U.S. ambassador to Costa Rica follows in her father’s footsteps

Man reading to young girl (U.S. Embassy San José)
Raymond Telles, the U.S. ambassador to Costa Rica, reads to his daughter, Cynthia, in December 1964. (U.S. Embassy San José)

Decades after a childhood in Costa Rica, Cynthia Telles has returned to San José to represent the United States as its ambassador.

Just a few months into her new assignment, Telles is collaborating with Costa Rica on addressing the climate crisis, combating transnational criminal organizations and investigating the root causes that push people to migrate.

The ambassadorship is especially meaningful to her because she follows in the footsteps of her late father, Raymond L. Telles.

Family standing with John F. Kennedy (Courtesy of Cynthia Telles)
Cynthia Telles, far left, and her family pose for a photo with then-President Kennedy, center, in Costa Rica in 1963. Kennedy appointed Cynthia’s father, Raymond L. Telles, far right, as U.S. ambassador to Costa Rica in 1961. (Courtesy of Cynthia Telles)

From 1961 to 1967, Raymond Telles served as the U.S. ambassador to Costa Rica under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. A Mexican American, Raymond Telles was the first Hispanic to be appointed as a U.S. ambassador for the United States.

He brought his family, including Cynthia, age 8, to Costa Rica when he began his service there.

In his work, he not only rubbed elbows with the elite — President Kennedy visited Costa Rica in 1963 at his urging — but he also met with marginalized people all over the country. Cynthia Telles remembers that her father tried to draw out the best in people. “He would just make a point to reach out to people from all walks of life, and he had a special touch,” she said.

She says her father befriended a homeless woman who often spent time near the embassy. When the Telles family was ready to leave Costa Rica, the woman showed up at the airport with a handful of violets to say goodbye.

Her father’s other ways of serving the U.S. also left an indelible imprint on the current ambassador.

Raymond Telles had been the first Hispanic mayor of a major U.S. city — El Paso, Texas — before his diplomatic work. And before that, he had served in the U.S. Air Force, reaching the rank of colonel and earning the Bronze Star for Korean War service. He would become a military aide for Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. “He had a devotion to service,” Cynthia Telles says, and “was an absolute patriot.”

Recently, Ambassador Telles has enjoyed running into Costa Ricans who remember her father.

Adrian and Luis Mora, the sons of her father’s chauffeur, Luis Paulino Mora, both work at the embassy today. They talk of Raymond Telles sending them Christmas cards for years after he left Costa Rica. Their own father is 86 now and reportedly was happy and surprised when he learned Cynthia Telles, whom he drove to school as a little girl, is now U.S. ambassador to Costa Rica.

“You can’t imagine the face of my father,” Adrian Mora says about the day he told him who the new ambassador is at the U.S. Embassy.

Cynthia Telles is serving the most diverse administration ever. Of the 133 confirmed U.S. ambassadors, 51 are women.

Cynthia Telles holding a microphone speaking with two men standing behind her (© Adam Bialik Photography)
Cynthia Telles speaks in Los Angeles in May 2019. Behind her are Joe Biden and her husband, Joe Waz. (© Adam Bialik Photography)

Despite her father’s reputation, Telles says she does not feel too much pressure. “I would never even come to his heel,” she says. “I am simply here to try to extend his legacy and to build on it and, of course, to follow the direction of President Biden and what he wants accomplished in Costa Rica.”