Raymond Lorenzo Telles, Jr., was the first Mexican American to be elected as the mayor of a major American city (El Paso) and also the first Mexican American to be appointed as a U.S. Ambassador. He was born Ramón Telles in the Mexican American El Segundo Barrio neighborhood of El Paso, Texas, on September 5, 1915. He was the oldest of three surviving sons of Ramón Telles and Angela (Lopez) Telles. His American-born father was originally from Ysleta, Texas, and moved to El Paso as a young man. He was a master bricklayer, and when he married Angela Lopez of Chihuahua, he put his talents to use constructing the family home from scratch. To supplement the family’s income, Angela Telles owned and operated a small grocery store.
The Telles family placed a high premium on discipline, education, and industry which they transmitted to their children. Raymond’s parents, devoutly Catholic, valued their son’s education and in spite of financial hardships assured that he attended one of the better Catholic parochial schools in the area—St. Mary’s Elementary School, which consisted of primarily Anglo students and was run by the Sisters of Loreto. There, the nuns called him Raymond instead of Ramón, and the name stayed with him for the rest of his life. An excellent student, he supplemented his family’s income at a young age by working a variety of jobs like delivering newspapers and shining shoes. He then attended the all-boys Catholic school, Cathedral High School, and graduated from there in 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression. Afterwards he enrolled at the International Business College (IBC) in El Paso and obtained an associate’s degree specializing in bookkeeping.
After graduation from the IBC, Telles found employment with the Works Progress Administration (later named Work Projects Administration) as a clerk and worked his way up to paymaster. In 1939, after passing a federal exam, Telles obtained a better paying clerking position with the Federal Bureau of Prisons at La Tuna Penitentiary just north of El Paso. He also took night classes at the Texas College of Mines (now University of Texas at El Paso). In 1940 Telles volunteered for the draft, and he was selected and inducted into the United States Army at Fort Bliss in February 1941. As a consequence of his specialized business skills, Telles was placed as a supply clerk for his unit, the 132nd Field Artillery of the Thirty-sixth Infantry Division. He gained such a reputation for speed and efficiency that in less than half a year he had gained promotion to sergeant and then to technical sergeant and had obtained the position of chief supply clerk for his artillery battalion. With the United States entrance into World War II, Telles anticipated that he would be shipped overseas so he married his fiancé Delfina Navarro on February 15, 1942. They later had two daughters. Soon after he passed his officer candidate school examination and was selected to attend Officers’ Candidate School for the U. S. Army Air Corps in Miami Beach, Florida. Telles graduated as a second lieutenant, but for the rest of the war he was not posted for overseas service. Instead, his bilingual and business skills were employed working with America’s Latin American allies. From 1942 to 1945 he was stationed at Kelly Field (see KELLY AIR FORCE BASE) where he was head of the Lend-Lease Program to Latin America and in command of his own squadron of recruits. He oversaw the supplying of surplus aircraft to these allies as well as training personnel. He progressed in rank to captain, and by the end of the war he served as the liaison officer between the Mexican and United States air forces. Among his decorations for the war, he received the National Order of the Southern Cross of Brazil, the Mexican Legion of Merit, and the Peruvian Flying Cross. He continued exercising his liaison duties after the war. His duties included serving as an aide to Gen. Dwight Eisenhower in Mexico City in 1946 and with President Harry Truman in 1947. Telles achieved the rank of major before retiring from active duty in 1947. He continued serving in the reserves and was later recalled for the Korean War, where he commanded the U. S. Air Force Sixty-seventh Tactical and Reconnaissance Group and earned a Bronze Star. He retired with the rank of colonel.
Like many Mexican Americans who had served in and survived World War II, the experience awakened a greater awareness of the inequalities at home and the need to be politically active in order to alleviate the problem. When Telles returned to El Paso, his family, especially his father and brother Richard, began to lobby for him to run for public office. Although the population of El Paso was majority Mexican American, there had not been an office holder of Mexican descent since the founding of the city. Prominent local Mexican American leaders, like Raymond’s father, recognized that a person like his son, with his education and extensive administrative and diplomatic experience, would make a viable candidate for electoral office. As a military veteran, he would be able to appeal to that demographic, especially fellow Mexican American vets. In addition, his credentials would make it difficult for whites to discount him as a serious candidate for elected office. After careful consideration Telles decided to challenge the incumbent for the El Paso county clerk position. While not a high profile position, it was one that was tailor made for his qualifications and could take advantage of his reputation for efficiency and experience to convince Anglo voters to support his candidacy. He had already established an active civic presence as a member of the Junior Chamber of Commerce, board member of the local chapter of Texas Credit Unions, commander of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post, and member of the Knights of Columbus.
