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Coming Into Her Own : Cynthia Ann Telles inherited a zeal for public service. Now she's emerging as a Latino voice in L.A.

April 13, 1992|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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."

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