Teresa Martinez: Bridging the Diversity Divide
By Donna Kelly
The warmth of Teresa Martinez’s smile reaches around the globe, fostering goodwill and understanding between people of differing ages, backgrounds and cultures. A teacher at heart, the world is not her stage, but a classroom in which she shares ideas about life and how to make the most of it.
At 59, Martinez is celebrating the 25th anniversary of her business, the Institute of Spanish Communication; a start of a new motivational book for Hispanic women; and an additional focus on assimilation of immigrants into the community by providing accent reduction courses through employers.
Over the years, Martinez, a native of Cuba, has been honored for her excellence in teaching, business, and community service, as well as featured in numerous magazine and newspaper articles. The accolades are well-deserved, says Eileen Holden, president of Polk State College. Martinez has served on the PSC District Board of Trustees since 2009.
“She’s a strong ambassador for education in our community,” says Holden. “The one thing that never wavers is her positive attitude. She really does want to help people improve the quality of their lives through education.” Martinez has, says Holden, a unique ability to draw out the best in other people.
And she knows no boundaries of age, socio-economic background, race, or education. She’s worked with penniless families in need, corporate executives, students of all ages, and a host of community service organizations.
“She is a teacher at heart,” says Holden. “I’ve seen her talking to high school students visiting from Spain and she has them laughing and joking, as well as helping businesses, small business owners, and entrepreneurs achieve and succeed in our community.”
Lessons From an Early Age
Martinez was just 15 when she fled from Cuba to Miami with her parents, Dr. Luis J. Vazquez and Maria Teresa Garcia Vazquez, and her younger sister, Lourdes Vazquez. She was old enough to see and increasingly understand the oppression of Communism – not only the confiscation of property, but the loss of freedom to speak their minds, to work, to live the life they’d always known.
Immigration wasn’t easy. They’d left family members behind in Cuba and not only had to meet new friends, but learn a new language and find jobs, too. Her physician father became a medical assistant while he studied for his state board exams and her mother took a job in a garment factory.
A year later the family moved to Bartow. Smart and articulate, the teenage Martinez felt ignorant and backwards as she struggled to learn English and keep up with her classmates at Bartow High School. She credits retired physical education teacher, Mary Jane Driesler, with getting her on the right track.
“She was my mentor when I arrived in Bartow in 1971. When I came from Cuba, I told her I was stupid because I wasn’t getting good grades,” Martinez explains. “She’d tutor me every day. She’s my American mom… I call her “Momma Jane.”
Martinez became active in high school and spent time at the local hang out: McDonalds, where she met her husband, Carlos. They’ve been married 39 years and have daughters, Lizette Martinez Candela and Alexis Martinez Puleio, both of Naples, and three grandchildren.
Serving as a role model for others isn’t new for “Terry,” as her friends call her. She’s been mentoring others since serving as a role model for her younger sister, Lourdes Vazquez, as kids. Vazquez, an account executive for Christian Dior Perfume, lives in Weeki Wachee.
“Terry’s brilliant in so many ways. She’s a beacon of light,” says Vazquez, who describes her sister as both compassionate and tenacious. “She has this magnetism, happiness, positiveness that I’ve never found in any individual. She has been my role model all my life. I have such respect for her because she does not compromise her values and she really sets an example for others.”
Vazquez isn’t surprised at the number of awards – from the International Trade Association of Polk County’s 1997 International Individual of the Year to the Governor’s Point of Light Award and the Polk Community College Alumnus of Distinction in 2006 – her sister has racked up over the years. Nor is she shocked at the number of people who credit Martinez with changing their lives.
“She’s done that all her life. Even when I was younger, even in Cuba, she was the one people would go to for answers,” Vazquez said. “People have always recognized she has insight, a global wisdom. She has the ability to see the forest through the trees.”
The World is her Classroom
After earning her bachelors of arts degree from the University of Central Florida, Martinez taught Spanish and English as a second language at Lakeland High School from 1984 to 1995, but her circle of influence extended far beyond the school grounds.
Not long after she began teaching high school, Martinez began receiving calls from businesses needing a translator or interpreter. A big break came when a representative from Marriott called to request her help as the company made plans to open a hotel in Spain.
“After that, word of mouth got around and others called,” says Martinez. “I realized there was a market.” This led to a travel coordinator and interpreter position with the Miss Universe Organization, which in turn opened the door to work on website development with The Vatican.
“With the exposure, growth happened very fast. I loved it. I taught for these companies after class during the week,” she says. “I was very lucky to teach for very important companies.” Soon she was spending her days in the classroom with high school students and the evenings and summers with corporate clients, as varied as GEICO, Estee Lauder, IMC Corporation, and Lakeland Regional Medical Center.
