“The most original American writer on the border and Mexico out there. … Genuinely original work, what great fiction and nonfiction aspire to be, these are the stories that stop time and remind us how great reading is.” San Francisco Chronicle
“Over the last 15 years, he has filed the best dispatches about Mexican migration and its effects on the United States and Mexico, bar none.” Los Angeles Times
Columbia Journalism School selected him as a 2008 recipient of the Maria Moors Cabot prize, for a career of excellence in covering Latin America.
He teaches Tell Your True Tale writing workshops, and a storytelling experiment of the same name.
In 2004, after ten years living and writing in Mexico, where he produced his first two books, he returned to Los Angeles to write for the L.A. Times, covering immigration, drug trafficking, and gangs.
In 2014, he resigned from the paper to return to freelancing, working for National Geographic, Pacific Standard Magazine, the New York Times and other publications.
This year, he publishes his third book of narrative nonfiction – Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Bloomsbury Press.
Quinones grew up in Claremont, California, and graduated from Claremont High School in 1977.
He attended U.C. Berkeley, studied economics and American history, and lived in the legendary, now-defunct Barrington Hall coop. There, he also produced punk rock concerts of bands such as the Dead Kennedys, the Dils, the Zeros, the Mutants, the Offs, Black Flag and Flipper, and wrote a senior thesis on the bebop jazz revolution of the 1940s.
He lived for a year in Europe, where he supported himself playing guitar on the streets and teaching English.
In 1987, he found his first journalism job at the Orange County Register. In 1988, he moved to Stockton, California, where for four years at the height of the crack epidemic, he covered gangs, dope and murder as a crime reporter for the Stockton Record.
In 1992, he moved to Seattle to write about county government and politics for the Tacoma News-Tribune.
But he was unhappy in the rain and gray. Plus he found himself covering noxious-weed ordinances and dog-leash laws in Seattle, when in Stockton he’d been covering double homicides, Crips/Bloods, Nortenos/Surenos and the like.
So he left for Mexico in 1994, intending to study Spanish for a few months.
Hankering to stay, he then went to Cuernavaca, where while studying Spanish, he lived with the last Trotskyites in town. Their tiny apartment had the complete works of Lenin and photos of Che and Fidel throughout, and they had to tolerate the presence of the Yankee in their midst.
Their son was Leon Ernesto — named for Trotsky and Guevara — and he was enamored with Michael Jordan and Budweiser models.
A couple months into his stay, Quinones found a Mexico City reporting job that paid fully five percent of what he was making in Seattle – plus no benefits — at an English-language magazine called Mexico Insight.
After a year, Mexico Insight folded and he became a freelance writer. For the next nine years, he covered the country, as Mexico went through its historic political transformation. (He was the first foreign reporter to walk through the halls of PRI headquarters after the party lost the presidency to Vicente Fox in 2000. The mood was grim, but not that grim, as the PRI had really died years before and had been pretending to know the country ever since.)
He traveled to the major immigrant-sending states, spending time with gang members and governors, taco vendors and Los Tigres del Norte. He wrote about soap operas; about white elephant construction projects; about Nezahualcoyotl, the massive slum suburb east of Mexico City, after it elected its first non-PRI government.
He lived briefly in a drug-rehabilitation clinic in Zamora, while hanging out with a street gang. He lived with drag queens in Mazatlan, hung out with merchants in the Mexico City neighborhhood of Tepito, and with the relegated PRI congressmen known as the Bronx.
On the border, he spent time with the last apostle of a splinter group of polygamous Mormons, Fernando Castro, who lived south of Ensenada, with three of his six wives, and some of his 42 children and 128 grandchildren.
Quinones followed the promoters of Tijuana’s opera scene and visited the yeseros, makers of plaster statues of Mickey Mouse and Spiderman in that city’s Colonia Libertad.
In 1998, he was awarded the Alicia Patterson Fellowship, one of the most prestigious fellowships in U.S. print journalism, for a series of stories on impunity in Mexico, including a story of a lynching in a small town.
In Mexico, he wrote two collections of nonfiction stories.
His cult classic, True Tales From Another Mexico: The Lynch Mob, the Popsicle Kings, Chalino and the Bronx (Univ. of New Mexico Press, 2001) are nonfiction stories about people on the margins of contemporary Mexico – drag queens, Oaxacan Indian basketball players, valientes, gang members, and popsicle vendors.
His second book of non-fiction stories, Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream: True Tales of Mexican Migration (Univ. of New Mexico Press, 2007) tell of the lives of Tijuana opera stars, velvet painters, soccer players in southwest Kansas, narco-Mennonites, immigrants who return to run for mayor, a town southeast of L.A., and a young construction worker bent on finding a new way for himself.
He and his family live in Southern California.