From corruption arises justice. From justice arises revolution. From revolution arises democracy.
This is the backdrop from which an unknown local resident — a double Ivy League grad — came home to find herself rising up to meet the overt and shameless corruption in her small town southeast of Los Angeles.
In September 2010, eight City of Bell council members were arrested and charged with corruption, accused of embezzling $5.6 million, rigging elections, voter fraud, violation of civil rights and stealing millions more through secreted funds — all the while the unabashed city officials jokingly wrote emails and planned their crimes with wild abandon, putting Nixon’s crimes and misdemeanors to shame — as even the President of the United States had the clairvoyance to hide his tapes.
This narrative has been replayed throughout the ages, but what makes this story different is that the most qualified person — a young woman — who helped lead the uprising just happened to be living in the area at the time of the crises.
As Woody Allen wrote for his character “Chris Wilton” in the film “Match Point”, “ … I’d rather be lucky than good… .” Not that Ana Maria Quintana isn’t good, but more importantly, the City of Bell is lucky.
Quintana’s drive to better her community didn’t begin by following a political career path — a path that led her to where she is today: an elected official to the City of Bell’s City Council. First, she had other ideas and experiences to flush out, which took this small town girl into the halls of giants and to the realm of the arts.
Lights, Camera, Action
Surrounded by a Chichen Itza motif, with the smell of popcorn in the air, the lights begin to dim as the curtains go up in the Maya Cinema Theaters located in three windswept towns in central and northern California. Latinos no longer have to drive outside of their communities to enjoy a communal theater-going experience thanks to the novel idea brought forth by Academy-Award nominated producer, Moctesuma Esparza. The entertainment executive is fulfilling a niche by providing a high-quality, state-of-the-art theater experience in underserved neighborhoods with a strong Latino presence. Quintana feels fortunate to have served as Legal Counsel & Director of Development with this avant-garde theater chain, founded by the luminary producer, who’s credits include “Selena”, “Milagro Bean Field Wars”, “Gettysburg” and “God and Generals”. Always the visionary, Esparza’s long-term goal is to have 500 screens in 40 locations that have a significant Latino population.
A Bohemian Experience
Inspired in the streets of Pamplona, Spain — the birthplace of the Running with the Bulls — “The Sun Also Rises” is considered by many to be Ernest Hemingway’s greatest novel. While in Pamplona, Quintana, ran with the bohemian art crowd, immersing herself in the artistic vibrancy of the city that has left a lasting appreciation of the creative process. All the while, her propensity for academia, for institutional learning, never left her, and while at grad school at the University de Navarra, she applied to Columbia Law.
Quintana was accepted to Columbia during her last months in Spain, but her exposure to the European art scene and lifestyle was so impactful that after she completed her J.D., she and a friend curated an art exhibition titled “Under Fidel”, which showcased renowned Cuban artists Salvador González, Eduardo González Expósito, Alfredo Manzo Cedeño and Luis Lamothe Duribe.
Quintana returned to Los Angeles in 2004 when her father was ill, and following his untimely passing in 2007, Quintana decided to stay, help her mom, set up shop and continue to follow her career path, and as luck would have it, in 2010, this Ivy League B.A.-M.A.-J.D.’s world would never be the same after the Los Angeles Times broke the story on the now–infamous scandal. She took it upon herself to walk into city hall and began asking questions as a concerned citizen. To her shock, the gargantuan salaries were only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, and she began to use her background in law and real estate to fight for the community. This city hall brawl is the catalyst that began her unforeseen political career that has led her to meet President Obama and has her on a first-name basis with the White House.
After the gates came crashing down following the revolt by Bell citizens, an incredible sense of ownership filled the streets, residents emerged from the shadows of ambiguity and fear and reclaimed their city for themselves, determining a new direction, a new voice, a new democracy. High school students handed out fliers calling for activism, elders joined in, calling for justice, and mothers, with babies in tow, filled the chamber meeting room to capacity demanding transparency from all new council members. For once, the community took part in roundtable meetings, questioning and participating in their civic duty, to their satisfaction, and for the first time in the City of Bell, their citizens made government accountable for their actions. Quintana says, “We had a mini-revolution here, and now residents are very involved, they share their input, they speak up at the council meetings and watch streamlined meetings if they can’t attend in person.”
Creating Her Own Luck
Quintana’s road to Yale, where she obtained her B.A. in American History, started at Bell High School, where she was student body president and homecoming queen. One might be apt to say that Yale paved the path that has led Quintana down the colorful path of experiences she’s had to the very spot on the road that she finds herself today, but Quintana created her own luck with a combination of discipline and focus and an industrious Mexican work ethic that was instilled in her through her Mexican-born parents “to give nothing less than her personal best.”
In high school, the importance of education was paramount, and the Quintana family kitchen was transformed into the unofficial study hall, kept busy at all hours by neighborhood kids streaming in and out. Mr. Quintana would pack his car full of frantic high school kids rushing to meet their college application postmark — as with any teenager, a deadline is meant to be met at its latest possible minute. Destination: the Los Angeles Airport Post Office, the only post office in L.A. that stays open until 8 p.m. “My dad took all the extra steps,” Quintana says smiling, “When he died, a lot of my friends from high school told me they still credit my dad with helping them get their college applications in on time.”
Quintana describes her Ivy League experience in the college town of New Haven, Connecticut as “A dynamic and fun place to be – the campus was a really safe, close-knit community because 98% of students lived on campus.” It was at Yale that she became known as Ana Maria. “When I was running for Yale College Council, my middle name, Maria, was included on the paperwork and people started calling out, Ana Maria! Ana Maria!”
A Champion for the Community
When the Los Angeles Unified School District announced it was cutting Bell’s adult education program, where residents not only get job training, but learn English and take citizenship classes, Quintana said, “As a person who values education at all levels, I went up in arms about it because they were disenfranchising my community. Without the adult education program, Bell’s residents were essentially being relegated to oblivion. I said no way.”
Today, thanks to Quintana, the occupational center remains open in a beautiful, new building that offers students childcare while they participate in a wide range programs and courses that are designed to prepare them for the workforce and assist them on their path to citizenship.
Ana Maria is qualified to teach history, economics, real estate and law, or she can get a job under the umbrella of those subjects at just about any company or organization in the world. When asked what her future plans are, she said, “Right now, Bell is my focus — It’s the chapter that I’m living right now and I want to close it with these problems solved.” She continued, “I never thought I was going to be an elected official. When I was a teenager, I never thought I’d go to Yale or that I’d go live in Europe. It’s definitely been a roller coaster experience, but I feel blessed.”
As Joan of Arc once said: “I am not afraid . . . I was born to do this.” So is Ana Maria Quintana moving her community forward, through the trenches, with victory in sight.
The more I learn about the City of Bell, the more interested I become in Los Angeles regional history. Some of these smaller cities have been off the radar for far too long, and it’s refreshing to read that new leadership and journalistic attention is finding its way to these areas. I look forward to reading more about Bell and its tolls!