Before she decided to run for political office, Deborah Bautista was shaped by the memory of her grandfather kneading dough to make flour tortillas in the predawn hours of their cramped but loving Woodland home. It was a ritual that had less to do with loving to cook and more to do with being unable to afford store-bought tortillas.
In California, 4.9 million people face food insecurity, according to the California Association of Food Banks. Bautista’s family was right on the knife edge of this statistic. They knew where their next meals were coming from as multiple relatives would contribute meager earnings to buy food.
There just wasn’t enough to go around.
“We would all sit down to dinner, but there would never be extra,” Bautista said.
This is not where Bautista’s unlikely story of political participation begins but let’s start there anyway. She’s known hunger, real hunger. It’s an affliction too often associated with dismal personal outcomes, such as school truancy, failure to complete high school, substance abuse, incarceration.
The opposite has happened to Bautista. She is one of several young women of color running for elective office in Yolo County. Bautista is vying for a seat on the Woodland Joint Unified School Board of Trustees. There is no more important race in your community than your school board, especially now with public schools are under political or literal assault – or with so many mismanaged and dysfunctional.
Too many voters often don’t know or don’t care who is being elected to run their local schools. All they know is to complain when the schools don’t run right.
So, who is to blame if we were “too busy” to know who is running our schools? We are – all of us.
Deborah Bautista has a 3-year-old, a 9-year-old and a full time job. She decided to run for office anyway. She wasn’t interested in “waiting her turn.” She didn’t listen when community elders told she shouldn’t be challenging a Latina incumbent, Tania Tafoya.
Bautista, 33, is part of a political movement of young, dynamic women who are shaking things up by refusing to adhere to old rules of order.
A Capitol legislative aide, Bautista is already known as a vocal advocate who led the charge to install air conditioning at the school where she fell in love with learning, Beamer Park Elementary.
Bautista ruffled feathers while she argued for Beamer students. She challenged the board, said something akin to “If this school had majority white students, we wouldn’t be debating whether it needed air conditioning.” Beamer, you see, is roughly 90 percent Latino.
“We didn’t have needed representation on a daily basis,” Bautista said of her reason to run. “We didn’t have anyone who was willing to spend the time and engage and make sure our interests were reflected.”
Her campaign has been noticed and has drawn the endorsements of high profile Yolo politicos, such as Supervisor Don Saylor.
“I love when I see someone rise up through the ranks of school site activism,” Saylor said.
Though laudable, running for office isn’t the bravest thing Bautista has done.
She is the first in her family to earn a college degree, in 2008, from UC Davis. She also received a Masters in Education from Sacramento State.
By the time her kids are college ready, Bautista may still be making monthly payments on her own college loans. Deep, deep personal debt was the price Bautista paid – and keeps paying – to forge a better life, one beyond worrying about food, working low-paying jobs and sleeping on couches. That what a young Bautista and her family did while squeezed into a three-bedroom, one-bath home on the corner of North and Fifth streets in Woodland.
She loved school, but had no money to play sports. So today, her aim is to be elected to the school board to make sure future Woodland students have those extra curricular activities she didn’t enjoy. She wants all Woodland students to have access to world languages, ethnic studies, art, music, theater, dance, technology and science.
She wants all Woodland students to have access to technical education and to information that she lacked – such as what can happen to students with the grades to attend a prestigious university like UCD, but not the money.
“When I was a student, we weren’t shown the pathways to an education,” Bautista said. “In college, I learned the inequities and inequalities and I’m able to connect that to today.”
Bautista is chasing down every vote on the weekends. To connect with disaffected Latino voters, she uses her full name on yards signs: Deborah Bautista Zavala. It’s common for people in Mexico to use their surname and mothers maiden name when identifying themselves.
In Bautista’s case, the third name on her lawn sign – Zavala – is the surname of a biological father she barely knows. He left the family before she was born.
Bautista’s mother, Antonia, had a polio as a child. Her pregnancy was initially a jolt to the family. She was not married. “You can imagine in a Catholic family there were a lot of hurt feelings at my mom for getting pregnant, a lot of cultural awkwardness,” she said. “But my mom was never embarrassed. We had a lot of pride in our family.”
And that’s how Bautista’s story begins. With pride, with family pulling together. “We always had love and respect in our family,” she said.
It’s helped her move past the land mines of poverty and toward a life of achievement. She wells up at the memory of being a little girl helping her grandfather Leopoldo take off his boots after he wearily returned home from the tomato harvest or the rice mill.
After her grandfather died on New Year’s Day 2001, Bautista discovered that he had saved $600 for her college education. It wasn’t nearly enough. It barely covered her first housing deposit at UC Davis. But the gesture from a man who led a family experiencing daily hunger was a blessing that informs Bautista’s life now. She has worked since she was 14. She worked at a Woodland pizza place while at UCD. She’s working now.
“We need to stand up when someone is trying to make a decision for us,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if people don’t believe in what we are saying, we still have to stand up.”