Coming Into Her Own : Cynthia Ann Telles inherited a zeal for public service. Now she’s emerging as a Latino voice in L.A.
It’s just a typical meeting at the Los Angeles City ethics commission:
Beleaguered bureaucrats loudly plead their cases, begging to rehire former employees who have retired, or arguing--loudly--that such employees have been tainted by post-retirement work and should never be hired again.
Street people show up to voice their opinions--very loudly.
The “regulars,” men and women who seem to regard the meetings as among the best shows in town, pipe in to gripe--even more loudly--about their city’s ethical ills.
It’s chaos, in short. And through it all, the lone portrait of serenity is Cynthia Ann Telles, the UCLA psychiatry professor who serves as the commission’s vice president.
When even the most obtuse proposal is presented, Telles maintains an expression of interest. With exquisitely manicured hands, she takes copious notes. She follows tedious reports and regulations, line for line. She asks probing, analytical questions.
About the most unflattering thing that anyone around City Hall seems ready to say about Telles is that the beeper strapped to her designer handbag has an annoying habit of going off all the time.
“She’s the only one who gets interrupted with her beeper,” says USC journalism professor Edwin Guthman, another commission member.
“Constantly,” notes fellow commissioner Treesa Way Drury, a senior citizen advocate.
Quietly, and with a firm sense of purpose, 39-year-old Telles is emerging as one of the most influential Latinas in Los Angeles. As head of the Spanish-Speaking Psychosocial Program, a mental health clinic at UCLA that is seen as a national model for programs of its kind, she is a forceful spokeswoman for what she calls the city’s “marginalized” population of Latin American immigrants.
“She is in the unusual position of having an advocacy base as well as an academic base,” says former Ethics Commissioner Alice Walker Duff. “She is definitely rooted in the Latino community and views issues from the perspective of how that population will be impacted.”
At the clinic, Telles’ colleagues say the practicing psychologist battles single-handedly, and on an almost daily basis, to protect a facility that generates more controversy than income for the budget-conscious university.
“Cynthia just believes that nothing like this is being done, so let’s do something,” says Dr. George Paz, a psychiatrist who, like Telles, counsels largely impoverished Latino immigrants who may be suffering from serious mental illness, post-traumatic stress syndrome or difficulties in acculturation. “Without Cynthia, there would be no clinic.”
Increasingly, Telles is a presence at Latino political functions as well. She was considered for the position of deputy mayor of Los Angeles and recently turned down an invitation to run for the congressional seat of retiring Rep. Edward R. Roybal (D-Los Angeles).
Along with her post on the ethics commission, Telles chairs a new county task force on the incarcerated mentally ill. Her best friend, County Supervisor Gloria Molina, predicts that with her analytical abilities and her unshakable calmness, Telles will surface as a “major policy maker.”
Not that this should come as much of a surprise from a woman whom friends describe as having been “breast-fed on politics.”
Telles herself is the first to acknowledge that political acumen may run in her family. Her father, Raymond L. Telles, was born into poverty in the barrio of south El Paso--but went on in 1957 to become the first Latino to be elected mayor of his hometown or any other large American city.
In 1961, Raymond Telles won an even bigger political prize when President John F. Kennedy named him ambassador to Costa Rica--the first Latino to hold such a high diplomatic post. Rebuffing entreaties to run for Congress, Raymond Telles later became President Richard M. Nixon’s head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, one of only a handful of Democrats to serve in the Republican Administration.
“My father has a real sense of passion for what he believes in,” his daughter says now. “His election was revolutionary at a time of extreme, blatant racism aimed at Mexican-Americans.”
But Cynthia Telles is equally inclined to trace her zeal for public service to her maternal great-grandmother, Santos Elizondo. Telles says she was raised on tales of how Elizondo, who died shortly before Cynthia’s birth, ran an orphanage in the barrio; how she set up a home for abused women and children, and how she took in destitute people and the homeless. During the Mexican Civil War, Telles was told, Pancho Villa would order temporary cease-fires so that Elizondo, a nurse and midwife, could enter the battle zone to minister to the wounded.
Elizondo’s daughter carried on the tradition of helping in the Latino community. As a girl, Telles remembers going with her grandmother to work in the orphanage.
“These were incredible women,” Telles says. “And they left a very important legacy in my family.”
