,” says Vega. “I need to prove I am more than people think I am. I’m more than just a manager, I’m more than just the brown girl. I’m not just a girl: I’m the girl. I’m trying to change the narrative.
“When you look at Zelina, you shouldn’t say, ‘She’s just this.’ You’re about to find out, she is all of this.”