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."

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.

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."

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.

To him, today's crackdown on illegal immigrants is an extension of the racism he fought as a kid. "It's just a continuation of a national psyche that's anti-Mexican and anti-immigrant," he said over lunch in October. "Farmers Branch is just another battle in a long fight."

In recent years, two of his business ventures involving Mexican vendors—one the Garibaldi Bazaar flea market off of Interstate 30, the other a proposed bus depot—ended with numerous parties suing one another. In the bazaar case, Quintanilla wound up with a settlement of more than $1 million. A search under his name turns up five district court lawsuits in the past five years in which he was either plaintiff or defendant. In 2003, he sued the city of Dallas for $1 million, claiming officials killed a deal to turn the Bronco Bowl in Oak Cliff into a Mexican-style market because they didn't want a business catering to Hispanics. He ultimately dropped the lawsuit.

A year later, Quintanilla made headlines again when he complained that a routine $25,000 contract for production of a county brochure should have been awarded to a minority firm, and a shouting match between outgoing County Judge Margaret Keliher and County Commissioner John Wiley Price ensued. Several months later, he complained in news reports that police unfairly singled him out after a summer fiesta at a market he owned in Irving drew noise complaints from neighbors.

Quintanilla concedes that he can be combative, but he counters that he's achieved results."I think if you look at my life, I've done good," he says. "I'm proud of myself, my family's proud of me, and most of all my community is proud of me."

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