When it comes to leadership and giving back to her community, there is not much that Teresa Martinez has not done. Arriving in Polk County in the early 1970s as an exile from the oppressive communist regime in Cuba, Teresa has made her mark on our county in numerous ways. After twelve years as a language teacher with the public school system, she founded the Institute of Spanish Communication, Inc. (ISC) in 1989. ICS is currently the publisher of the ¡Viva Polk! Magazine, the only print Spanish Media published and distributed throughout the county. She is the author of “Success in Exile – Five Decades of Cuban Stories”, a bilingual short story book about the lives of 25 Cuban families and their struggles to flee the island.
Teresa is the producer and host of “Hablemos” (Let’s Talk) on WQXM RITMO 99.9 FM and 1460 AM. She is also one of the Founders and Directors of Lakeland Institute for Learning, a school dedicated to Special Needs students that opened its doors in July 2015. Since 2009, she has served on the Polk State College District Board of Trustees. Teresa is also a graduate of Leadership Lakeland and Leadership Polk. She serves on the Polk Vision Board of Directors, Hispanic Club of Lakeland Board of Directors and AdventHealth Community Advisory Council Board. She has also served on the boards of the Lakeland Chamber of Commerce, Central Florida Speech and Hearing Center and Heart of Florida Hospital.
Her passion to motivate people to make their dreams come true has propelled her to become a well-known motivational speaker and one of the most distinguished Latinas in our community. In 2006, the Board of Polk County Commissioners proclaimed the 6th of June as “Teresa Martínez Day.” The Governor of Florida also honored her with the “Point of Light Award” and she was recently recognized as a Lakeland City Maker.
I had the privilege of sitting down with Teresa to talk about her perspective on leadership and many ways she has inspired, empowered and motivated others to grow where they are planted.
What are the most notable life and work experiences that have shaped and influenced you as a leader?
My memories of my early childhood in Cuba are lovely – days at the beach, family gatherings, and all the comforts provided to me as the daughter of a beloved pediatrician. These memories contrast sharply to the life we experienced immediately after the Cuban Revolution. Watching the businesses and professions that my father and other relatives had worked so hard to establish snatched away by men with machine guns are seared into my memories. In a matter of months, all private property was seized, our private schools were closed, and we lost our freedom of speech in which expressing an opinion against the new regime could send an individual to jail or to be executed. A mass exodus of educated professionals, known as the Cuban Brain Drain, began. My father desperately wanted to flee the island but was hesitant to leave without his parents and our extended family. By the time we presented our request to leave Cuba, there was a shortage of medical doctors that required him to stay. We waited eight years not knowing exactly when we would receive notice that we could exile, but we knew that when that notice came, we would have to leave everything behind and would only have a couple of days to say goodbye to friends and family we may never see again. We lived in terror until March of 1970, when we arrived in Miami each with a change of clothing, perseverance, faith in God and my parents’ education – the things that Castro’s government nor anyone could take away from us.
I was fifteen when we came to the United States and, coming from my life in Cuba, the adjustment to life without the childhood comforts I was used to was a bit of a shock. I realized then that anything I wanted in this new country, I was going to have to work for, and I have not stopped working since. Watching my father study day and night so that he could be licensed as a physician in the US, which required both re-learning material from medical school and preparing to take the exam in English, taught me the importance of resilience and belief in yourself. I knew that there was only one way to rebuild the life we had in Cuba and that was with hard work and determination.
In what ways do you most want to contribute to Polk County’s future?
I believe I owe debt to Polk County. We arrived in Polk County in the early 1970s when my father secured an internship at Bartow General Hospital. At that time, there were very few Hispanics in this part of the state. We could have been completely isolated, but people opened their homes and their hearts to us. I will never forget the kindness of our landlord who found me on the steps of our duplex crying inconsolably. When she asked me why, I responded that I was “stupid” and showed her the “F” on my recent test as “proof”. She was a retired teacher and pointed out that my real trouble was not my intelligence but the fact that English was my new language. Starting that night, she tutored me every day until I was caught up and eventually excelling in all my classes. I call her my American mother. The kindness she and countless others showed me during my early days in Polk County have instilled in me a deep sense of connection and responsibility to this place.
Education is key for people to make progress and move their lives forward. My role as a member of the District Board of Trustees for Polk State College allows me to help ensure that higher education is available to students from all backgrounds and life experiences. Currently, I am pursuing the goal of Polk State earning the national designation as a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI). This title is given to degree-granting institutions that can demonstrate that 25% of the student population is Hispanic. HSI designation provides access to a new pool of federal scholarships, grants, and administrative funding that will allow Polk State to serve all students in new and enhanced ways.
What is the biggest mistake you see women leaders make and how can they avoid it or recover from it?
Women entering new careers or progressing in their current career often lack confidence. When transitioning from caring for their home and families to the business world they often undervalue their skills and their contributions. Women who want to progress in their careers often feel guilt that they aren’t spending more time at home. I believe both situations require that women recognize their worth, have pride in their accomplishments, and let go of guilt. We need to be confident in what we can bring to any leadership opportunity, regardless of the path we took to arrive at that opportunity.
Ten years from now, what do you most want to be remembered for?
In 10 years, I want those who know me to remember that I worked diligently to make our community a better place. Polk County made my American Dream a reality and I am dedicated to ensuring that everyone who makes this community their home has access to life-transforming opportunities as my family did.
Any final words of wisdom that you’d like to share?
People should be proud of their roots and culture. At the same time, life has become global. I advise tomorrow’s leaders to realize that we are all equals – we are individuals who happened to be born on different parts of the earth, but who are all citizens of the world. As leaders, we must grow where we are planted – or transplanted. Regardless of our backgrounds or life experiences, we must work hard and be resilient to ensure that what we are cultivating flourishes. Dedication and strength of character determine our success, not our circumstances.