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For decades, a selfless calling

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.

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 has lived for more than 50 years, was named after her in 2002.

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, people from Puerto Rico — 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.

For 10 years, Quintana drove Wynwood's streets at night in her old teal Chevrolet sedan. She would take note of drug dealers and other shady characters 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. But 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.

Quintana and her late husband, Efrain Quintana Colon, used to collect food from churches to give to Haitian immigrants when they 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.

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.

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 knowing that her neighborhood still needs her.

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

For decades, a selfless calling 08/03/09 [Last modified: Monday, August 3, 2009 11:40pm]
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