Orlando Zapata Tamayo: A Sacrifice not in vain

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As I waited for my opportunity to meet Reina Luisa Tamayo, I watched her greet the other people at her news conference last Friday and all I could feel was awe. Besides all the suffering this woman had endured over the past two years, I had just found out minutes earlier that the meal she enjoyed the night before was her first meal in three days. But to my eyes, Reina looked liked a Greek marble column, able to support immense weight and survive the rise and fall of civilizations. Her movements, her voice, her words, her smile contradicted everything one would expect from a person who has suffered so much in such little time.

When I was finally able to meet her, I was barely able to say hello before putting my arms around her and giving her a kiss on the cheek. I introduced myself, and after searching her memory for a brief moment, she remembered the few times we had spoken on the phone when she was still in Cuba.

“Thank you,” she told me, “thank you for everything you did for us.”

I cannot recall ever feeling less deserving of appreciation. All I did was call her on the phone and write down the descriptions of the violence and brutality she and her family was being subjected and report them on Babalú. I was not there receiving the blows from the angry mobs, or being pelted with rocks or beaten with sticks. It was not my house surrounded by hundreds of violent thugs and under siege, it was hers; but yet she thanked me. I looked into her eyes and accepted her undeserved gratitude with as much grace as I could.

It was at that moment when I was able to see beyond that image of strength and toughness and see the pain in her eyes. I could see the intolerable and inconsolable anguish of losing a son. I could see the uncertainty of being in a new country, away from everything and most everyone she knew, and facing the daunting task of beginning again. And although I could not confirm it, I could swear that I saw in her eyes the pain that comes from the contemplation that perhaps her son’s death might have been in vain.

The moment was neither right, nor the topic in my estimation appropriate at that time, so I just hugged her once again and said nothing, hoping that my embrace would say what I could not find the words to say. I hoped that she would understand that the sacrifice of her son and the sacrifice of her and her family were not in vain. That the sacrifice of the tens of thousands of Cubans who have given their lives in the struggle for freedom in Cuba the past 52 years has not been in vain.

The struggle for freedom is a never-ending struggle, and even when that freedom is obtained, the struggle must continue to maintain and protect it. History will eventually show that the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, and the tens of thousands like him, was not in vain. Freedom and liberty will one day – hopefully soon – triumph over tyranny and slavery.

Of that, we can be certain because good always triumphs over evil. A just people will always defeat a corrupt oppressor. Perhaps not as quickly or as easily as we would all desire, but they will prevail nonetheless.

One day, there will be history books in Cuba with the image of Zapata and the story of his courage and that of his mother and family. One day, schoolchildren in Cuba will learn about Cubans like him who gave the ultimate sacrifice for the freedom of their country.

No. Orlando Zapata Tamayo did not die in vain.