Economic crunch cripples LaGrulla

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LaGRULLA, Texas _ In English, the word �MDUL�grulla�MDNM� means crane. LaGrulla received its name from the flocks of whooping cranes that used to winter in the area.

The town of 1,445 is like most of the towns in Starr County _ rural, Hispanic in population and lacking jobs, its biggest problem.

Raul and Maria Elena Martinez were born and reared in LaGrulla, and for the past 35 years have traveled throughout the country with their 13 children in search of work as farm laborers. In the past they have traveled to Florida, California and Minnesota, but in the past five years their travels have been concentrated in the Pacific Northwest, including stays this year in Walla Walla, Pasco and Boardman, Ore.

``Sixty percent of our population are migrant workers,'' said city Councilman Raymundo Gonzalez. ``And the other 40 percent stay here and work in the local farms.''

Local growers harvest cantaloupes, onions, bell peppers, watermelons, celery, oranges and grapefruit. But the freezes, droughts and floods that have plagued the South Texas Valley during the past three years have caused many farmers to go out of business.

``We're suffering an economic crunch right now. Many of the local farmers have gone bankrupt because people just aren't buying,'' Gonzalez said from his one-room office at his small, used car lot. ``Just last year, one of our biggest farmers went under, he went bankrupt. He owned 5,000 acres and now he has nothing.''

When migrant families such as the Martinezes return home for the winter after working the harvest in spring, summer and fall, they look for jobs.

``But lately, local work can't be found so they just live off unemployment,'' Gonzalez said.

The Martinezes and the three children still at home live on about $900 a month in unemployment and Social Security benefits.�MDNM�

Life can be hard for families who have to pay taxes and utility bills, and buy food, gas and clothing on the little income that they receive.

``The biggest thing that kills people are taxes,'' Gonzalez said. ``And unfortunately they keep going up every year.''

Most of the people of LaGrulla are homeowners. County taxes are $1.51 per $100 valuation and school taxes are 76 cents per $100 valuation. (Property taxes in Washington and Oregon are computed differently, using a tax rate per $1,000 of assessed value.) The average home �MDUL��MDNM�in LaGrulla is worth only $8,000, making the total taxes about $182.

Another major complaint residents of LaGrulla have is the cost of indoor plumbing. The cost of connecting a water line to a home is $600 within the city limits and $800 outside the city limits.

``We realize it's a big expense, but those $600 cover parts and labor, water rights and the water meter, so the high cost is unavoidable,'' Gonzalez said. ``Even if they do complain, everyone has water.''

Gonzalez, a lifetime resident of LaGrulla, said he has not seen the city grow very much during his 55 years here.

Records show that the 1980 census recorded 1,442 citizens living in LaGrulla. Eleven years later that number has increased by three.

Like all communities, there is crime in LaGrulla. There is no police force in the community; rather, it is patrolled daily by one officer from the Starr County Sheriff's Department.

``We do have problems with crime, the biggest problem being drugs,'' Gonzalez said. He would not elaborate.

Despite all the problems and difficulties that residents of LaGrulla face, it is home. While over half of the residents leave their homes each spring in search of work elsewhere in the country, they, like the whooping cranes, return to LaGrulla for the winter.

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