CLEARWATER — U.S. Army Spc. Arturo Huerta-Cruz, who was born in a rural town in the Mexican state of Hidalgo but died fighting for his adopted country in Iraq, was buried Tuesday, under two large oaks.
More than one hundred people from Clearwater's tight-knit Mexican immigrant community gathered at Calvary Catholic Cemetery to bid farewell to one of their own.
"We feel sad because (he's) the first person who has been in the Army," said Odilon Mezquite, co-founder of the Concilio Mexicano — Mexican Council — a bay area support group for immigrants.
Huerta-Cruz, 23, died on April 14 when an improvised explosive device exploded near his patrol near Tuz. A chemical operations specialist, he was assigned to the 10th Brigade Support Battalion, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, based in Fort Drum, N.Y.
Like thousands of immigrants from the villages of Hidalgo, he made the journey to Clearwater with his family. He was 10 when they arrived.
He loved soccer and playing with his nephews and nieces.
He graduated from Countryside High School and earned an associate's degree from St. Petersburg College, where he studied architecture.
"He was very quiet, unassuming," said Robert Hudson, one of this teachers in the Building Arts Department at the Clearwater campus. "I was shocked when I found out it was him."
Huerta-Cruz had been a permanent resident — a green card holder — for five years, his family said Monday. That was long enough to qualify for citizenship without the expedited process permanent residents receive when they enlist in the military.
Huerta-Cruz joined the Army because he wanted new experiences, his family said. He thought it would help him with his education.
"We feel proud of the decision he took," said his father, Pascual Huerta, a carpenter who makes pool tables. "The only option we had was to pray for him."
Huerta-Cruz called his family from Iraq and sent e-mails. But he did not discuss the war. "We didn't want to know, either," said his father.
"Just to know that he was fine was enough," said his mother, Maria del Carmen Huerta, who works at a direct mail company, stuffing coupons into envelopes.
On Tuesday, flags flew at half-staff on government buildings in Clearwater and in Tallahassee.
At the burial, his parents and younger brother — Humberto, 18 — sat in the front row, facing the casket draped with the American flag.
Next to them were Huerta-Cruz's maternal grandparents, Rosalio Huerta-Baltazar and Juana Cruz-Flores, and an uncle, Victor Cruz, whom the Army and the Armed Forces Foundation flew here from Mexico.
It was not easy to find them in their little town, said U.S. Rep. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores. Young and his wife, Beverley, were with Huerta-Cruz's family Sunday when the soldier's casket arrived at St. Petersburg-Clearwater Airport. The Youngs also attended Monday night's Mass and Tuesday's funeral.
Huerta-Cruz's grandparents — both in their late 60s — live in Ixmiquilpan, the same town where he was born.
Because there are no phones in the town, Young said, someone from the American embassy drove almost two hours to find them.
"Anyone who puts on that uniform," Beverley Young said at the burial, "if he's willing to fight for me and die for me, he's an American."
Army Brig. Gen. Michael T. Harrison presented an American flag to his soldier's mother. Among the medals Huerta-Cruz's family received were his Bronze Star and Purple Heart.
Carmen Huerta sobbed quietly.
Though immigrants who are permanent residents can join the military, they are limited from reaching certain positions, particularly those requiring special security clearances.
As of February, 20,326 immigrants served in all the service branches. Another 13,151 were in the Reserves.
Immigrants have fought for the United States since the Revolutionary War. More recently, "green card" soldiers have drawn attention for their heroism in Iraq.
Two Marines, Lance Cpl. Jose A. Gutierrez and Cpl. Jose. A. Garibay, both from Southern California, were killed in the early invasion of Iraq.
Army officials said they will begin the process to acquire posthumous citizenship for Huerta-Cruz. Since 2001, 111 men and women who have died in Afghanistan and Iraq have received posthumous citizenship.
Huerta-Cruz's family said it would accept the honor.
Not all who attended Huerta-Cruz's Mass at St. Cecelia Catholic Church on Monday evening and the burial were fellow immigrants. "Arturo was a green card soldier, but he was a son of Clearwater," said Clearwater City Council member George Cretekos.
"When this young man enlisted," said John Minch, 53, a member of the Patriot Guard Riders, "he agreed to pay any price for your freedom and mine. He paid with his life."
Jose Cardenas can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4224.