Coming Out Swinging

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

Quintanilla denies making the comment, as well as claims that he advocated "instilling fear" in immigrants to call them to act. Yet he condemned the Mary Immaculate meeting and other efforts to explain the ordinance and squelch fearful rumors. "We can't tell the world everything's OK. Everything's not OK," he says. "We need to defend people's rights aggressively."

Guillermo Ramos, who plans to run for city council and recently sued the city, alleging the city council violated open meeting laws by passing the measures without presenting them for public comment, says Quintanilla walked up to him at the church, shook his hand and whispered in his ear. "He told me I chose the wrong side to move forward and that he'd do everything he could to make sure I didn't get elected," Ramos says.

Quintanilla denies that comment as well, saying, "Why would I threaten him? My enemy is Farmers Branch, which has instituted racist policy."

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

Luis de la Garza, a LULAC member who has been friends with Quintanilla for a decade and worked with him for part of that time, says he recently ceased collaborating with him because he thought Quintanilla had become too confrontational and that while he said he represented LULAC, he didn't consult with other members before taking action.

De la Garza attends the Farmers Branch Church of Christ, where the council member who originally proposed the immigrant measures, Tim O'Hare, is also a member. One day, the pastor called De la Garza after a service to report that Quintanilla had led a small protest in the church parking lot, screaming, "Racist!" This was around the time Quintanilla was spotted leading a protest outside Mary Immaculate Church, reportedly shouting through a bullhorn that people may no longer be able to have church services in Spanish.

According to Quintanilla, the two diverged not over Farmers Branch but because De la Garza owed him money. And as for the protests in church parking lots, Quintanilla says they were crucial to alert people to the potential damage the ordinances could cause and were partially responsible for the English-language measure's exceptions for schools and churches.

Quintanilla is "a good organizer. He's creative. He has a lot of good parts," De la Garza says. "But if someone doesn't do something exactly the way he thinks they should, oh man, that's a problem. Everybody knows Carlos is extremely intelligent, but in another way he's destructive. Either he's with you or he's against you, and if he's against you, he can poison you. He gets extremely angry. He's such a good leader, he can put people together in a moment and they'll believe in him like a god, but the same people will hate him in three months."

Brian Lusk, principal of Walnut Hill Elementary School, says he never saw that in Quintanilla, whose child attends the school. When the school was in danger of being shut down last year, Quintanilla, a father of four, helped organize parents to petition the school board, Lusk says, and he was effective and professional. "He's been able to rally people together in a positive manner to effect change and support the rights of others," Lusk says.

Danny Solis, a Chicago city council member who recalls Quintanilla organizing civil disobedience campaigns there in the '80s to pressure government and local businesses to hire Latinos, described the activist as articulate, charismatic and effective, but also as "a bad enemy."

"He wasn't just radical for radical's sake. He got a lot of jobs for Hispanics in the city of Chicago; a lot of the people in the city now probably owe their jobs to him," Solis says. "He could be a very good ally, and he could be a very bad enemy. He's relentless; he'll go after you; he doesn't give up."

Quintanilla doesn't deny that he can be combative, but says it's sometimes necessary in order to get results. "There are times when you have to be very diplomatic, and there are times when you have to be aggressive," he says.

Growing up in Chicago the son of immigrant parents from Mexico, his mother from Guanajuato, his father from Nuevo Laredo, Quintanilla recalls battling discrimination from an early age. Kids were ridiculed for speaking Spanish in school, he says, and white boys would lift his sister's skirts and taunt her. He became a member of a Latino street gang, and later, a leader in the student Chicano movement responsible for walk-outs in schools across the country.

In the '80s, he was executive director of a Chicago nonprofit organization that provided employment services to low-income residents. According to court records, Quintanilla became embroiled in a kickback scheme involving false funding requests to a Chicago brewing company for community sponsorships. In 1990, Quintanilla was convicted on five counts of conspiring to violate federal racketeering laws and transporting stolen property and sentenced to six months in prison. He maintains he was tricked by a co-defendant who devised the scam.

In the years that followed, he worked as a music promoter, continued his activist efforts, moved to Dallas and began importing Mexican handicrafts. The spacious Oak Cliff office he shares with his wife is filled with hundreds of intricately painted pots set out in preparation for an exhibition, turquoise masks and postcards of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata.

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