Ambassador Raymond L. Telles, Jr., the first Hispanic mayor of a major American city, the first Hispanic U.S. Ambassador, a decorated U.S. Air Force Colonel, and presidential advisor passed away on March 8, 2013 at his daughter’s home in Sherman Oaks, California.
Telles was born September 5, 1915, and was educated at Texas Western College, which is now known as the University of Texas at El Paso. He began his civil service career with the United States Department of Justice, and was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1941.
As a result of his distinguished service as the Chief of the Lend-Lease Program for South and Central America for the US Air Force he received the Order of the Southern Cross from Brazil, Columbian wings, the Mexican Legion of Merit, and the Peruvian Flying Cross. During World War II, he served in the U.S. Air Force, attaining the rank of Colonel.
After serving as military aide to President Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower, he returned to his home of El Paso and began his political career. In 1948, he was elected County Clerk. He was later recalled for the Korean Conflict where he commanded the U.S. Air Force 67th Tactical and Reconnaissance Group, for which he earned the Bronze Star.
In November 1957, after a hard-fought campaign, he was elected Mayor of El Paso. His collaborative leadership won him an uncontested second term. In 1961, Telles was appointed by President John F. Kennedy as U.S. Ambassador to Costa Rica, making history as the first person of Hispanic heritage to serve as a U.S. Ambassador. In 1967 President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Telles Chairman of the U.S.-Mexican Border Commission. Later, President Richard Nixon appointed him, and President Gerald Ford re-appointed him, Commissioner of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Ambassador Telles was an advisor and friend to both Democratic and Republican presidents, including President Kennedy, President Johnson, President Nixon and President Ford.
“Our father, who devoted his entire life to public service, will always be remembered for paving the way for generations of Hispanics and their social and political progress,” reflected Cynthia Telles. “He was an extraordinarily dedicated father, who instilled timeless values and set an example of selflessness,” stated Patricia Telles-Irvin.
Raymond L. Telles, Jr. was married for 68 years to the love of his life, Delfina Navarro. He is survived by his two daughters Dr. Cynthia Telles of Sherman Oaks, California and Dr. Patricia Telles-Irvin of Evanston, Illinois, and grandchildren Raymond David Jimenez and Daniel Irvin-Telles.
Statements of Condolence
VILMA MARTINEZ, US Ambassador to Argentina, “My friend, Raymond Telles, had so many impressive titles – Ambassador, Mayor of El Paso, EEOC Commissioner – but mainly he was an effective, elegant and forceful leader. He set a very high bar for what Latino leaders are capable of doing for the Latino community and our country in general. He was a wonderful human being, husband, father and friend.”
BILL RICHARDSON, UN Ambassador and former Secretary of Energy, “Ambassador Raymond Telles was the first Latino to succeed in international diplomacy. He was a genuine trailblazer for us in foreign policy.”
HENRY CISNEROS, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and Mayor of San Antonio, “Mayor Telles was the first Latino to become elected mayor of a major American city. He inspired all of us with his dignity and effectiveness and it set the standard for those of us in public service. Later, President Kennedy named him to an ambassadorial position and it showed the pattern Latinos could follow. Many of us did so with his experience in mind. His dignity, seriousness, integrity and his consistent dedication to public service is hard to aspire to.”
JOHN COOK, Mayor of El Paso, “Ambassador Raymond Telles broke the racial barrier in El Paso back in the early days when he was elected our mayor. He earned the admiration and respect of all our citizens as he led us with honor and distinction. President John Kennedy recognized his unique diplomatic skills and appointed him Ambassador to Costa Rica. I was fortunate enough to have become friends with him and his daughter Cynthia and valued his advice and guidance.”
JULIAN CASTRO, Mayor of San Antonio,“Our nation has lost a great American and true diplomat. Ambassador Telles served our country honorably and was a trailblazer, who inspired many others to public service. May he rest in peace.”
ANTONIA HERNANDEZ, President of California Community Foundation and former President and General Counsel of MALDEF,“Raymond Telles was a trailblazing pioneer who opened the political process for the Latino community. His passion and devotion to public service set the standard for those who seek to serve in public office. As the first Mexican-American Mayor of a major American city, Ambassador to Costa Rica and military leader he devoted his life to the service of others. He was a proud father, loving husband and generous humanitarian.”
BRIGITTE BREN, CA Civic Leader and Attorney, “Ambassador Telles served numerous American presidents, both Democrat and Republican. His legacy of patriotic service belongs to no one party, cause or ideology. He represents the best in all of us.”
DAN SCHNUR, Director of the USC Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics and former campaign advisor to John McCain and President Bush, “Ambassador Raymond Telles has always represented the best type of public servant, someone who always put service to his country over partisanship and whose devotion to the principles of equality and justice made him one of the our country’s most admired leaders. At a time when too many of our elected and appointed government officials allow allegiance to a political party to come before their commitment to the best interests of our country and its citizens, Ambassador Telles’ passing serves as a welcome reminder that true leadership comes from those whose strength and integrity give them the ability to reach across party lines to successfully take on our nation’s most formidable challenges.”
JANE DELGADO, President of the National Alliance for Hispanic Health, “Ambassador Telles was an officer, statesmen, and diplomat who was treasured by all of us who met him. The forces of good have lost one of the greatest champions. We will miss him so very, very much”[Photo courtesy Telles family]