QCOSTARICA – San Rafael de Escazú is not the same one that Cynthia Ann Telles knew as a child, 60 years ago. Few traces remain of that village of peasant prints, buried by today’s prevailing modernity. However, the distinctive Catholic temple of the place remains the same and that is why the newly arrived US ambassador could not contain herself when the car that was carrying her passed in front of the church, just getting off the plane to assume her new diplomatic post.
“Could they let us in for a moment?” Dr. Telles asked her entourage. It was a weekday and the church was closed, but someone sought out the local priest to tell him that the one asking for her favor was the new American ambassador, but more than that, she was an old parishioner. The priest agreed and the head of the representation in Costa Rica of the most powerful country in the world prayed immersed in the memories forged in those pews more than half a century ago, when she attended mass there hand in hand with her parents.
For Cynthia Telles, Costa Rica is just that: a constant reminder of the girl she once was.
The ambassador that Joe Biden sent to represent him in our country speaks Spanish not only fluently, but with a distinctive Tico accent. She unconsciously drags the r and when she finishes telling an anecdote with a “what a joy!” She sounds more like a warm conversation over coffee in San José than a political huddle in Washington.
All of this is explained by the fact that Telles arrived on Tico soil for the first time as an 8-year-old girl, following, like her entire family, Raymond Telles, the first US ambassador of Latin origin and who between 1961 and 1967 held the same diplomatic post as almost six decades later his daughter would take over.
It was in these parts where that little girl would forge a vocation for service that would later lead her to be one of the main promoters of mental health among the Latino migrant population in the United States, after overcoming an illness that she acquired in Costa Rica and that almost killed her. life costs. But we will get to that later, because the story of this woman was written calmly and without regrets.
Sitting in the hall of the residence of the US embassy, in San Rafael de Escazú, Cynthia Telles gave her first interview with the Costa Rican press for the Dominical Magazine last week, shortly after presenting credentials to President Carlos Alvarado. The days since she arrived (she returned) to Costa Rica have been intense, not only typical of someone who must move to another country, but also changes jobs.
She offers us, not a coffee, but “a coffee”, while she sits next to a small table crowned by the flower arrangement that her former schoolmates surprised her with. I ask her if she’s aware of how hopelessly Tico that sounds and she laughs heartily as she nods. “An American ambassador with a Tico accent,” she is quick to describe herself.
And it is that although her family is of Mexican origin and some Spanish was spoken in her house, for all intents and purposes the formative years of the new ambassador took place in Costa Rica. She arrived here when she was 8 years old and she left when she was 15, studying a good part of primary and secondary school in Costa Rican classrooms, learning from Costa Rican teachers and sharing tasks and games with local students.
Telles came from El Paso, Texas. It was in that border city that Raymond began to enter the pages of history, becoming, in 1957, the first mayor of Hispanic origin in a large American city (“that was like a revolution,” recalls his daughter). Later, at the request of his good friend, President John F. Kennedy, Telles agreed to serve as his ambassador to Costa Rica and with him came his wife Delfina and his two daughters: Cynthia and Patricia.
At first, the Texan mayor did not want to join the diplomatic corps, as he felt that he still had a lot to do in El Paso. “Ah, no, Raymond, that would be selfish,” Kennedy told him, in the words of Dona Cynthia. “You are going to be the first ambassador of Latino descent in the history of this country. You are going to open the way for others”, added the charismatic ruler and the rest is history.
The family moved to San José in 1961 and Cynthia immediately enrolled in a private school but not the one she had expected. “When we arrived, my dad told us: ‘Here the Americans go to Lincoln, but we didn’t come here to talk to other Americans, but to meet the Tico people, so you go to Costa Rican schools.’ I started in El Sión, there I learned Spanish; then I went to Angloamericana and finally to Saint Clare”.
The Telles soon gained confidence and felt at ease in that small Central American country where everyone treated them well. “I was very impressed by the people of Costa Rica, they were all very friendly, and to this day I have friends who have been with me for a lifetime (…). Over the years, when I came back here I realized how different Costa Rica is from many other countries. It is a country that is committed to democracy, to human rights, to the humane treatment of people… that is not seen everywhere”, explains the ambassador.
