September 11, 2019 / Modified sep 25, 2019 1:31 p.m.

Archive Tucson: Picking cotton and going to school

Stella Jacobs spent her middle school years picking cotton in Marana and learning English.

Stella Jacobs spent her middle school years picking cotton in Marana, Arizona, while rapidly learning English and attending school in Tucson. You can hear Stella Jacobs' full interview with her husband Lionel here.


AENGUS ANDERSON, HOST: For historians, the mid-20th century is basically yesterday. But when you look at how much has changed since then, it can sometimes seem like another world. We're going to kick off this series by exploring a few stories of childhood in Tucson, because while kids may still be kids, their world has changed radically.

STELLA JACOBS: I was born in Casa Grande, February 8, '36.

ANDERSON: This is Stella Jacobs. Her family moved to Mexico when she was five but returned to the US in the late 1940s, when she was 12.

JACOBS: So we came to Tucson, because my mom's family, most of them lived here. When we came here, we had a hard time establishing a home. My mom and my two brothers and myself went to Marana. The little ranch-type houses that they have for all the cotton pickers. No cooler, no heaters, nothing, just a one room.

Are you aware of how people manage to pick the cotton? How they haul it? You had sacks, like 10, 15 feet long tied around your waist. You would go ahead and pick the cotton and put it in there. You had to drag that sack. Now I go back and think about it. And I said, oh, my god, did I do that? Was I happy there? I was. But we only stayed there for the season for cotton pickers, which was from September to about the middle of November.

Then we came back to Tucson with my aunt and she set us up in a little garage in the back. And then I went to a real school. I did not know a word of English at this time. One of the ladies, a teacher there, had just graduated from the University [of Arizona]. I guess she took pity on me and thought, oh, my god, this kid is going to drown when she starts school.

I was 13 at this time. She says, come to my house three times a week if you can walk and I will work with you. I will teach you as much as I can. So I did. I would walk.

By the end of summer before school started, I started kindergarten. I didn't know what I was reading, but I could read. I picked it up very quick.

So I was promoted right away to second grade, because I was 13, but I was so little that I fit in pretty well with the little ones. Then the third day or so, then they moved me up to the fourth grade. And I stayed there for a whole year. And then I went to John Spring the first year that it opened up.

In fact, my mom said, honey, you can't go to high school, because you need to pick cotton. We need the money. And I said, mom, I will work after school. I will find a job. And I did. I did downtown. National Dollar Store. Lerner Shops. Worked part-time. And I said, I'll help out as much as I can, but please let me go to high school.

ANDERSON: Spoiler alert, Stella did go to high school and, after a career and family, attended Pima and the U of A for her undergraduate and master's degrees. To hear the rest of her story and other oral histories from the University of Arizona Libraries, visit

This story is part of Archive Tucson, an oral history project produced by Aengus Anderson through the University of Arizona Libraries' Special Collections.

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