CLEARWATER — Propped on his mother's knee, 9-month-old Arturo Hot spent his first Memorial Day at the flower-covered grave of a cousin he never met.
The baby's namesake, Spc. Arturo Huerta-Cruz, 23, of Clearwater, was killed in Iraq last year, fighting for the country he hoped to become a citizen of someday.
That sacrifice, family members say, will further opportunities for his younger cousins, including baby Arturo, who is a U.S. citizen.
The infant child will have opportunities never available to Huerta-Cruz. He can vote for president; he might become president. He can work for the government — as Huerta-Cruz once hoped — or he might pass along his name to the family's growing list of natural-born U.S. citizens.
It's a story that Arturo can't yet understand. One day, though, the baby's mother, Maria Hot, said she'll explain to her child about Huerta-Cruz.
"I'll tell him (Huerta-Cruz) was a hero," she said. "He went to fight for our freedom."
As family members surrounded Huerta-Cruz's grave Monday morning at Calvary Catholic Cemetery, adults chatted about the young soldier in Spanish, while Huerta-Cruz's young cousins laughed and chided one another, bouncing carelessly in their games across the cemetery.
They said they missed their cousin, who used to play soccer with them.
Wafts of incense filled the air as Huerta-Cruz's parents, Pascual and Maria, stood facing the grave. Fresh red and yellow flowers were planted. Three small American flags were perched in a row before the Mexican citizen's plot.
"He didn't tell us much" about his work in Iraq, his father said. He had been there about six months when an improvised explosive device detonated near his patrol unit on April 14, 2008, near Tuz, Iraq.
Huerta-Cruz had been assigned to the 10th Brigade Support Battalion, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, based in Fort Drum, N.Y.
About 50 family members and friends met his casket when it arrived home. A water cannon sprayed an arch over the aircraft carrying Huerta-Cruz's body. Pascual, Maria, cousin Roger Cruz and other family members were inconsolable in their grief that day.
Because he came from a rural town in Hidalgo, Mexico, to a new life in Pinellas County, Huerta-Cruz's death was inconceivable for a family seeking new beginnings.
The father, a carpenter who builds pool tables, worried for his son when he joined the Army.
"He was 18; what could you do?" Pascual Huerta said Monday, looking down at his son's grave.
The soldiers' missions were dangerous, his parents said. But "he loved this country," his mother added.
The infant, Arturo, squirmed in his mother's arms as relatives doted on him.
Huerta-Cruz had dreams of more education, his mother said. The Army promised it.
The cemetery had largely emptied late in the morning after the Memorial Day service, but Pascual Huerta still stood with his extended family, American flags dotted the rolling green space, each demarcating the resting space for deceased veterans.
Like families present for other veterans, the family from Hidalgo cried and remembered. Huerta-Cruz was their hero. They said he, too, was a patriot.
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Brian Spegele can be reached at (727) 445-4154 or email@example.com.