During Hispanic Heritage Month, HECFAA, the Employee Organization for the Department’s Hispanic, Latino(a), and Latinx community, is highlighting members of our community who make the Department and world a better place. Today, we tell the story of U.S. Ambassador to Costa Rica Cynthia Telles.
For Cynthia Telles, being U.S. Ambassador to Costa Rica, where she has served since March 2022, is a chance to deepen the connections between the Costa Rican and American people, but it has also been a homecoming of sorts for the prominent psychologist known in the United States for her advocacy for quality mental health services among Hispanics and historically disadvantaged populations.
Sixty-one years ago in 1961, Telles was an eight-year-old girl when she arrived in Costa Rica with her sister Patricia and mother Delfina to accompany her father Raymond on his new assignment as U.S. Ambassador to Costa Rica. Her experience in Costa Rica, where her father served until 1967, proved to be formative, solidifying her identity both as an American, a Latina, and a future public servant.
“My father felt a sense of pride as the first Hispanic U.S. ambassador – and it was a wonderful experience for me as well,” Telles remembers, recounting the close friends she made and the strong Costa Rican accent she developed when speaking Spanish. “I left with a greater appreciation for Costa Rica, which my father would always call ‘a little piece of heaven,’ and a larger commitment to serving others.”
Today, Telles knows she is following in the footsteps of someone great. Her father, who passed away in 2013, has a unique place in the history of Costa Rica and has inspired generations of admirers across the country. And in a State Department where only about eight percent of employees identify as Hispanic, Telles knows she can play an important role both implementing U.S. foreign policy and serving as an inspiration to Americans of Hispanic descent – and all Americans – who might like to be ambassadors one day.
Does she feel pressure because of the legacy of her father?
“No, not at all,” Telles says. “I recognize that he was an extraordinary person, and I am very proud of him. But I do feel a special responsibility as I follow in his footsteps to live up to his legacy of service.”
A Legacy of Service
Raymond Telles’ story is best described as inspiring. During World War II, he served as a military aide to Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower before being elected to be the El Paso, Texas, county clerk in 1948. In 1957, he was elected to be the mayor of El Paso, Texas – the first Hispanic mayor of a major U.S. city – and he served in the position until 1961.
That’s when then-President John F. Kennedy invited him to the White House, where the President surprised him with the idea of serving as U.S. Ambassador to Costa Rica. Raymond Telles served there until 1967 and became a beloved figure throughout the country, known for his wide travels and his connection to regular people.
“He was a kind man, a caring man,” recounts Adrian Mora, whose father worked as the Ambassador’s personal driver, and who has worked for decades at the embassy, along with his brother Luis. The Mora family treasured the annual Christmas cards it received from Raymond Telles after he departed Costa Rica.
Evelyn Ardon, a press and media specialist at the embassy, said: “Raymond Telles is really an important figure in the history of our country. He is known for helping Costa Rica when it had a volcanic eruption, for working with the government to tackle poverty, and for the visit of JFK to the country.”
Indeed, in 1963 Kennedy visited Costa Rica for the Central American summit – a visit that today remains a point of Costa Rican pride. Cynthia Telles, 10 years old at the time, witnessed it all.
“It was incredible, exhilarating, and inspiring to meet the president and see how much he really cared,” she said.
Months after his visit, Kennedy was assassinated. Raymond Telles had planned to accompany the president in Dallas, but decided not to at the last moment. When Kennedy died, much of Costa Rica mourned alongside the American people.
Cynthia Telles remembers the similar outpouring that took place when her father departed Costa Rica in 1967. One poverty-stricken woman trekked for miles from the capital San Jose to the international airport to say goodbye to Raymond Telles. When she arrived at the airport, she opened her hands to reveal a flower she had been grasping for the ambassador.
Following in Her Father’s Footsteps
Cynthia Telles never thought that she would follow in her father’s footsteps to become an ambassador – and certainly not to Costa Rica. Indeed, her career has taken her far away from the diplomatic world. She became a prominent psychologist, perhaps best known for her role as a groundbreaking professor at UCLA’s Department of Psychiatry and a founding director of the Hispanic Neuropsychiatric Center of Excellence.
But when President Biden offered Telles the chance to serve, she was honored. She says it was her son Raymond – named after her father – who told her how important it was for her to seize this opportunity.
Today, Telles is focused on important American priorities supporting economic development, facing down security challenges and dealing with irregular migration, but she never loses sight of the legacy of her father, his groundbreaking role for the United States’ Hispanic community, and the deep connection Costa Rica forged with the Telles family.
In fact, it is impossible to do so. Everywhere she goes people recognize her and tell her stories about her father and the difference he made in their lives. And everyone is amazed to see Cynthia Telles again – a girl who arrived in Costa Rica as a bright eight-year-old, left as a teen, and who came back as a passionate friend of the Costa Rican-American relationship.
About the Author: Moises Mendoza serves as Hispanic Employee Council of Foreign Affairs Agencies’ (HECFAA) Vice President for Foreign Service and a Watch Officer in the Department’s Operations Center.