Cindy Polo’s Personal Journey to Public Service

Cindy Polo BeLatina Latinx
Courtesy of Cindy Polo

When I reached out to Cindy Polo, the grass-roots, Democratic, Latina incumbent for her state representative seat in South Florida, I was trying hard not to fan-girl all over her. 

Famously, I have zero chill when it comes to people I admire. Just ask the friend who cringed as I awkwardly asked Liv Tyler for the time, in those pre-cell phone carrying days of my NYC life. Or another friend, who nearly melted in shame when I picked up a samples tray at Whole Foods in Boston and offered one Liv’s rock-star father, Steven Tyler, 10 years later. (He graciously accepted, by the way).

Polo, who managed to earn a seat held unchallenged by the opposing party for over a decade before she burst on the scene during the 2018 race, is a rock star of another kind.

I had seen a short film titled And the Brave Shall Rise, about her homegrown win when, as a new mom, she translated the accountability she felt towards her son into a passionate entrance into the arena of public service. And won! I re-read my interview request to Polo, making sure it sounded professional and properly modulated, and hit send. I was completely delighted when her prompt reply to me began with, “Let’s start with the best part…Are you Colombian???”

Though I am deeply proud of being Colombian, all I did to earn the title was to be lucky enough to be born in Bogotá. On the other hand, Polo’s parents worked very hard to keep a young Cindy connected to her heritage after moving from Barranquilla, Colombia, to Providence, Rhode Island in 1973. Preceded by two older brothers who were both born in Colombia, Polo was born in 1977, the first in the family to be American-by-birth. By the time the family moved to Hialeah, FL in 1980, they each considered themselves Colombian-American.

The tenacity of Polo’s parents is not lost on me, as my husband and I struggle to keep our boys connected to their layered heritage. Even though we’re both Colombian and live in South Florida, where many others like us also live, it’s difficult to pierce American pop culture with pins of culture we carried over from the old country. Many multicultural families know exactly what I’m saying.

Polo’s parents’ methods not only worked to give her a firm sense of self rooted in her culture, they influenced the way in which she tends to align herself with the voiceless, the underdog, those unexpectedly present in the room. Polo is the best kind of representative, literally someone who can both understand and identify with her constituents, one who can stand in and stand up for them.

You see, Polo didn’t start out in politics. She had other jobs and careers, all of which added up to becoming an impassioned and inspirational public servant. A master communicator, Polo worked in public relations for the Miami Heat and later became Director of Communications for a government agency. She stayed local for the first portion of her life and after substantive experience in the professional world, she decided to take a sabbatical to move herself around the world, outside of her comfort zone, and into a deeper knowledge of herself and her calling in this world.

Polo describes filling her time during the two “gap years” she observed after nearly a decade of pushing herself hard, with the triumvirate of self-care: self-reflection, therapy, and travel. When she points out that this period of measurable internal growth was quickly followed by the birth of her son CJ and the proverbial change in perspective that becoming a parent brings, I can’t say I am surprised. It resonates that she followed up her profound experience with the decision to bring another citizen into the world and to feel, after the birth, that accountability lies with her.

While each of her prior careers held its own rewards, I could tell that Polo is not one to be swayed by external motivation. That her connection to her heritage is somehow entwined with her professional aspirations and clearly presents as her motor and fuel. So I ask about the mentors she has met along her way and how they have played a part in her career now and confirm that my intuition was right. Her mentor list is short; it begins and ends with her parents.

“My parents … are the reasons for everything in my life,” says Polo. “They also gave me the biggest gift they could have ever given: my ties to Colombian culture. They were extremely strict when it came to speaking and writing in Spanish. I woke [up] and fell asleep to Colombian music always playing in the background. The little money they had was used to send me to Barranquilla to spend my summers with my family. I am so proud of my roots, blood, and culture because of them.” 

Family, culture, mother tongue, motherland, these are the things that drive and inspire Polo. Injustice and bigotry, those are the things that anger her, that initially sprung her into action—from stay-at-home parent to crusader for the teen victims of the horrific shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school (in a district she would eventually represent). 

Her easy access to the language and culture of many of her constituents, and the empathy she has fed through her lifelong engagement with social justice causes, have equipped Polo with the tools to translate the unique experience of her family into an essential example of the American experience for this millennium.

This is to say that, for Polo, the personal is the inspiration for public service. “I pursued two degrees (an undergraduate degree in communications and an MBA) to honor [my parents’ hard work and sacrifice. I am an activist because of their experiences with immigration, unions, healthcare, etc. They have always been my guiding light.” That light she had been following led her onto a 1960s-style bus full of activists en route to Tallahassee, ready to raise their voices in defense of the un-voiced. And that’s when Adam Schlachter boarded the same bus and his film about Polo, and a crew of activist-politicians was born.

