RENE González Sehwerert celebrated his 56th birthday, August 13, in some anonymous corner of the United States. Despite having spent his last 13 birthdays in prison, he cannot yet enjoy this one with his family.
His mother Irma says that René doesn’t put much emphasis on these conventional dates since she "didn’t raise them that way." She always speaks in the plural when referring to one of her two sons, as if René and his brother Roberto were one.
René was born August 13, 1956, in Chicago and returned to Cuba with his family when the Revolution triumphed.
I asked Irma how they celebrated birthdays when her boys were small, thinking she would say something about cakes, piñatas, clowns… but she answered, almost apologetically, that they spent these days like all others, in a trench or in the sugar harvest. "Imagine, I was alone with the two of them. If I wanted to be part of making the Revolution, I had to take them with me everywhere, so they could end up anywhere on their birthdays."
Irma tells it as if there were something wrong with this kind of sacrifice, but adds, "One time I asked them if they felt any resentment and René told me that I had done the right thing, that the best decision I made was getting them out of the United States when they were still children, getting them out of that society."
"We didn’t celebrate specific dates since, clearly, these dates are purely commercial. It’s not like birthdays went by unnoticed. They got a kiss, affection, and we always sang to congratulate them. Neither of my sons suffered because they didn’t get presents."
"During all of these years he’s been away, he always calls me early on the 13th. The phone rings at 7:00 am and I know it’s him."
Irma relates that the family’s special days were Saturdays. "On that day, all of Renecito’s and Roberto’s friends would come over to our house in the evening and we would have a party with lemonade or soda. Not like now, but they had a good time. These were their real birthdays."
"Later, when we moved to Cotorro, our sacred day was Sunday, because we had lunch together and then sat around the table four or five hours and talked about politics, the problems of the world and how things were going."
During our brief conversation, Irma repeated more than once that, "René was a very gentle boy."
"When I punished him, he couldn’t sleep until I gave him a kiss and forgave him and he would tell me he wasn’t ever going to do that again."
"He was gentle but I don’t mean to say he was a fool. He always had a very developed sense of justice. I admired him very much for that. One time he got into a fight defending a neighbor because some older boys were teasing him and teasing is awful."
As I listened to these stories from René’s childhood, I thought about how proud Irma must be to have raised her sons this way, with her example guiding their lives. I was gratified to come face to face with such a woman, such a mother.
This August 13 is her day as well, for having brought a hero into our world. We celebrate the birth of this extraordinary human being who is René González Sehwerert every day.