But Telles says her life’s path was even more affected by a life-threatening illness in childhood. She was just 10 years old and living in Costa Rica when a mosquito infected her with viral encephalitis. Doctors in New Orleans, where she was rushed for treatment, told her parents she would almost certainly die. If she did survive, they warned, she would probably be brain-damaged, paralyzed--or both.
Her recovery amazed her doctors, who discharged the child with the admonition that she would never return to school.
From her wheelchair, Telles remembers watching the elevator doors shut on the physicians who had cared for her.
“Oh, yes, I will,” she says she called out.
The experience was formative, Telles believes, because “it gave me a better appreciation of what it is like to struggle, to be marginalized, to be on the outside. At the same time, it gave me an appreciation for the support of others.”
By the time she was 12, Telles was volunteering at a hospital in Costa Rica. She was appalled by the “extremes of wealth and poverty” she saw and was determined even then that “I wanted to give something back to the (Latino) community.”
Her mother nurtured her sense of social responsibility but also regarded it as a kind of age phase.
“Don’t worry,” Telles says her mother used to tell her, “you’ll grow out of it.”
These days, Telles thinks that’s unlikely. Rather than spend her days listening to the woes of Angst- ridden yuppies, she remains determined to focus on the have-nots.
“I guess I feel we are all part of a social ecology,” she says. “Whatever actions we take have rippling effects and consequences for those around us. To the extent that there is any member of our society who is experiencing hunger, abuse, poverty or torture--to that extent, we are all affected, and therefore all responsible.”
She says she only intended to stay in Los Angeles for a few months when she came out from Boston to work on her doctoral dissertation 15 years ago. But the city’s large Latino population drew her in, she says.
“Los Angeles offered me the chance to be on the cutting edge of both academic and political opportunities relating to the Latino community,” she explains.
Telles insists that she has no immediate--or even long-term--political agenda. But she does contend that “if you’re at all interested in working with marginalized, disenfranchised groups, you have to become involved in the political process.”
Some Latino leaders say it is only a matter of time before she makes some kind of political move.
“This is a woman who knows politics well,” says an admiring Molina. “To me she represents a certain purity now as an activist, but I think she could offer a lot on any level.”
Henry Lozano, chief of staff to Roybal, says he and his boss were disappointed when Telles declined to throw her hat into the race for Roybal’s seat.
“I think she would have been perfect for the job,” Lozano says. “The public is crying out for non-politicians, and Cynthia is a super lady--very ethical and very sincere.”
For her part, Telles says she chose not to run for office at this time because a campaign would have involved prolonged separation from the main man in her life--her son, 4 1/2-year-old Raymond Jimenez.
One politically active member of the Latino community says she made the right decision, labeling her “rather naive about the rather rough, street-fighting brand of urban politics here in Southern California.”
But Telles says it was a non-decision. The morning the divorced mother was to tell Lozano whether she would consider running, little Raymond crept into her bedroom and told her how much he loved her.
“That was it,” says Telles. “There was just no question.”
Besides, Telles is the first to acknowledge that between motherhood, her job at UCLA, her work on the ethics commission and her chairmanship of the task force on the incarcerated mentally ill, her plate is perfectly balanced--one activity from each basic service group, so to speak.
“I don’t really think it’s too much, because actually, they are all integrated with each other,” she says. “I’m careful to transition from one thing to another so I can contribute my best efforts.”
Still, Telles confesses to certain pressure points. In stiff, academic phraseology she explains that “what has most easily elicited anger in me is when I have had the occasion to observe abusive, exploitative relationships of one kind or another.” She sounds vastly more human as she adds, “That’s what lights my fire, what really gets me going.”
Even faint criticism directed at Telles tends to sound like praise. Ben Bycel, executive director of the ethics commission, says, for example, that her tendency to throw herself into difficult situations is sometimes a problem.
“I think her weak point is that she sometimes worries too much,” Bycel says. “There are times when I want to say, ‘Cynthia, don’t worry about it.’ ”
Still, Bycel lauds Telles’ dedication to underrepresented segments of society.
“There are still people who believe in giving back to the community,” he says. “You could probably fit them into a phone booth. But Cynthia would be one of them.”
Telles is inclined to brush off the admiration that people seem to want to heap on her. Praise means little, she contends, unless it is translated into action. For her, says Telles, that small thought might even sum up what she sees as the thread of her life.
She pauses for a moment to try to capture that philosophy in a single sentence. Finally, she says: “If we can each transform a little piece of the world, even if it is infinitesimal, then we’ve done our part.”
And the calm manner in which she delivers this statement suggests Telles knows she is doing her part.
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