“Had I known that Cindy would eventually end up running for office, I definitely would have followed her more closely with my camera that first day.,” says Schalacter on the phone with me the other day. “But it wasn’t until after we got back that I realized she and her friends had been looking for the ‘next person’ to run. At the end of the day trip to Tallahassee, I asked Cindy: ‘Why don’t you run for office?’  Her response was:  ‘I’ve thought about it, but I’m not sure.’  And I said:  ‘I hope you do…. You gave a great speech.’  I wish I could take the credit for her decision, but it was hers alone. I do think the trip played a big part.”

It is a great speech. Schlachter met Polo soon after getting on the bus from Miami to Tallahassee. In his words, she was the most outspoken and outgoing person there. But he lost track of her and her friends after they arrived at the Capitol. The next thing he knew, Polo was giving an impassioned, impromptu speech on the Capitol floor, all eyes on her, eloquently asking for a better present and future for her still tiny son. I have already seen Schlachter’s award-winning short film And the Brave Shall Rise, so I know he is referring to the first time we see Polo at the podium. The screen of the television frames her in the corridor of the Capitol that captured her first official overture in the public arena.

In the clip, Polo is wearing the casual garb of the impassioned activist who departed on Miami-Dade charter trip during the wee hours just to reach far-flung state capital in time to see the legislature convene, but she clearly means business. She is spontaneous, though articulate. She is sensitive without being overly emotional, logical but not rehearsed. You’d think she was used to this. But Polo is there as a volunteer, a citizen participating in her democracy, speaking to legislators about the preventable tragedy at a local high school. 

Polo cited her recent ascent into parenthood as the main motivator for holding herself accountable to her karma. No, she doesn’t use this word, but I do, because karma literally means “action,” not passive “stuff that happens to me”. We build our karma when we choose to stand up and fight—or not—and Polo adds her pleas to action to those of the young survivors of the catastrophe. Polo was acting on her karma back in 2018, when she understood she could not not stand up. That is where her dharma—her calling—of public service made itself known.

Cindy Polo BeLatina Latinx
Courtesy: Cindy Polo

Schlachter was deeply moved by Polo’s intervention as am I, over two years later, watching footage of the speech in the middle of a film that is essentially about community organizing. Just as the tragedy at MSD high school was the watershed moment that ignited Polo’s political life, so, too, was her speech Schlachter’s for understanding that her campaign and eventual victory would become the center of his film. He set out to document a particular moment in time, a zeitgeist that is in its essence without express labels or political affiliations. He is not interested in people’s political persuasions, morals, religion, or voter history. Instead, he seems interested in gazing right in the faces of people who are moved to stand up and act for their beliefs.

“Would it surprise you to know that I noticed a distinct effort not to utter certain words like Democrat or Republican or even the liberal/conservative dichotomy?” I asked. He wasn’t. “I tried to keep [the film] objective, a real piece of journalism. In fact, the last change I made to the film was to refer to the ‘opposing party’ instead of to the party name, to keep everything neutral.” So the film is not about gun control. I ask for clarification. “No. It’s about activism and choosing to run for office when you don’t feel represented.”

In fact, Schlachter’s one question asked of all his subjects, from the already-renowned Andrew Gillum to the as-of-yet unknown Cindy Polo, was, “why are you here?” Polo wanted precisely to do something because her representatives were not. To be clear: Polo boarded a bus as a civilian helping to organize in favor of gun control, and Schlachter boarded the same bus with the intent to capture footage and evaluate whether it would be enough to make a short film about socio-political grassroots activism. And the Brave Shall Rise was paid for in its entirety by Schlachter, an objective document of this moment without political or financial obligations to anyone.

That morning at 2 a.m. on the community bus, Schlachter disclosed his plan to make a journalistic documentary of their collective effort to a group of heavy-eyed strangers settling in for a prolonged nap until their early-morning arrival in Tallahassee. 

He was careful to reiterate to his film subjects that his intent was non-partisan (Schlachter himself believes in regulated and safe gun ownership, in which automatic weapons are kept away from the public at large and people can own a more moderate weapon for self-defense) and that participation was strictly voluntary. 

Most people, he assured me, had no problem being interviewed. “In fact,” he adds, “some of the people who weren’t interviewed approached me and asked to be.” 

Schlachter is pleasantly surprised at how open to being filmed so many of his subjects were. But he is especially happy to have met Polo. He calls her enthusiasm “addictive” and reminds me that despite his journalistic integrity and the non-partisan distance he keeps from his subjects, he sees Polo as a force of nature.

I don’t disagree. Schlachter captures Polo’s galvanizing moment with the eye of a storm chaser standing mere feet away from a tornado. But rather than destructive, Polo’s efforts are all geared toward rebuilding and representation, of growing a world for her son in which he can see people who look and sound like him fighting for him. 

