Reina Luisa Tamayo’s country life was simple: she raised animals and kids, worked in cafeterias and bodegas, and did people’s laundry.
Now approaching 62, the modest Cuban abuela finds herself catapulted onto an international stage. Her son died after an 85-day hunger strike a year ago Wednesday, and she has taken his public calling on as her own.
“Her life has changed radically,’’ said Pedro Corzo, who produced a documentary about Tamayo’s son, Orlando Zapata Tamayo. “This is a humble woman, a hard worker, a type of person who maybe doesn’t have a lot of formal education and worked mostly restaurant type jobs. She’s not academic, but she’s very articulate. Her son’s political commitment ripped her from anonymity.”
Tamayo used to wash clothes and sell bags of rice and sugar at the local store. These days she leads marches, has her own blog, and is the subject of news stories around the world. She has been arrested six times.
Her son was a 42-year-old boxer who became a bricklayer, and then a dissident who became a political prisoner. His frequent public anti-government confrontations landed him behind bars in 2003. He died Feb. 23, 2010 after a hunger strike aimed at protesting prison conditions. The Cuban government has said he wanted a phone and kitchen in his cell.
Tamayo and her family hope to lead a march to church and his grave Wednesday — if the ring of state security surrounding her house lets her through.
Zapata’s death not only instantly transformed a little-known political prisoner into an international martyr, but it produced something the Cuban government proved ill-equipped to handle: a live sufferer for a cause. From her grief, his mother took action, and the news cameras followed.
“I had a normal life taking care of animals — normal,” she said by telephone from her home in Banes, in eastern Cuba. “I went from that normal life to a tireless struggle of mistreatment and beatings. I have suffered a lot.”
In the year since her son’s death, Tamayo has become one of the most visible members of the Ladies in White group of mothers, wives and female relatives of political prisoners. Harassed relentlessly, the Catholic Church eventually had to intervene and ask the Cuban government to call off its mobs.
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