Two important elements aided Telles’s campaign. The first was the organizing efforts of his brother Richard, who recognized that the key to his brother’s victory would lie in getting Mexican Americans registered to vote. This effort had to contend with the reality of the poll tax, which dissuaded poorer Mexican Americans from voting. Richard Telles organized fund drives to help pay the poll tax for indigent Mexican American voters and in turn made sure they were registered to vote. In time, Richard Telles created a well-oiled political machine in the El Segundo Barrio that supported the electoral efforts of his brother. The second element was the support of Ed Pooley, the editor of the El Paso Herald-Post, El Paso’s afternoon daily. Locked in a battle with the morning El Paso Times, the editors of the two newspapers represented the liberal/conservative divide in the city. Pooley represented the more progressive elements in the city, and he enthusiastically endorsed the candidacy of Raymond Telles. Telles endured a bruising electoral battle, with the opposing candidate stooping to race-baiting tactics. In the end, with the strong support of Mexican Americans as well as moderate Anglo voters, Telles won a close election in 1948. As expected, he excelled at his position and modernized systems and increased efficiency and revenues in the process. In appreciation, Telles was re-elected multiple times without serious opposition; he served a total of four terms.
By 1955 local Mexican American leaders felt that the time was right for a Mexican American candidate to challenge for the position of mayor. Naturally they turned to Telles, who demurred at the time because he judged that the timing was not right. The forced annexation of the majority Mexican American communities in the lower valley near El Paso, especially Ysleta, provided the opportunity for Telles to mount a successful mayoral run in 1957. Telles, again assisted by Pooley’s editorial efforts, formed a slate with liberal Anglo aldermen candidates and challenged the Anglo power structure of the city. Relying on his spotless record as county clerk and touting his administrative experience, Telles avoided the issue of his ethnicity in the campaign. With the help of Richard and the Spanish-language media, he successfully gained the support of small business and religious community organizations and won the Democratic primary. Conservatives, dissatisfied with the result, mounted an unsuccessful write-in challenge in the general election but ultimately failed to defeat Telles. His successful election marked the first time that a Mexican American was elected mayor of a major American city. Telles was successful in his position, and he was easily re-elected in 1959.
His electoral success sparked hopes that eventually Telles would challenge for higher offices, especially El Paso’s congressional seat. A firm supporter of John F. Kennedy, Telles joined New Mexico Senator Dennis Chavez in promoting Kennedy’s candidacy among Mexican American voters. Soon after Kennedy was elected president, he decided to reward Telles by offering him the post of ambassador to Costa Rica in 1961. While a great honor, Telles was not enthusiastic about the offer. His re-election for a third term as mayor of El Paso placed him in a very good position to make a successful run at El Paso’s federal congressional seat. Accepting the ambassadorship would blunt his momentum in climbing the ladder of local politics and likely end his electoral career. Telles surmised that members of the Democratic conservative faction were behind this maneuver in an effort to get rid of him, and it took considerable strong-arming by Vice President Lyndon Johnson to convince Telles to accept the post. Telles served as ambassador to Costa Rica from 1961 to 1967. He continued to serve in Costa Rica until President Johnson appointed him to head the U.S.–Mexico Border Commission in 1967. Telles left that post in 1969 and returned to El Paso, ready to challenge the incumbent congressman, Richard C. White, for his seat.
Unfortunately, Telles was not successful in regaining his career in electoral politics. His long absence from the city had dimmed memory of his accomplishments, and the electoral machine his brother had built in the 1950s was no longer capable of obtaining the same results in a city which had grown considerably in the intervening years. In addition he had lost touch with a new generation of Chicano activists, who viewed a figure like Telles as a relic of a different time. He lost handily to White in the primary elections, and Telles returned to Washington when President Richard Nixon offered him a position on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1971. President Gerald Ford subsequently reappointed him to that position, and he served until 1976. Upon Jimmy Carter’s election to the presidency, Telles was appointed as the head of the Inter-American Development Bank in El Salvador.
Upon the presidential election of Ronald Reagan, Telles retired from public office, returned to El Paso, and entered the private sector as senior vice president of the International Division of the El Paso firm First Financial Enterprises in 1982. Although rumors over the next decade persisted that Telles would once again run for elected office, he remained retired from public service. He eventually moved to Los Angeles to be close to one of his daughters. He passed away at the age of ninety-seven on March 8, 2013, in Sherman Oaks, California. A funeral Mass was held at San Ignacio Catholic Church in El Paso, and he was buried in Evergreen Cemetery in that city. Telles represents a generation of post-World War II Tejano leaders like Henry B. Gonzalez and Hector P. Garcia that opened the doors to wider Mexican American participation and representation in Texas politics. In addition, they were the moderate precursor to the more radical Chicano movements of the 1960s and 1970s.