Polo sees her life as a logical continuum of experiences, saying, “my political, personal, and career choices have all led me to this moment. I may not have been “molded” with the idea of an elected office in mind, but essentially every up, down, and in the middle experience prepared me to fight for others. I take these issues personally because they are personal. My anger for how the country was being run was essentially the ultimate motivation to jump into politics, I knew I had to do more. There is a disconnect between those who are elected to represent and those they represent. If you know the struggle, you tend to fight harder.”

But Polo is an alchemist, not a boxer. She turns that anger into action and calls out every iniquity she sees. As we say in Colombia, Cindy no tine pelos en la lengua, neither in form or content. In her inaugural address at the state capitol in 2018, she begins in her native Spanish, the language of her parents and her constituents from District 103 in South Florida (comprising Hialeah, Weston, and other primarily Spanish-speaking enclaves). She immediately offers a translation of first remarks, but still gets criticized for it. “Can you believe it?” she asks. I’ve been living in the U.S. for 25 years; I’ve been sneered at for speaking to my mom out loud. Of course I can believe it.

But it makes me angry. This is when I realize that the biggest difference between Polo and I is that her anger drove her to rise up and run. She is fully bilingual in a country that within 30 years will reflect that same reality within its population. While Anglo-speaking candidates are lavishly praised for memorizing a Spanish phrase or two just before a rally, an actual Latina is demonized for communicating clearly with the people who voted her in. Polo’s term has been without precedent. My first reaction to seeing her in action was to realize how few women—how few people—like her there are in politics. Unsurprisingly, this is exactly how Polo sees herself: a pioneer for representation.

This is not just a label or an ego-boost. It’s Polo’s reality— she is a professional woman on her own. Like so many of the badass Latinas we profile, she is under the barrel of a double-standard microscope. “I am part of the minority party. I flipped a seat with no real institutional support. I am surrounded by Republican elected officials, so I receive no support from my area, “ she says. I relate so much when Polo adds, “I beat the Speaker of the House’s best friend, and I have a big mouth. So, every challenge you can imagine I have had. As a woman, my appearance is a constant topic, as is my personal life. Is she single? Is she dating? Is she interested in dating? Look at her hair, her lips, her hips. It’s constant.” Sadly, I think we all relate.

This struggle deepened when she became a mother, another reality many of us also must confront daily. In a country where maternal support (physical and mental health, time, rest) is non-existent, those of us who have dependents must constantly choose between livelihood and family, though these two are intricately connected. As one of the few female single parents in government, Polo has to work twice as hard for half as much. push herself to the limit to both parent and govern as if each were her only responsibility.

She is matter-of-fact about it: “This world of politics is not made for someone like me. As a woman, Latina, and mother, the environment is not necessarily welcoming or accommodating. I have to travel a lot. There are not many women in office. Not many have small children like I do. Plus, many are well off financially. So if you have money, you can afford to do this full time, you can afford a nanny, you can afford to travel with family,  you have the freedom to do this job as you see fit. I do this job on a $29,000 a year salary. I have to try and pay rent, my son’s school, and living expenses. If I look for another job, I will have no time for CJ, nor will I be able to do this job the way it’s meant to be done.”

How do we fix this? What can we do about it? What will you do about it, I ask Polo, desperate for answers. (Incidentally, this is why I don’t write political pieces, my nerves!) I feel so much that pressure of parenting like I don’t work and working like I don’t have kids, and when I observe someone like Polo, who earned the title of Rising Star in 2019, navigate with grace, I want the world to notice, too, and follow suit.

To this very different question, Polo gives me the same answer Schlachter does when I ask him what his film is about—representation. She is already doing it! More people like her, like you, leading the rest of us, this is how we get out. “All of these issues are related to having adequate representation. If I could snap my fingers, I would fix the lack of real representation. I’d have more women, mothers, people of color in office. Like I said earlier, if you’ve lived it, then you know what’s needed. I take these issues personally, and honestly, if an elected official doesn’t, then it’s time for a new elected official. Representation Matters!”

It’s time for Polo again and her kind of elected official, the one who looks and sounds like us, who have lived what we lived so they can help solve the problems we have…they have them, too. This time, though, Polo is not a dark horse. This time, they see her coming. “When you have become the number one enemy of the NRA and are regularly bad-mouthed on FOX News, you know she’s a threat,” says Schlachter while I giggle unprofessionally. Polo is there to represent; we all need to get out there and vote.

Adam Schlachter’s film And the Brave Shall Rise is a must-watch. Though it premiered last year at L.A.’s Latino Film Festival, the traction it gained has gotten it into various festivals this season, including the upcoming Dances with Films Festival. Screenings will take place on Monday, August 31st at 2:45 pm PST and on Sept. 3 at 6:30 PST. Polo will conduct a Q and A after some of these screenings, so tune in to get it all straight from her.

Cindy Polo’s campaign for re-election to a state senate seat for District 103 is underway. Don’t forget to vote and vote early