Miami woman, 99, is still helping immigrants

Published: Saturday, August 1, 2009 at 8:17 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, August 1, 2009 at 8:17 a.m.

MIAMI In the old brown house, Dorothy Quintana sits.

The windows are open; a fan moves heavy air around the living room. Quintana is propped up in a sunken chair, worn and mismatched like the rest of her furniture.

She is waiting.

"I don't sit to see TV. I don't sit to listen to the radio," Quintana said. "I sit and wait for the phone to ring, to see who needs help."

For decades, Quintana's home has been a center for feeding the hungry, housing new immigrants and caring for the sick and elderly in Wynwood, a Miami neighborhood between downtown and Little Haiti. And though she admits to slowing down a bit, Quintana shows no sign of stopping; she turns 100 on Aug. 24.

"My life has been helping other people," said Quintana, affectionately known as "Dottie." ''That's what fills me up."

Quintana's efforts have earned her an almost legendary status in the community, as well as the titles of "mother" and "mayoress." A community center, down the street from the house where she's lived for more than 50 years, was named after her in 2002.

The Dorothy Quintana Community Center in Roberto Clemente Park, on the corner of Northwest 34th Street and First Avenue, is undergoing a complete renovation and is slated to reopen next year.

From her front door, Quintana has been a witness to an ever-changing Wynwood.

When middle class professionals began moving out of Wynwood in the 1950s and 1960s, Puerto Ricans like Quintana moved in.

The area is still known as a Puerto Rican enclave, though most of its residents are from Haiti or Central America.

In its latest reinvention, Wynwood has become a center for art, fashion and food.

"It's such an interesting place," said local historian and college professor Paul George. "It was really one of the most forgotten neighborhoods in Miami for a long time."

Living alone in her home, Quintana makes phone calls, receives visitors and pores over a century of memories.

With her vision failing, Quintana speaks with her eyes closed.

She remembers and points exactly to where a plastic trophy sits among other certificates and plaques on top of her red-tiled fireplace.

It's an award of appreciation for her work on the Citizen's Police Patrol. For 10 years, Quintana drove Wynwood's streets at night in her old teal Chevy sedan. She would take note of drug dealers and other shady characters in the neighborhood and discretely drop off the sheet of paper at the police station the next morning.

"Honey, you can't be afraid," Quintana said. "It was dangerous, but I did it."

The car now sits covered on the side of her house. Quintana stopped driving and patrolling the neighborhood two years ago, when she began losing her sight. Almost every afternoon, the doorbell rings. Quintana feels for her purple walker which she calls her Cadillac and lets in Maria Rodriguez.

Rodriguez is a domestic violence advocate for the county. She comes to make Quintana a cup of Cuban coffee and bring lady fingers for lunch.

"This lady here, she has so many children," Rodriguez said. "She's our mother."

Quintana and her late husband, Efrain Quintana Colon, used to collect food from churches to give to Haitian immigrants when they first started arriving in the late 1970s.

"They used to fill up his van with vegetables, with meat, with chicken," Quintana said. "Sometimes, at 12 at night, we were delivering food."

During the exodus of Cuban refugees in the 1980s that began with the Mariel boatlifts, Quintana sold her dining table and chairs, replacing them with beds for new arrivals.

Her house is lined with shelved and dusty boxes filled with the physical proof of Quintana's neighborhood involvement: Thank-you letters from figures such as State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle and decades-old agendas from the dozens of community organizations on whose boards she has sat.

Quintana was instrumental in helping open the Borinquen Health Care Center and the De Hostos Senior Center in Wynwood.

The health care center, which opened in 1973, now sees 14,000 mostly low-income patients year, according to Paul Velez, chief administration officer. The senior center serves as a place for elderly and the disabled to eat a hot meal, play dominoes and get help translating medical bills.

"She helped all the grass-roots centers to start," said Esther Couvertier, chief executive officer for the De Hostos Senior Center. Quintana still attends Miami City Commission meetings and serves on the board for the Rafael Hernandez Housing and Economic Development Corp, which works to rehabilitate homes in Wynwood and other areas.

"She is not afraid to talk toe to toe to any elected official, any business person or for that matter, anyone when she is concerned about something," said fellow board member Luis De Rosa, president of the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce.

But before Wynwood, Quintana called Puerto Rico, Cuba and New York home. Quintana was born Bertola Santiago on Aug. 24, 1909, in Ponce, Puerto Rico, and raised in Cuba. Two years after her father died, Quintana, her mother and twin brothers moved to New York City in 1927. Quintana later changed her name to Dorothy at the behest of her first husband and father of her only child, Linda Capra.

Two years after her first husband died of a stroke, Quintana remarried. She moved to Miami with Colon in the 1950s. They paid $14,000 cash for their home in Wynwood.

Colon died from complications of diabetes seven years ago at age 80. As she closes in on the century mark, Quintana takes comfort in the fact that her neighborhood still needs her.

"The phone still rings," she said. "Maybe that's why God still has me here to see what else I can do."

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