- The Making of a Mexican American Mayor: Raymond Telles of El Paso and the Origins of Latino Political Powerby Mario T. García
Among earlier generations of Chicana/o students and scholars, Raymond L. Telles of El Paso required little introduction. Emerging from the social and political watershed of World War II, Telles became in 1957 the first Mexican American elected to the mayorship of a major southwestern city, and in 1961 he became the first Hispanic chosen to serve as an ambassador to a foreign nation. However, twenty years after the initial release of The Making of a Mexican American Mayor, the field of Chicana/o studies—with its several interdisciplinary subfields and genres—has evolved and expanded to the point where knowledge of Telles and his historic place in the annals of Latina/o politics can no longer be taken for granted. Revised and re-released with a new publisher and a new preface and epilogue, this political biography of Raymond L. Telles provides a timely reminder of the promise, accomplishments, and limitations of Latina/o political power in the twentieth century.
Having devoted the bulk of his prolific academic career to documenting and theorizing Chicana/o political history, author Mario T. García views Telles as emblematic of the “Mexican American political generation,” which was the focus of his influential second book, Mexican Americans: Leadership, Ideology, and Identity, 1930–1960(Yale University Press, 1989). Those familiar with the text will recall Telles and his election to the mayorship of El Paso as the subject of the book’s fifth chapter. In The Making of a Mexican American Mayor, Garcia greatly expands the story. He first explores Telles’s personal background, and then the author relates Telles’s long political career from its start in postwar El Paso as county clerk (1948–1957) and two-term mayor (1957–1961), its apogee as ambassador to Costa Rica for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson (1961–1967), and its culmination in Washington, D.C., as a member of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (1971–1976) and as head of the Inter-American Development Bank under President Carter (1977–1981).
García attributes Telles’s rise to a set of historical circumstances unique to Mexican Americans in postwar El Paso: because Mexican Americans [End Page 131]had historically composed a large portion of the city’s population, they did not experience the blatant racism that existed in other parts of Texas and the Southwest. Without having to battle for basic civil rights first, García asserts, Mexican Americans in El Paso mobilized to achieve the “politics of status” (5), seeking recognition and representation as equals in electoral politics. García argues further that this focus “marked a step forward in the political evolution of Mexican Americans and a further step in achieving social justice” (5).
Throughout the book, García interweaves the politics-of-status thesis with the evolution of Telles’s political career and its broader implications for the politicization of postwar Mexican Americans. García excels in detailing and emphasizing the importance of Telles’s successful mayoral campaign of 1957, which he views as his subject’s seminal political achievement. García also succeeds in exposing the limits of the politics of status, as Telles failed to develop either an enduring political platform or an organizational model that could reproduce and expand his electoral success for other Mexican American politicos. What remains unanswered, however, is whether Telles’s electoral and political success truly signal “the origins of Latino political power,” a claim García makes not only in the book’s title, but also in its introductory and concluding pages when he asserts that Telles paved the way for future Latina/o politicians like San Antonio’s Henry Cisneros, Denver’s Federico Peña, and Los Angeles’s Antonio Villaraigosa. How these figures’ political fortunes connect beyond ethnicity and mere inspiration is not quite clear. Garc...