Coming Out Swinging

Latino activist Carlos Quintanilla's combative style makes enemies, even among his friends

On the evening of November 13, hundreds of people swarmed Farmers Branch City Hall. The small council chamber quickly reached capacity, and most of those trying to get in were relegated to the lobby. Some jostled for a view of the meeting through the closed glass doors while others watched the television screens that broadcast it. People lined the lobby staircase and balcony, and security officers explained to frustrated spectators that the fire code precluded anyone else from entering.

In the center of the chaos stood Carlos Quintanilla. Atop a bench, he shouted through a bullhorn about how the anti-illegal immigrant measures the council was about to pass were discriminatory. He led a group of mostly Latino protesters in the chant made famous by Cesar Chavez. "Si se puede!" (We can do it!) he yelled again and again. He'd been leading chants outside, but now, inside the atrium, it seemed louder. He drew angry looks from Anglo residents who supported the measures, which make English the town's official language, allow local law enforcement to screen suspects' immigration status and prohibit landlords from renting to illegal immigrants. But Quintanilla also got some anxious glances from some Latinos who, like him, were there to oppose the proposals.

A fellow member of the League of United Latin American Citizens told Quintanilla, who became a member of one of the group's local chapters last year, to stand down, saying he shouldn't be representing the organization. "Get out of my face," Quintanilla says he replied. "I don't need to listen to you."

Carlos Quintanilla, the champion of in-your-face activism
Carlos Quintanilla, the champion of in-your-face activism

As the Farmers Branch immigration brouhaha made national headlines, Quintanilla emerged as the face of vociferous dissent, a high-profile Hispanic leader quoted frequently by English- and Spanish-language newspapers and often pictured on local news broadcasts. But in the weeks after the council unanimously passed the provisions, he quarreled with other activists over how to fight back, showing that at a time when Latinos are uniting against anti-immigrant forces, they're also plagued by division.

To hear Quintanilla tell it, he's a scrappy former gang member from Chicago who refuses to drop the civil rights mantle he's carried since his days as a student leader in the Chicano movement, breaking crucial ground in the never-ending battle to force the system to give his people their due. To critics inside the Latino community, though, he alienates opponents and friends alike, is quick to make enemies and lashes out viciously at those who don't agree with him. What's clear is that Quintanilla—activist and businessman, father and former gang member—has often been at the center of conflict, from the time he says he was suspended from school at age 15, to his conviction on federal racketeering charges in the early '90s, to a collection of lawsuits in Dallas County.

"He brings a lot of attributes to a lot of organizations—he's smart, he has a passion for whatever he does—[but] I think perhaps his tactics and strategies are what get him in trouble," says Hector Flores, former national president of LULAC.

The rift over tactics in Farmers Branch came to a head in late November, when members of Uniting Farmers Branch, a grassroots organization born from the controversy, and LULAC members decided to launch a petition to force a public vote on the requirement that tenants prove legal residency. Quintanilla disagreed with the strategy. He wanted to boycott local businesses that supported the ordinance, which is set to take effect in January. He says that if the petition leads to a ballot, opponents of the ordinance may not have enough votes in Farmers Branch to succeed, because a large number of the Latinos in the area are not citizens. He thought opponents should conduct a boycott, wait for the measures to take effect and litigate.

"We thought [the boycott] was more divisive than inclusive," says Christopher McGuire, co-chair of Uniting Farmers Branch. "If you go out and boycott, you're going to harm people."

Quintanilla insists they are wrong.

"He was continuously interrupting the meeting because he wanted his ideas to prevail, and the majority wanted to go one way, and he wanted to go another way," Flores says of Quintanilla's outspokenness at the LULAC and Uniting Farmers Branch meeting at Cuquitas Restaurant in late November. "I said, 'If you want to do that, create your own organization and do it.'" Flores says the interchange "got pretty hot," and according to several observers, one of the restaurant owners requested Quintanilla quiet down because he was disturbing customers.

Quintanilla denies yelling and says the discussion he had with Flores focused on threats he'd received from other LULAC members, requesting that he cease speaking for the group or face legal action. "I said, 'I'm going to do what I'm going to do, without LULAC,'" he says.

Quintanilla stopped attending the Uniting Farmers Branch meetings and began his own effort at what he calls "intelligent buying." "We have to take aggressive positions," he says. "Immigrants contribute by their economic power...We need to create economic sanctions against Farmers Branch."

Days after the falling out, grassroots Farmers Branch leaders planned a meeting at Mary Immaculate Church, which has a largely immigrant congregation, to explain the ordinance to parishioners and quiet rumors of police deporting illegal immigrants and bans on Spanish in churches or schools. The day of the meeting, Quintanilla called Elizabeth Villafranca, president of the Farmers Branch LULAC chapter, to ask about the agenda. When she explained that the objective was to calm people's fears and tell them about the petition, he said it was the wrong thing to do and suggested she support a boycott. She declined, calling the idea divisive. "From now on it's a public war between you and me," she says he replied.

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