- Margaret D.
- Tuesday, September 20, 2022
In my work with The State Newspaper Photograph Archive in the Walker Local & Family History Center sometimes I come across a photograph that entices me with a mysterious subject and fills me with curiosity.
One of these I recently found was dated May 21, 1992 and labeled “Bautista, migrant advocate.” When I looked at the image I saw a man wearing a button-up shirt with a firm, direct gaze. He was standing in a South Carolina field with farm workers harvesting crops behind him, and in front of him was a leather briefcase imprinted with an ancient-looking Aztec design. He looked like a man with a purpose and convictions. He looked like a man with a mission, a noble mission even, and that he would not stop until he accomplished it.
So, who was Dan Bautista and what was he doing in that South Carolina field in 1992? Well, I did some research in our newspaper archives (using NewsBank of course) and discovered that I was right about his convictions, but frustratingly wrong about his ability to accomplish his mission.
Farm Worker Controversy
In the early 1990s a series of shocking news stories by NBC Nightly News and The State newspaper exposed South Carolina farms as housing migrant farm workers in unlivable conditions, paying them little for their work, and employing crew leaders that mistreated workers. South Carolina officials were heavily criticized for failing to enforce laws that protected migrant farm workers. This black eye on the state and a barrage of criticism led S.C. Governor Carroll Campbell to create the first state agency for migrant workers in 1992. Dan Bautista, a man who worked with migrant workers in a church-sponsored role, took the job as director of the newly created Migrant Labor Division in the spring of 1992. It was at that time his photograph was taken by a photographer for The State newspaper.
A Man with a Mission
Dan Bautista, the son of a Presbyterian minister, was born in 1959 in Puebla, Mexico and later immigrated to the United States where he attended college. He spoke fluent Spanish and English. He came to Columbia, S.C. in the 1980s to complete a master’s degree in Christian Education from Columbia Bible College, now Columbia International University. He also attended the University of South Carolina. In 1993 Bautista helped organize the South Carolina Hispanic Coalition to advocate for civil rights and educational improvements for the state’s over 30,000 Hispanic residents.
In his work as director of the Migrant Labor Division, Bautista set up a toll-free line for migrant workers to report poor treatment or to get information in English or Spanish. He translated state documents and laws into Spanish and provided workers with information about their rights. He travelled the state inspecting work sites and investigating reports of civil rights violations. But he had no power of enforcement, little funding, and few staff to assist him. The State Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation established a Migrant Farm Workers Commission, but there were no farm workers appointed to the Commission, only farm owners, who depended on the workers but were often the source of the abusive working conditions.
Brick Wall of Bureaucracy
Frustrated, Bautista left his job in 1994. His departure would leave a void in migrant worker protections. Lawyers working with migrant farm workers cited Bautista as a man willing to go above and beyond in his work, but ultimately, he could not work miracles. Wages for farm workers were so low, Bautista reported that workers had to pick 11 bags of peaches in 1 hour to make the $4.25 minimum wage. An impossible task. Without the support of the Labor department or the state legislature, Bautista felt he was unable to improve the working and living conditions of migrant farm workers. He did bring to light the need for reform, and helped to provide information to workers in Spanish about their rights. But with no enforcement of worker protections, a farmer-centered labor division, and sluggish labor boards, migrant farm workers in South Carolina would continue to experience hardship.
I don’t know how the story evolved after 1994 when Bautista left South Carolina. It was reported that he planned to move to Texas and continue his work as a missionary for migrant farm workers. I sincerely hope that he was able to do good things for others there. I also believe he did improve the working conditions for farm workers in South Carolina, as his departure highlighted the fact that a “quick-fix” solution of hiring one labor official would not solve the complex and serious issues faced by migrant farm workers overnight.
What I learned about this photograph gave me food for thought. Bautista was a man with great compassion and convictions. I’d like to learn from his example and live with kindness and empathy for others. And it’s important to remember that sometimes we don’t accomplish what we start out to do, but the important thing is that we try.