“I was always doing a lot of projects in Spanish,” says Martinez. “Former students became attorneys and began calling me for translation and interpretation.” She discovered another way to teach as she watched a group of foreign exchange students tour a Florida theme park in 1992. The interaction of the students with the group leader and other park visitors enthralled her. “I said, ‘I want to do this.’”
The opportunity came later that year, when Patty Murrell, then coordinator of languages for the Polk County School Board, asked Martinez to help her recruit families to host 40 exchange students. By the end of the day, she’d signed on 13 families and was appointed coordinator of the program.
“I owe a lot of what I am to Patty Murrell,” Martinez says. Murrell died in June.
Martinez spent two years as coordinator of the program. “It wasn’t easy,” she says of getting to know the teens. But they connected so well that she was not only invited to visit their homes in Spain, but their families sent her a plane ticket.
She’s been exposing Spanish youth to Central Florida ever since, although these days the group is smaller and they visit for one month each July.
Martinez says these experiences are as beneficial to the host families as to the visiting students.
“For families hosting these children, it’s an opportunity to bring another culture into the home. It gives your child a chance to experience a completely different point of view,” she says. Martinez uses her connections in the community to expose the visiting youth to cultural experiences, educational opportunities, entertainment venues, and other experiences.
Alberto Bonfil, a financial advisor with Edward Jones, knows well the impact Martinez has on people, particularly the students she hosts each year. He came to Polk County with a group of students from Spain in the 1990s.
“I came here as a 19-year-old kid with no level of English whatsoever and a high level of tennis. From that point, we had to figure out a way for me to actually get into school, learn the language, and be successful.” With Martinez’s help, Bonfil was able to parlay his tennis skill into a scholarship and eventually into a college degree. He describes her as a “sweet soul.”
“She guided me through everything, holding my hand until I could let go and fly. She was like my American Mama,” Bonfil says. “She was a good teacher in letting me appreciate how things are done differently in other countries, putting me in different situations where I could appreciate different cultures,” says Bonfil.
Martinez doesn’t take credit for her accomplishments or the lives she’s changed. She attributes her success to God. “I was an instrument from the higher power. Everywhere I went for Him, doors opened for me.”
Communication and Education: The Keys to Tolerance
Martinez opens her speaking engagements with two questions.
“Do you know how lucky you are to live in the United States?” She hesitates and waits for the nods.
She follows with, “What did you have for breakfast?”
Her audiences are usually amazed when she describes how lucky they are to have had eggs, bacon, and milk for breakfast. Many are surprised to learn these food favorites aren’t available in other countries, certainly not to families in her native Cuba. Her presentations open the door for communication and education – the keys, she says, to understanding and tolerance – between people of different cultural backgrounds.
Her book published in 2010, “Success in Exile,” recounts the real-life stories of Cuban immigrants in both English and Spanish, so readers of differing backgrounds could share an understanding of these human experiences. She is all about fostering relationships and tolerance between people.
“Respect is the key to everything in human relationships,” says Martinez. “We all want to think – we want to be happy. We’d all be happier if we respected each other.”
She’s helped students from other countries immigrate to the U.S., enabled non-Hispanic business owners and managers develop understanding of Hispanic employees, and aided immigrants in untangling red tape associated with assimilating into the local community. And more than a few folks have found jobs or been admitted to colleges with her help.
Countless others learned from Martinez during her time as the host of Comunidad Viva, a Spanish talk show on PGTV, and Comunidad Viva Radio, on La X 1460 AM.
Bonfil says the list just scratches the surface of Martinez’s service to others.
“There are a million things she’s done that people don’t even know about,” he says. “Even though she’s been recognized tremendously, what she does is not done for recognition. She’s just a good person.”
Polk State College’s Dr. Eileen Holden says Martinez’s gift is in bringing people together to communicate in a non-threatening way.
“She herself is a very tolerant person. She walks the talk. She’s earned the respect in our community because of her authenticity,” Holden explains.
“She doesn’t tell people to do one thing and do something else herself. People see that. They are more likely to engage in uncomfortable conversations when they feel their opinions matter.”
Holden attributes Martinez’s success to her focus on educating rather than judging people. She describes Martinez as a realist with an ability to define a situation as it is now and focus on improving it.
“People see her as part of the solution. That’s why people want her on their boards and community,” says Holden. “It’s easy to identify the problem but harder to come up with solutions.”
Bonfil believes Martinez’s success lies in her sense of self, which enables her to give of herself.
“She is proud of what she is – Cuban. She’s not ashamed of it, so she doesn’t have to fight it. She’s successful, so she doesn’t see that as a diminishing thing,” he says.”Her determination to not let anything stop her from achieving her goals, he adds, also adds to Martinez’s effectiveness.
