At a time when many people have become cynical about the motives of those in the political world, people like Karina Quintanilla prove that there are still candidates for office who have the best interests of their community at heart.
Quintanilla, 41, just won a seat on the Palm Desert City Council, in her first run for public office. Born in East Los Angeles, Quintanilla—a Palm Desert resident since 2002—came to the desert in 1984 and was raised in Thousand Palms.
“My mom is an incredible woman,” she says. “Although she had never even graduated high school, she’s a brilliant woman. I’m so aware that not everybody can afford an educational experience. She juggled three jobs and raised us. (Quintanilla is the oldest of four.) If I could be a third of the woman my mom is, I’d be satisfied.
“My mom’s words of wisdom were, ‘Always keep going. Don’t wait for something to happen. If you see someone hurting, help them.’ My dad’s mom, born in 1911, married young but was credited for bringing running water, electricity, telephone service and a health center to their small Mexican village. My mom’s mom became an LVN (licensed vocational nurse), taking care of people when they were sick. They gave me the incentive and desire to serve.”
After graduating from Cathedral City High School, Quintanilla attended the University of California, Riverside (UCR), earning a bachelor’s degree in Spanish.
“Maybe the best decision I’ve ever made was taking a field trip to the Chicano Youth Leadership Conference at UCR while I was in high school,” she says. “I had gotten accepted into UC Irvine, UCLA and UC San Diego. But at UCR I thought, ‘This is the place I am at home.’
“Originally, I was going to major in history. Although I had wanted to be a teacher, within higher education, there’s only so far you can go. I realized I wanted to be a translator. People ask me why I majored in Spanish, since I spoke it and had been translator for my mom when I was only 5. It’s funny that nobody ever asks an English-speaker why they majored in English. I wanted to help broker communication, to always find just the right word. Having grown up between two cultures, I wanted to be sure I was speaking Spanish professionally. Plus, we have to learn to really listen, and not just wait for the next thing we want to say.”
After college, Quintanilla returned to the Coachella Valley.
“It made perfect sense to come back here,” she says. “I had a newborn, and my then-husband’s family was here as well. I reflected on what a great experience UCR had been, and I wanted to find a way to impact other students going to college, especially those who were also first-generation. You have to use your tools to advocate for others.”
Quintanilla became an academic adviser. That led to a teacher-credentialing program at California State University, San Bernardino’s Palm Desert campus in 2012, and she is now completing a master’s degree in public administration at Brandman University.
“The intricacies of diversity in education include understanding the challenges that many families face,” she says. “If there’s an accident or an illness in the family, helping students know how to empower themselves without feeling they must drop out is critical. If there’s something I can do to improve the quality of someone’s life, I have a personal commitment to make a difference.”
That sense of commitment has led Quintanilla to be a blood donor since 1996.
“My mom once said, ‘I haven’t donated blood in a long time,’ and I still remember going with her into the blood mobile. I was never one with money to donate, but while I’m walking around, I’m making something every day that I can share to save a life. I generally donate platelets, which means I can donate more often than those who are giving whole blood. Now, with the pandemic, I don’t have to wait as long to make a donation: I generate new platelets every day.”
One of the largest influences in Quintanilla’s life was her association with Hispanas Organized for Political Equality (HOPE). In 2015, she was selected for their leadership institute, which helped her expand her understanding of community engagement and leadership. That led to her lobbying in Sacramento for accessible health care for all Californians, as well as activism on other issues.
“One event at HOPE included a NASA researcher, a Hispanic woman, who told us how—as an average student—she didn’t think that could be the road for her. She ended up with a Ph.D. from MIT! I’ll never forget what she said to us: ‘Don’t tell me the sky’s the limit when there are footprints on the moon.’ I don’t know if that was original to her, but it sure made an impression on me.”
Quintanilla has been involved in translating documents and books, receiving credit as co-author of the Spanish-language version of Vicki Mills’ Any Body Can Enjoy Computers, which helped bring computer literacy to the Spanish-speaking community.
She returned to Cathedral City High School to co-coordinate the scholarship program, among other service. “I had been the one student on the accreditation board while I was there,” Quintanilla says. “The teachers would ask me questions, and my opinions were validated and respected. It’s hard to explain the difference that made.”
While at CSUSB-Palm Desert, Quintanilla developed a tutoring program to help students who wanted to transfer from community college to the university, and also generated a $240,000 grant from the California Wellness Foundation to help fund professional tutors at two local high schools. She was the co-plaintiff in the lawsuit that forced the city of Palm Desert to institute a district-based voting system this year.
“Before I ran for City Council, I talked to my daughters, Cristina (15) and Luz (18), and said I wouldn’t do it if they’d be uncomfortable or if it would mean I’d be too busy for them. They said they were OK with it.
“My experience through HOPE gave me confidence and adjusted the lens through which I saw myself. On the council, I hope I’m able to expand the perspective of what the community wants and needs, including real transparency. Maybe reopening some community issues based on the impact on real people would allow finding new ways to engage everyone and move toward more equity. My goal is always to engage people to think beyond their own personal comfort. If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that mistakes are valuable for learning, and the learning is the experience—not the mistake.
“During the campaign, I heard people saying, ‘You give me hope,’ and I don’t take that lightly.”
Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal.” Her show The Lovable Liberal airs on IHubRadio. Email her at Anita@LovableLiberal.com. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.