Memories of that colorful childhood for Cynthia Telles include trips to Puntarenas (“we stayed at Hotel Tioga”), train trips to Limón, going to mass on Sundays and then to soccer games. “We used to go to San Rafael de Escazú, to the little church nearby, and my father, being the ambassador of the United States, when he realized that the poor father did not have an altar boy, many times he offered himself, knelt down, brought him the hosts and all the thing”, says the doctor in clinical psychology, again without noticing her way of speaking ethically.
For her, the relationship with Costa Rica is a two-way highway.
The Kennedy Times
For all reasons, the March 1963 visit of President John F. Kennedy to Costa Rica is inscribed on a special page in the country’s memory. As that historic event unfolded, Cynthia Telles, then 10, had a front row seat.
The current ambassador says that her father was essential for the US president to make the trip. “My dad had a lot to do with it. Since they were such friends, he told President Kennedy: ‘It is very important that you visit Costa Rica. They have to see that we support them, that we are friends.
However, Kennedy’s advisers and advisers tried to talk him out of the plan. It was there that Telles’ negotiating skills were put to the test, as the president told the ambassador that only if he managed to summon the other Central American leaders to meet with him in San José would the visit be possible. “My dad set up the summit in one day and there, yes, Kennedy told him that he was going to go, even if they didn’t let him.”
Despite the fact that Delfina, her mother, had asked her not to expose herself, little Cynthia could not resist her curiosity and opened wide the doors of the residence to see the landing in the gardens of the helicopter that brought the president, who was guest of the Telles family for three days. Of the curiosities typical of such a famous visit, the ambassador recalls that from Washington they were sent the rocking chair that Kennedy used, as well as that a special set of mahogany furniture for the bedroom was made here, given that the president suffered from a back problem that required a certain type of bed.
Many of the Costa Ricans of the time remember the crowds that gathered to see JFK at his various public events, whether on Paseo Colón, the Metropolitan Cathedral or at the University of Costa Rica. These places were suggestions from his friend Raymond, who insisted on emphasizing the symbolic value of these sites, even despite the warnings of the president’s security officials, who feared the possibility of an attack. According to his daughter, at the end of the public acts, the president and the ambassador boarded the helicopter and Telles sighed in relief, causing Kennedy to laugh and joke.
Neither of the two friends had any way of anticipating that this would be one of their last days together. Eight months later, on a sunny day, Kennedy would be assassinated in Dallas, Texas.
Welcome to life
The experiences of the current ambassador in Costa Rica during her childhood were, for the most part, positive. However, the mosquito bite that she suffered on Tico soil triggered a series of events that were as unexpected as they were decisive in her future.
At age 10, Telles became ill from the mosquito, and from the resulting viral infection she developed encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain. Her parents transferred her to a hospital in New Orleans, where the medical prognosis was pessimistic.
The girl fell into a coma. Ambassador Telles was told by doctors that her daughter had perhaps three days to live and that, in the unlikely event that she survived, she could be expected to suffer paralysis or brain damage. However, to the surprise of the specialists and the relief of her family, Cynthia not only woke up, but she soon made a miraculous recovery. After a month of hospitalization, she was discharged and she was able to return to Costa Rica, where it took her about a year to return to full health. However, something had changed in her.
“Mine was a miracle and I am very grateful to God. She was 12 years old and needed to do something to help others, so when I returned to Costa Rica I volunteered at the Children’s Hospital. She worked with the children, especially the little ones, with whom they had more severe problems. That was very important because it began to outline what my life is, my trajectory of public service with the Latino community.”
When Ambassador Telles finished his mission in Costa Rica in February 1967, the family returned to the United States. Politics continued to appeal to Raymond, who would go on to collaborate with Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon from different appointments. Her daughter, meanwhile, finished high school and, continuing on the path of service to the community that her life among the Ticos had marked, she received her bachelor’s degree from Smith College and a doctorate in Clinical Psychology from Boston University. .