“That’s why she’s able to cross those boundaries. She’s just a regular lady doing her thing,” he says.
She’s also a lady promoting understanding among people.
“Most people are here because they are looking for a better life for their children,” Martinez explains.
She shakes her head when asked about negative comments about Spanish speaking immigrants who haven’t learned English. The situation isn’t what it seems.
“Some don’t have the capability. It’s not a lack of desire,” she says. “Everybody wants to know what’s said around them. Not everybody has the ability to learn the language.”
She pauses. “Wouldn’t it be just great if we could just give people a chance – and not look at skin color? Not look at social class?”
A smile creeps across her face when asked about her secret to fitting in among different groups of people.
“It’s all in the attitude. You have to be willing to walk into a room and think everybody is equal to you – not better or worse than you because we were born in a certain place or our skin is darker because we are closer to the equator,” she says. “When you stereotype people, you’re degrading yourself.”
Martinez is amused when people ask her where she’s from originally.
Her stock answer? “I’m a citizen of the world.” And she cautions against judging someone by the color of his skin or sound of her voice.
Lourdes Vazquez says she and her sister learned these values from their parents, particularly their father.
“My father became a doctor because he wanted to help people. He really infused that passion and Terry just went with it,” says Vazquez. “She has these values and just puts them to work. She just has that humanitarian love.”
Opportunity and Polk State College
Martinez combines her heart for helping people with a staunch believe in the power of education to change lives as a member of the District Board of Trustees for Polk State College. While her board service began in 2009, her ties with the college go back several decades.
“Polk State is a love of mine because when I got here and graduated from high school, we didn’t have money for elsewhere and Polk State was here,” says Martinez. Now she’s paying it forward. She never misses an opportunity to introduce the college to potential students, possible benefactors, or the community in general.
“I see it as such a gateway for people who want to study,” says Martinez. “Education is the great equalizer and this is top notch education.”
A long-time member of the Hispanic Club of Lakeland and an organizer of the growing Lakeland Hispanic Festival, which draws several thousands each year, Martinez found a way to beneficially connect the two with Polk State College.
Holden says Martinez brings great wisdom and knowledge to the board of trustees.
“Terry gives thoughtful consideration to policy level decisions and approaches them from a viewpoint of what’s best for the students and the communities we serve. She sees it from the 30,000 feet view,” says Holden. As with everything else she does, her work at PSC is about empowering others.
“My work there might be a gateway for someone to get into education,” says Martinez.
The Next Classroom
At an age when many people are considering winding down to retirement, Martinez is excitedly entering a new phase of her career with adding accent reduction classes for corporate clients, a new inspirational book, and ramping up her motivational speaking. She’s also reaching out to Hispanic immigrants who have the desire to build a successful career but don’t know how to do it.
Taught in partnership with speakers and teachers with English as a first language, the accent reduction course teaches participants how to reduce the accent by using their mouths and throats differently, thus improving communication with others.
“It’s the combination of what I know and what they know,” she explains.The class will also include instruction on idioms and body language that differ between cultures and how to understand and modify them.
“Communication is the key to everything,” says Martinez. “We often don’t understand what is happening around us.” Fostering communication skills and exchanging cultural information is important to both foreign speaking immigrants and life-long English speaking Americans. Understanding and tolerance is paramount.
“Hispanics come here looking for a better life. They’re willing to work, but they come with the mentality of their countries,” explains Martinez. “They really don’t know how to climb the ladder of success in the United States.” Her advice to everyone searching for success?
“Networking and volunteering make you more than you can imagine,” she said. “Belong to associations.” But inspiration and motivation often comes from communicating in a native language.
“I speak English very well, but I’m motivated in Spanish,” Martinez says, placing her fist over her stomach. “I’m an American, but Spanish at heart. Spanish is my language in my gut.” This is the impetus for her upcoming motivational book for Hispanic women.
“There’s so much talent out there and so much desire to do things, they need to be motivated in their own language,” says Martinez.
Martinez credits her parents for giving her the mindset to succeed. Her life’s motto comes from her father.
“He is always saying, ‘If you want it, then you can do it. Nothing is impossible,’” she says with a smile. “I see what I can do.” While success seems to follow Martinez wherever she goes, Bonfil may have found her Achilles heel.
“The Sevillanas, a typical dance from Spain,” he announces amused, explaining the folk music and danced of Seville and the surrounding region. “I’ve been trying to teach her that for 19 years. She can do many other things, but not the Sevillanas.”
But those who know her won’t count her out of learning the dance eventually. Someday the world may see her on the television show, “Dancing with the Stars.”
For more info about Teresa Martinez visit InstituteOfSpanish.com.