Martha Santiago: First Hispanic Female County Commissioner
by James Coulter
Martha Santiago speaks fluent English and Spanish. She considers herself a proud American and Hispanic. She lives in two worlds, yet she considers them all one family. For that reason, she desired to become a politician to serve both her family and community.
For the past three years, Santiago has served as a Polk County Commissioner for District 4. During that time, she has utilized her experience as an educator to better communicate the issues to her constituents. She has used her background as a Hispanic immigrant to represent their needs on the political level better.
“I always wanted to work for my county, for my city, for my people, to help them make it a better place to live,” she said. “That is why I got into the political arena: it was to work and serve our communities and hopefully make a difference in our county, especially since we are growing so much and there are so many issues involved to deal with.”
Santiago moved from Puerto Rico in 1979. Since then, she has resided in Polk County with her husband and daughter. She initially served in the school system as an English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) educator (previously called bilingual education).
She has lived in Winter Haven for the past 45 years. During that time, she gained experience through her career in education to improve her communication skills. Her expertise allowed her to better communicate and empathize with the people in her community, regardless of their background. She desired to help them better their lives, which inspired her to go into politics.
For the past three years, she has served as a county commissioner. Her primary focus has been with economic development. A firm believer in American lassie-faire capitalism, she aspires to help up-and-coming entrepreneurs, especially immigrants, start their small businesses and help them grow into larger companies by advocating for more lenient taxes and regulations.
As a fellow Puerto Rican, she has seen many immigrants from the island arrive following Hurricane Maria. Many of them aspire to become entrepreneurs and start their businesses. To assist them, she strives to offer them the information and education in their native language to start and grow their business, she said.
She also wants to stimulate economic growth and development by attracting larger industries to the county and improving and maintaining infrastructure, especially roads and utilities, to facilitate better the businesses that are already here.
“That is the most important thing we can do for Polk County is to help with small business,” she said. “I want to make sure the money we get from the people, the citizens, who pay taxes are spent wisely, and infrastructure is one of my main things.”
Her biggest accomplishment as a politician has been to enter office in the first place. She is proud to serve the county as its first female Hispanic commissioner. She understands the significance of that title and what it means to the overall changing face of the American people.
“I think that is a game-changer and a great accomplishment,” she said. “It has come with a lot of sacrifices. But they are a sign that the times are changing.”
Not only does she use her position to communicate the issues with her constituents better, but ensure that they are communicated in a way that everyone can understand, regardless of their native language or background. With so many Hispanic residents split between those who can and cannot speak English, she wants to ensure that they remain informed on the relevant issues and their lives.
Santiago remains on her toes by being a diligent worker and avid reader. As someone out and about within the community, she never hesitates to answer any questions that her constituents have or address their concerns. Only by remaining active within the community can she better represent those within it, she said.
“I am a people person, so I am accessible to people,” she said. “Being accessible to people, you get to hear a lot of things with issues that are going on and being able to help, and there is no problem with being able to ask me things…I am out and about in the community as much as I possibly can, knowing that it is a large county, and I try to get out and about as much as I can, which provides people access to their elected official.”
With an election year right around the corner, she has high expectations of running again for another four-year term. She also expects, as a vice chairwoman, to become madam chair for her next term. She hopes to retain her office and continue using her position to serve others, and she expects to grow as a person so she can be the best she can be.
“I am excited and blessed,” she said. “I am privileged to be able to serve Polk County as a county commissioner. I am excited that the county and citizens have elected me…I encourage Hispanics to step out and be engaged in their community and be part of boards and things like that so they can get to know their county and eventually run for political positions. Stepping out is not easy, but it is still worth it and a wonderful experience.”