The current ambassador settled in California at the end of the 1970s, where she became a powerful voice among the Latino community in Los Angeles. There she was a clinical professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and she served on the Executive Committee of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA. She was also the founding director of the UCLA Hispanic Neuropsychiatric Center of Excellence. In addition, she was a member of the board of directors of the Pacific Council on International Policy for more than a decade and, most recently, she was appointed by the mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti, as president of the Los Angeles-Mexico Commission.
Precisely, the care of the Latin American migrant population in the United States became a life mission for Telles, with special emphasis on mental health issues. “At that time there were only three licensed clinical psychologists who spoke Spanish in the entire country. We had to create more opportunities for more mental health professionals and that is why I decided that we were going to found a clinic for migrants.”
Dr. Telles explains that in Latino communities it is common for people to seek emotional support within their families or even in the church, without considering professional care options. “We had to adapt the traditional care model to make it more attractive to migrants, provide services in Spanish, take into account culture and fear. The migrants who arrive there, almost all of them have suffered a lot, not only in their country of origin. They had to migrate, either due to lack of work, insecurity, oppression, and they leave Latin America with trauma. On the way to the United States it is worse because of everything they have to go through and, upon arrival, they come across an environment in which they do not speak the language, they do not know the culture and there is discrimination; they suffer a lot.
“Migrants feel vulnerable but also wanting to work, to get ahead, to send money to their families in their countries of origin. For me they are heroes and that is why we adapted the model to serve them in the way they need”.
Although politics has been a fundamental part of the lives of the Telles, Doña Cynthia never took away her dream of reaching a popularly elected position. However, her recognition within the Hispanic community of Los Angeles, her leadership and philanthropy did not go unnoticed, so in 1992 she was offered the opportunity to run for US Congress. However, she declined her offer, both because of her many professional projects as well as taking care of Raymond, her son whom she named after her father.
However, in 2016, an administration arrived at the White House with whose policies Dr. Telles could not agree. And she decided to get involved for a change.
“I was very concerned that our country was going down a path of problems; Latinos were being oppressed, especially poor people.”
She already knew Joe Biden from his years as vice president and did not hesitate to support him from the start in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. As the campaign progressed and Biden secured his party’s candidacy, Telles shared countless conversations with the future president, whether it was proselytizing in different cities in the United States, seeking financial support among the Californian Latino community, or eating tamales in East Los Angeles.
Finally, after the victory of her candidate in the national elections, Telles was satisfied and went back to her business. However, she had been part of a particular alignment of factors that led her, unintentionally, back to Costa Rica.
A call from the White House changed everything. Was Cynthia A. Telles interested in being part of the government? Was there a position that caught her attention? At first, her answer was no, that with having helped change the course of the country she was satisfied, but again they called her to ask her about the possibility of serving as an ambassador and it was her son who finally convinced her.
“My son was with me, visiting, and he told me: ‘Mom, you are always thinking of other people, you never ask for anything and you are fascinated by Costa Rica.” And so, with her husband’s support as well, Telles finally replied to Washington saying that she would be interested in serving in the same diplomatic post that her father had held. It didn’t take long for Biden to nominate her to head the US embassy in Costa Rica.
And so, once again, the Telles surname returned to the “American” embassy.
Since she was confirmed by the Senate, the life of Dr. Telles places her again as a resident of Costa Rica, six decades after her. She still hasn’t had the chance to attend to all the old friends she left here, but there will be time to do so. As for keeping up to date with the affairs of the country, she did not have to make much of an effort, because she never severed the link with this land: in her identity as a multicultural person there is a good share of Costa Rican.
The ambassador is clear about the close relationship between the United States and Costa Rica on issues of security, the fight against drug trafficking and migration. For this reason, she now hopes to influence the attraction of American investments and the economic development of the country: “I want to do everything possible to support so many unemployed people, marginalized by the impact of the pandemic. See what we can do. I already spoke with President Alvarado specifically about that, to bring business, attract investment.”
At the end of our talk, Cynthia Telles walks us to the door of the residence. She tells us that another of her aspirations is to arrange a visit to Costa Rica for her friend, President Biden. Does the story sound familiar to you?