Remembering Fernando Quintero: Journalist, media strategist, cook, adventure lover

Fernando Quintero. Photo: Courtesy family

June 8, 1962 – Jan. 20, 2020

Picture this: It’s the late 1970s, in California’s Central Valley, and Fernando Quintero just has to dance. Donna Summer is playing as he dons his cherished Angels Flight disco suit, complete with jacket, vest and flared pants. He slips on his platform shoes, and it’s off to the club.

All the women want to be his partner, he’s that good. And when he takes one by the hand and glides out onto the dance floor, people stop to watch.

The confidence he exudes on the dance floor makes it impossible to imagine a time, just years earlier, that he was tormented by bullies. They picked on him, called him effeminate.

But after school, when he stepped off the bus, there were his loving and protective siblings, ready to take care of business, should it come to that.

“My brother and I would wait there, so nobody would say anything to Nando,” said his big sister, Norma Aida Bialek. And no one did.

Right around 1980, Fernando called Norma. He needed to talk, he said. It was urgent and it was personal.

“We went to a park, and he said, ‘Norma, I need to tell you I’m gay,” Norma recalled. “And my response was, ‘so what? I’m straight. What does that have to do with anything?”

That cemented a bond that would remain unshaken until Fernando drew his last breath. A few months back, while Norma was caring for Fernando as he battled cancer, he turned to her and said, “You are my soulmate Norma, and you always have been.”

Fernando died Jan. 21, 2020, at his home in El Cerrito, with his big sister by his side. He was 57 years old.

Fernando Quintero loved life. He fought, hard — for all of the things he believed in throughout his life, and finally, against the scourge of illness. He loved with abandon. Everywhere he went, he brought joy, an acerbic wit, and the best moves on the dance floor.

“So dance on, right now I want to dance on
Until the moment’s over
And I’ll be going home
Just dance on, right now
I want to dance on
I can’t let him notice the tears in my eyes”
— Dance Into My Life, Donna Summer

Carmella Padilla met Fernando in 1985, on her very first day as an intern at the Albuquerque Tribune. They both worked in the features department and even lived in the same apartment complex — his apartment right above hers.

“It was kind of like the show Friends,’” Carmella said. “We just had constant parties, in my apartment, in his apartment, we were just hell-raisers. He was kind and loving and generous and so damn funny.”

Carmella recalled one special night in San Francisco in the early 1990s when she and Fernando went to a play and out to dinner and drinks. As they were strolling around afterward, they popped into a gallery that was hosting a show of Donna Summer’s artwork. Fernando was (naturally) drawn to a self-portrait, and wanted to buy it so bad, but, at $3,500, he couldn’t afford it.

When Carmella last saw Fernando in December, he said that was one of the best nights of his life, but not being able to find some way to buy that piece of art was also one of his greatest regrets.

“Spring was never waiting for us dear
It ran one step ahead
As we followed in the dance”
— MacArthur Park, Donna Summer

For Michelle Guido, the journey of a 30-year friendship began in the early 1990s, when Fernando started working at the San Jose Mercury News. He was hired into the Fremont bureau, so they hadn’t yet met face-to-face when Fernando used the instant message system to release some inappropriate screed to everyone in the newsroom.

Michelle immediately responded to his message by saying: “Hi! You don’t know me yet, but we are going to be friends. I’m having a party this weekend, can you come?”

He did, and so began an adventure in friendship and companionship that would span three decades, countless ups and downs in their personal and professional lives, the purchase of four houses (three of them were his) dozens of trips — here and abroad — one wedding (hers), and several separations (in geography only).

Michelle, her sister Maria and Fernando traveled together to Mexico (on a cruise, in one stateroom) and to Greece in 1996, where Fernando showed up at the beach in a black and yellow swimsuit that we quickly dubbed the “bumblebee Speedo.”

Maria, who has known Fernando since she was a teenager, described him as: “Best salsa partner. Perfect taste. So many memories of laughing until I practically peed. The bumblebee Speedo. The terrifying entrance to his Mission apartment.” She said. ”I have so many amazing memories with Fernando. Devastated we won’t be making more.”

Pamela Mejia, a colleague of Fernando’s at the Berkeley Media Studies Group, where he had worked for the past nine years, described Fernando as “one of the funniest, smartest and best people I’ve ever known, someone who pushed me and everyone in his orbit to laugh harder, go further, and be better…

“I am so glad he is at peace…but my heart is, all of our hearts are, broken. I wish he was still here to read terrible Suzanne Somers poetry aloud and do The Hustle in the office and talk about everything from his unending love of Donna Summer to growing up as a child of farmworkers in the ’60s and ’70s to immigration reform and municipal corruption.”

