Editor’s note: Part of a series looking at the debate surrounding some high school mascots as Washington’s NFL team and others have announced changes in 2020.
Twenty miles west of Corpus Christi, Texas, lies the city of Robstown and the Robstown Early College High School. They are home of the Robstown Cotton Pickers.
In the Southern region of the state, the Cotton Pickers mascot is a symbol of pride that acknowledges the history and hard work of those who migrated across the border to make an honest living in America.
“It’s merely a label that is accurately portraying what your grandmother did,” Bianca Prado, a fourth-generation Robstown, Texan and Robstown High School alumna told USA TODAY Sports.
To critics of the mascot, the nickname is an offensive downplaying of our country’s painful history of slavery and the forced labor of enslaved Africans, Black and Indigenous people.
“It’s ironic that they (people from Robstown, Texas) are saying that this mascot name is teaching their history,” said historian Kelsey Moore to USA TODAY Sports. “How is it teaching history if you are not asking historical questions? If you were asking yourself historical questions, then you wouldn’t be confused as to why the name has caused so much controversy.”
Professional sports teams across the country are under pressure to change racially insensitive mascot names. The latest change took place in Cleveland, when the Major League Baseball team dropped “Indians” from their name in December, months after the Washington Football Team removed “Redskins” from their title over the summer. These changes are also taking place in high school athletics.
One of the mascot battlegrounds is in Texas. High schools there recently removed controversial names offensive in Native and Indigenous culture.
Hays Consolidated Independent School District recommended the Board of Trustees at Hay High School move on from its Rebels mascot in July. The board unanimously voted to fully retire the name connected to the Confederacy by the end of the school year.
Outside of Dallas in North Richland Hills, Richland High School also booted its Rebels mascot in June. Birdville Independent School District Board of Trustees unanimously voted to remove the controversial mascot and all related imagery around the school after hearing members of the campus community state that the mascot and related traditions – including a fight song with lyrics reverent of the Confederate South – condoned a culture of racism.
‘It’s our family’s story’
The high school, a part of the Robstown Independent School District, is where Hall of Fame offensive lineman Gene Upshaw attended. He’d go on to win two Super Bowls in 14 years playing for the then Oakland Raiders.
The school came under the national spotlight in September when a tweet of its football team went viral.
Chris Tomasson, a sports reporter for KIII TV, tweeted a video from a Friday night football game along with the caption: “The Robstown Cotton Pickers come out before their season opener against London tonight.”
Thirty minutes later, Tomasson tweeted, “This tweet is blowing up. To be fair, most times I remember to just call them the Pickers. Agree it’s probably time for a change.”
The tweet now has 2.6 million views, 230 times more people than the population of the city. The school district put out a statement the next day.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, America is the world’s leading cotton exporter, providing about 35 percent of the global cotton exports in recent years. U.S. cotton is grown in predominantly 17 southern “Cotton Belt” states with Texas accounting for the most production followed by Georgia, Mississippi and Arkansas.
Members of the Robstown community, including alumni of the high school, supported the district’s statement advocating for the name and sharing their reverence in the cotton-picking profession on social media.
Prado was furious to see the negative comments people shared on social media against the name, believing the name carried a sense of pride and admiration for migrant workers who came from Mexico, including her great-grandfather. “The town was built on the backs of a labor force of Hispanics that followed the production season.”
Like many other Robstown High School Alumni, Prado does not believe the name should be changed because of its historical value within the community.
“They (social media users) tried to make it a Black thing,” said Prado, who believed that was done strictly for “shock value.”
The school district said in a statement to USA TODAY Sports it backs the use of the nickname because it “represents a sense of pride based on tradition for the students and a historical legacy for the community members.”
According to the 2019 Census, Robstown is 93.9% Hispanic or Latino origin – referring to a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race – and only 0.2% Black or African American.
“People are changing the story,” said Prado. “They don’t know the history. It’s a location thing. This close to the border, you are going to have Hispanics. That’s the only difference. In the South – they needed to bring in a labor force and that is unfortunate.”
Prado graduated from Robstown in 2004 and the accounts she has from family members who picked cotton and her own memories of visiting fields are not even 50 years old.
“I myself have picked onions before,” she said. “My grandmother picked cotton. My mom picked fruit.
“This is our family’s story.”
Prado says there is a stigma that comes along with the town and being a “Robstown Cotton Picker.”
“Having met people from other areas, people try to shame you about it,” she said. “I take it. I say nothing.”
“Was it (picking cotton) the most glamorous way to become an American?” she asked. “Probably not, but look, I am a Texan. Because of them (her family who came from Mexico to pick cotton in the United States), now I am an American.”
The negative attention the school and its mascot received after the viral tweet was not new.
When a middle school less than thirty minutes away decided in 2017 to end using “Rebels” as its mascot, which sported a confederate uniform, residents of southwest Texas wondered if Robstown would be the next school to make a change.
But school district officials came to the same defense then as they did in September.
“Robstown ISD administration has not received commentary from parents due to neighboring school districts’ mascot controversy,” the school district said in a release in October 2017. “To be a Robstown Cotton Picker exhibits a sense of pride. At this time Robstown ISD will stay focused on student needs as their priority.”
‘A lot of things don’t deserve commemoration’
The negative connotations of ‘cotton pickers’ stem from America’s history with slave labor and the systems of oppression that followed and continue to plague the nation today.
Moore, a history doctoral student at Johns Hopkins University, believes people can take pride in their family history without commemorating or honoring the parts of history when people of color were exploited for their labor.
“And a lot of things don’t deserve to be commemorated if we are being quite honest,” said Moore.
Moore, a Black woman who grew up in the South, is the descendant of those who picked cotton including, she said, her own grandmother.
The first Black family moved to Robstown in 1912, according to the City of Robstown website.
According to the Texas State Library and Archive Commission, slavery dominated 19th century American life, and Texas was no exception.
“The Mexican government was opposed to slavery, but even so, there were 5,000 slaves in Texas by the time of the Texas Revolution in 1836,” writes the commission. “By the time of annexation a decade later, there were 30,000; by 1860, the census found 182,566 slaves – over 30% of the total population of the state.”
Moore wants people to consider when they are debating the various mascot controversies, always remember the historical context.
“Everything has a history. History is everywhere,” she said, “and in the United States and in the world, everything is racialized.”
Contact Analis Bailey at email@example.com or on Twitter @analisbailey.