ROBSTOWN, Texas — What does it mean to be a cotton picker? For some, the name rings negative or even racist connotations.
But during this Hispanic heritage month, we visit the city of Robstown to tell us why people in the city are proud to call themselves "Cotton Pickers."
Robstown, has a population of about 11,000, with a majority of the demographic being Hispanic or Latino.
The city has a rich history of agricultural workers, who mainly picked cotton until the early 1950's.
But what makes this city special and united, is its pride for its ancestral history, despite what the controversial name "Cotton Pickers" has stirred up, more than once.
"It was a hard working occupation, that we earned money and made a living from," Rumaldo Z. Juarez said.
John P. Manning was the Robstown football coach in 1921. He came up with the "Cotton Picker" mascot name and became high school principal in 1922.
Historians told KRIS 6 News the name was chosen because of the cotton industry in the region. At that time, there were 18 cotton gins in Robstown.
"It was a revered profession. Mom worked in it, dad worked in it, uncle worked in it, tia's and tio's, abuelita worked in it. And guess who else worked in it? The kids," Robstown Superintendent José H. Moreno said.
"It was earning a living, it was providing food for us and shelter," Robstown school board President Lori Garza said.
In 1985, Armando Gonzalez became the Robstown athletic director and head football coach at then Pickerland.
In 1986, he found a photo of what he thought was a proud looking cotton boll and a representation of what it meant to pick cotton. From there, Gonzalez made sure this logo became the symbol for the Robstown Independent School District, the cotton boll.
"We certainly didn't at the time, and certainly don't at this time even now consider it with racial overtones," said Juarez.
"Everybody in Robstown at one point in time picked cotton. Blacks, Whites, Hispanic," said Alice Upshaw Hawkins, who is an educator.
Hawkins spent the first seven years of her life in Robstown before moving to Corpus Christi.
She said she attended a segregated school from 1950-57 and was a cotton picker by choice. She told us she gets asked often, as a Black woman, how does she feel about being called a cotton picker? She said she doesn't take offense.
"I remember going to the cotton fields with my mother, and we would make and my sister and I would make little piles of cotton while she came along and she would pick the piles up," Upshaw said.
She said being a cotton picker in South Texas was a source of income. She still remembers graduating from picking cotton, to pulling cotton.
"You know when you pull cotton, you pull the whole boll off. When you pick it, you pick the cotton out of the boll and leave the bolls there," Upshaw said.
"I, as a Robstonian, just wanted to say, no. The Cotton Pickers mascot is not intended to be racist, but it can easily come off as such if you are not aware of the towns history," said Tommy Elijah Cabello, a Robstown high school alumnus. Cabello was part of the Robstown High School band in February 2022, when the mascot name went viral again.
So, he decided to create a youtube video to educate others.
"I am going to go ahead and share the actual meaning of that name and you know, it's not a bad thing," said Cabello.
Also, Robstown Superintendent Moreno responded with a statement.
"(...) To be a Cotton Picker or piscador, was revered as an admirable profession from which men, women, and children as collective families, earned the badge of honor to be considered productive citizens of our great nation," he wrote. "There is definitely no ill harm or meaning behind the word in any way. It's a point of pride of what the industry was, what it is today, and where it's going in the future."
Robstown Mayor Gilbert Gomez said the history and tradition of what it means to be a cotton picker is still being handed down to the new generation.
“It helps educate people about South Texas, about Robstown, our community about cotton pickers. And if people would understand that it has nothing to do with race or being derogatory, it’s something about what we used to do here," Gomez said.
But not everyone agrees. Some have suggested a change in name and mascot altogether. While others, have suggested it be changed to it's spanish translation, los piscadores.
"There is no reason in hiding behind a translation of the word. Los piscadores, is cotton pickers, to 'piscar' means to pick cotton," Moreno said.
"When it comes to our town, everyone is united. When it comes to our name, everyone is united, when it comes to our football team, our baseball team, our basketball team, we are all united and that all stems behind our cotton picker name," said Garza.
Moreno said there are no plans to change the name and the district is educating others about its history and cotton picker pride.