She described Fernando the way so many others have: perceptive, insightful and hilarious. “He made every single day better. Today, my daughter is almost 9 years old — she knew him her whole life — and she describes him as ‘always being ready with candy and a joke’ and even as I tear up I want to say, ‘you don’t know the half of it, kid.’”

“I am yours and you are mine
Till the stars fall from my eyes
There will always be a you”
— There Will Always Be a You, Donna Summer

Gina Boubion, who worked with Fernando at the San Jose Mercury News, said when she thinks of him, “The immediate image is of him laughing, or making other people laugh.”

Fernando and Michelle traveled to Southern California for Gina’s wedding in 1995, and in the hotel one night, Michelle went to the vending machine to get some drinks and snacks. On the way back, she spotted a man in the Jacuzzi who made eye contact with her, and then stood up, completely naked and, let’s just say, touching himself.

Michelle ran into the room, sort of shaken, and told Fernando what she had just seen. He bolted out of the room toward the pool — not to defend her honor, mind you, but to get a look at the naked man!

Erik Olvera, who worked with Fernando at the Rocky Mountain News, said his passing is “a huge loss — not only for those of us who knew him, but for those he had yet to meet. One of the main things that struck me about Fernando was his ability to make lasting connections and friendships with strangers no matter where he was dropped into.”

“He’s the only person I’ve ever met who seemed to have a party of happiness around him wherever he went,” Erik said. “That’s why so many people loved being around him. His energy was infectious.”

“She works hard for the money
So hard for it, honey
She works hard for the money
So you better treat her right
— She Works Hard for the Money, Donna Summer

Because so many of us are connected to Fernando through friendship and love, it would be easy to gloss over his exemplary journalistic career. But that would be a travesty, since his work, over more than two decades touched so many people. His stories made the world a better place in many tangible ways, and shed light on the many social justice issues that Fernando was committed to, and that would become the spine of his work after journalism.

Certainly one of the highlights of Fernando’s journalism career was in 2006 when he reported on the monumental downfall of Reverend Ted Haggard, one of the nation’s foremost Evangelical leaders. Fernando helped expose that Haggard had been paying for sex with a gay male escort for years. The escort, Mike Jones, came forward after hearing the Haggard campaign against gay marriage.

Fernando’s reporting style and personality shone through in a story he wrote about his interview with Jones just after the story broke:

“The waiter gushed when he recognized Mike Jones, the former gay escort who brought down one of Colorado Springs’ most powerful evangelical pastors just days before the election.

“You know, you’re a hero,” he said, patting Jones’ muscular shoulder. “I just want to thank you from the bottom of my heart.” …Since admitting he had sex with Haggard, Jones has become a hero to some. And the devil to others.

“I was called a whore today…That’s OK. I’ve also been called a hero by a lot of people. One guy even said I should run for Congress.”

When Fernando left the Rocky Mountain News in December 2008, newsroom leaders acknowledged his contribution with this memo to the staff:

“Reporter Fernando Quintero is leaving at the end of this year for the Orlando Sentinel. Fernando has a special way about him, an ability to get people to tell him things they wouldn’t tell anyone else. He made an immediate impact on his arrival at the Rocky, and has continued to do excellent work. I remember the interview he got with one of the girls victimized by the Bailey school killer. It was fascinating and dramatic — and only Fernando could have talked her into it, I’m convinced. In Fernando, I see an abiding love of journalism and daily newspapers, and that’s a good lesson for all of us.”

“Love’s our common hero
It always gets its man
Cause love is so much stronger
Don’t you know it will win in the end
Love will always find you”
— Love Will Always Find You, Donna Summer

Of course, his arrival in Orlando brought great joy to Michelle, as the friends were living in the same city again after several years apart. Fernando, as was his way, made quick friendships in the newsroom, and the reporters who sat in close proximity to him got the added bonus of his wry wit. Fernando was a master “judger,” but miraculously, was never “judgmental.” He mocked himself as often – if not more often – than he mocked others.

Linda Shrieves got to know Fernando the way many folks in newsrooms get to know one another – through proximity. “My desk was about three feet away from his desk for about a year and what fun and laughs we had!” she said. “Fernando had a wonderful, delightful personality and a zest for life that I envied.”

