A First For Latinos: Remembering Raymond Telles

The late Raymond Telles may not be a household name, but he was a trailblazer for Latinos in politics; he was the first Latino elected mayor of El Paso, Texas and later became a U.S. Ambassador to Costa Rica. Host Michel Martin looks back on Ambassador Telles' life with former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Henry Cisneros.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, living on the streets or in a homeless shelter is not easy for anybody, but think about living that way as a 50-year-old or a 60-year-old. We'll talk with a man who knows about that firsthand and we'll talk with a reporter who's been trying to understand why more homeless people are older these days. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, we would like to take some time to remember a man who was a trailblazer for Latinos in American politics. Raymond Telles is being remembered as a close friend and advisor to American presidents. He was appointed U.S. Ambassador to Costa Rica by President John F. Kennedy and he went on to serve under Presidents Johnson and Nixon as well in various capacities. Before that, he was the first Mexican-American mayor of El Paso, Texas and he's credited with opening doors in politics to Latinos, both in the Southwest and the rest of the country.

He died last week at the age of 97. We wanted to learn more about Ambassador Telles, his life and his legacy, so we've called upon Henry Cisneros. From 1981 to 1989, he was the mayor of another Texas city, San Antonio. He also served as the secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Clinton Administration and he's with us now.

Thank you so much for joining us once again.

HENRY CISNEROS: Michel, thank you very much and thank you for your pronunciation of Cisneros and Telles. You do very well.

MARTIN: Well, thank you. I do my best. Ambassador Telles' public life is long past us, so many people will not have had a firsthand kind of relationship or knowledge of him. What do you think is most important about his legacy?

CISNEROS: Well, I think the nobility with which he carried himself, the professionalism, seriousness with which he addressed his jobs, and as a result he created a standard that younger Latinos were able to see and follow and that senior American political figures, presidents, for example, took as an indication of what the Latino community could bring and offer.

So if you have to have someone go through the door first, you want someone who carries themselves with that level of professionalism and dignity at every step of their life.

MARTIN: Did he see himself as a mentor to the rising stars who came behind him?

CISNEROS: I'm sure he recognized the significance of his example, but mostly he was just dedicated to doing a good job. I remember when he was elected mayor of El Paso and it was viewed as a breakthrough in Latino politics, and then when the president named him ambassador to an important Latin American setting in Costa Rica, that too was viewed as something that Latinos could aspire to.

This is, you have to remember, at a time when there were few people among the Latinos who were educated, who were viewed as professional, who could take on the mayorship of a city or be named by the president to a major ambassadorship, so he may - I'm sure he understood the example he was setting, but most importantly he was dedicating himself to doing a good and serious job.

Over the years, when I became mayor in 1981 of San Antonio, the national press talked about the first Latino mayor of a major American city, but the truth of the matter is I knew and Latinos knew that Mayor Telles had come before.

MARTIN: Did he - how can I put this? Sometimes being first isn't that fun. You have to answer a lot of dumb questions about, you know, things that you think you shouldn't have to explain.

CISNEROS: Yeah.

MARTIN: You know, and I just wondered if you feel that that first-ness ever weighed upon him.

CISNEROS: Well, you know, as I say, this goes back to the previous answer. My guess is he wasn't so obsessed about being first as he was being the best that he could be. First is a kind of an accident of chronology, but being the best that you can be is something you can take mastery of, and he did that. He did a very good job as mayor, acquitted himself well and in an honest and clean way, so that then he was material for future office, and indeed he held positions not only as an ambassador, but also head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

I remember that era in the '60s when all was hopeful. President Kennedy, President Johnson - and to see on their team someone like Raymond Telles was an inspiring thing. There were very few Latinos, as I said a moment ago, who were in position to be named to those high offices. When you saw them there, you wanted to see someone who really kind of embodied dignity, and Raymond Telles did that very well.

MARTIN: Very briefly before we let you go, we are in an era now where we talk a lot about the rise to prominence of Latino politicians like Florida Senator Marco Rubio, the current mayor of San Antonia, Julian Castro. I just wondered if there are any lessons you think this new generation could learn from the example of Raymond Telles.

CISNEROS: Yeah. I think there are. I think one of the most important lessons would be to address the positions seriously and on the merits. Do a good job with what you have in front of you. Worry less about the next steps. They'll take care of themselves if you do a good job today.

In an era when there is a temptation to treat politics almost like a circus, like a sideshow, treat it seriously, with dignity. It's a good model and it will serve us well over the long run. I think we've seen that in President Obama's rise, for example. An intelligent, serious, dedicated person always does better than somebody who's caught up in the sideshow aspects of politics.

MARTIN: OK. We need to leave it there for now. Henry Cisneros was the mayor of San Antonio, Texas from 1981 to 1989. He also served as secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the administration of President Bill Clinton.

Henry Cisneros, thank you so much for speaking with us again.

CISNEROS: Thank you, Michel, for having me.

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