Born into an impoverished Cuban family and then orphaned at a young age, Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez’s childhood dreams to fly seemed near impossible. Méndez was later quoted as saying ‘I had dreamed of flying since I was a child… but before the revolution, all paths into the sky were barred because I was a boy who came from a poor black family. I had no chance of getting an education’.
However, on 18 September 1980, the Cuban became the first black person, Latin American and Cuban to go into space, and upon his return received the Hero of the Republic of Cuba medal and the Order of Lenin from the Soviets. His extraordinary career propelled him to international fame, and he later became Director of International affairs in the Cuban armed forces, amongst other positions.
However, despite his achievements, his story is hardly known amongst American audiences today.
So who is Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez?
1. He grew up a poor orphan
Tamayo was born in 1942 in Baracoa, Guantánamo province, to an impoverished family of Afro-Cuban descent. In a novel about his life, Tamayo makes no mention of his father, and explains that his mother died of tuberculosis when he was only eight months old. An orphan, Tamayo was taken in by his grandmother before being adopted by his uncle Rafael Tamayo, an auto mechanic, and his wife Esperanza Méndez. Though the family was not wealthy, it provided him with stability.
2. He worked as a shoeshine, vegetable seller and carpenter’s assistant
Tamayo began working aged 13 as a shoeshine, vegetable seller and milk delivery boy, and later worked as a carpenter’s assistant from the age of 13. He excelled in school, both at the one near his adopted family’s farm, and as he got older and went to Guantánamo.
3. He joined the Association of Young Rebels
During the Cuban Revolution (1953-59), Tamayo joined the Association of Young Rebels, a youth group that protested the Batista regime. He later also joined the Revolutionary Work Youth Brigades. A year after the revolution triumphed and Castro assumed power, Tamayo joined the revolution in the Sierra Maestra Mountains and then attended the Rebel Army’s Technical Institute, where he took a course for aviation technicians, which he excelled in. In 1961, he passed his course and decided to pursue his dream to become a pilot.
4. He was selected for further training in the Soviet Union
After passing his course at the Red Army’s Technical Institute, Tamayo turned his attention to becoming a fighter pilot, so joined the Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces. Though initially retained as an aeroplane technician due to medical reasons, between 1961-2, he completed a course in aerial combat at the Yeysk Higher Air Force School in the Soviet Union’s Krasnodar Krai, qualifying as a combat pilot aged just 19.
5. He served during the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam War
The same year that he qualified as a combat pilot, he flew 20 reconnaissance missions during the Cuban Missile Crisis as part of the Playa Girón Brigade of the Cuban Revolutionary Air and Air Defense Force. In 1967, Tamayo joined the Communist Part of Cuba and spent the following two years serving with Cuban forces in the Vietnam War, before taking on two years of study from 1969 at the Maximo Gomez Basic College of the Revolutionary Forces. By 1975, he had risen in the ranks of Cuba’s new air force.
6. He was chosen for the Soviet Union’s Interkosmos program
In 1964, Cuba had started its own space research activities, which scaled up enormously when they joined the Soviet Union’s Interkosmos program, which organised all of the USSR’s early missions to space. It was both a rival to NASA and a diplomatic venture with other European, Asian and Latin American countries.
The search for a Cuban cosmonaut began in 1976, and from a list of 600 candidates, two were chosen: Tamayo, then a fighter brigade pilot, and Cuban Air Force captain José Armando López Falcón. In all, between 1977 and 1988, 14 non-Soviet cosmonauts went on missions as part of the Interkosmos program.
7. He completed 124 orbits over a week
On 18 September 1980, Tamayo and fellow cosmonaut Yuriy Romanenko made history as part of Soyuz-38, when they docked at the Salyut-6 Space Station. Over the following seven days, they completed 124 orbits and landed back on earth on 26 September. Fidel Castro watched the mission reports on television as the mission took place.
8. He was the first black person and Latin American to go into orbit
Tamayo’s mission was particularly historic since he was the first black person, Latin American and Cuban to go into orbit. The Interkosmos program was therefore both a diplomatic venture in building good relationships with allied countries, and a high-profile propaganda exercise, since Soviets controlled publicity around the program.
It is probable that Fidel Castro was aware that sending a black man into orbit before the Americans did was an effective way of drawing attention to America’s tense race relations that had characterised much of the political landscape of the preceding decades.
9. He became Director of International affairs in the Cuban armed forces
After his time in the Interkosmos program, Tamayo was made Director of the Military Patriotic Educational Society. Later, Tamayo became a brigadier general in the Cuban army, then director of its international affairs. Since 1980, he has served in the Cuban National Assembly for his home province of Guantánamo.
10. He is highly decorated
After taking part in the Interkosmos program, Tamayo became an instant national hero. He was the first ever person to be honoured with the Hero of the Republic of Cuba medal, and was also named a Hero of the Soviet Union and received the Order of Lenin, the highest civilian honour awarded by the Soviet Union.