But Fernando wasn’t just the life of the newsroom. When a gunman walked into an Orlando office building in 2009 and opened fire, killing one man before escaping, police released his name as their manhunt was underway. The shooter was Jason Rodriguez, and after doing a quick bit of research, Fernando sped to the home of his former mother-in-law (brilliant), who only spoke Spanish, and was able to get all kinds of information about the man’s troubled and violent past. It was an exclusive that no other media outlets were able to duplicate.

Bianca Prieto worked with Fernando at the Rocky Mountain News in 2005, where he was asked to be her mentor in the newsroom.

“He delivered tough love while still calling me mija. He invited me to parties at his home, made me feel part of his circle. When my grandma died, he drove 30 miles to my family’s home in Fort Lupton to make sure I was OK.”

Bianca landed at the Orlando Sentinel, and the two picked up where they left off. “He was like a big brother who protected me, loved me, and wasn’t afraid to tell me like it was when I got outta hand.”

“Home, be the temple of your heart
Home, be the body of your love
Just like holy water to my lips
Yes, I do know how I survive
Yes, I do know why I’m alive
To love and be with you
Day by day by day by day”
 — State of Independence, Donna Summer

One of the most beautiful things about Fernando is that no one thing defined him. He didn’t live for work. He didn’t tie his self-worth exclusively to his career, like so many others do. He loved his family and friends, he loved travel and food and tending to his orchids and dancing. And he loved adventure — in all of its forms.

Fernando was never afraid. He would pick up and leave a city, moving to a new one at the drop of a hat if it felt right. That would be terrifying to so many of us, but to Fernando, it was a series of new experiences, through which he amassed friends across the country.

Marty Cole met Fernando in 1991 when Fernando moved back to San Francisco from Albuquerque. They met at a Halloween party and became fast friends.

They spent countless hours at the beach and walking through Golden Gate Park, stopping often at the AIDS memorial. Fernando loved the water, and he loved warm weather. So when he was sick, over this past summer, he really wanted to escape the cold of the Bay Area. So he and Marty rented a house with a pool in Davis, where it was hot, and spent three glorious days there, so Fernando could be in the water.

Marty said he and Fernando were big drinking buddies, back in the day, “Those stories are best left in the bars,” Marty said. “He knew all my secrets, and I think that’s why we were so close.”

Another thing they had in common was their mutual love of Donna Summer. This was Fernando’s favorite Donna song:

“Having learned to live with you
It’s hard to live without you
You always said if I were down
To cheer me you would be around”
— Now I need you, Donna Summer

Fernando was an amazing cook, and delighted in feeding people a home-cooked meal. He never went for anything fancy or complicated. His gift was recreating the traditional Mexican dishes he grew up with, and the regional cuisine he grew to love during his time in New Mexico. He would make frequent trips there to visit his beloved Carmella, and would always return with fresh and dried green and red chili.

Marty, who grew up in Alabama, had only ever had guacamole out of a can (which is something no one should ever do). He told Fernando he didn’t like guacamole – that it was “nasty.” Fernando would not hear that, so he whipped up a batch. “Oh my god, that blew me out of the water, it was so good,” Marty said.

While he could no longer cook for himself in recent months, Fernando maintained a voracious appetite until nearly the end. That was a huge blessing, since he derived so much joy, throughout his life, from food.

It’s remarkable when one person can be a thread through so many lives. All of us have these amazing memories with one common denominator: Fernando. Each one of us felt special in his presence. That was the joy and light and love that he spread over so many lives.

That is his legacy.

Fernando is survived by his sister Norma, her husband John Bialek and their three children, Clarita Sigala and her two daughters, Amy Bialek and John Bialek; his brothers Otilio Quintero Jr. and Hector Quintero and countless friends. He was preceded in death by his parents, Otilio Tapia Quintero and Catalina “Tanita” Quintero, and his brother Ramiro Quintero.

Fernando was adamant that he didn’t want a funeral. He wanted a party — with drinks and food and music, lots of music. He wants us to continue to bask in his light and to enjoy all of the good things in life — music, food, a stiff drink, our families and beloved friends.

And above all, he would want all of us, joined in grief over this unimaginable loss, to never, ever stop dancing.

“So let’s dance the last dance
Let’s dance the last dance
Let’s dance this last dance tonight”
— Last Dance, Donna Summer