116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — As a 5-year-old growing up in the hills of west-central Mexico, James Huerta knew nothing of Iowa.
He, his younger brother and his mother lived with his grandmother in a poor part of town in Ameca, Jalisco. They all slept together in the living room.
“We just had our beds all in the living room,” Huerta, now 22, told The Gazette. “There was no A/C. There was electricity, but there was no television, no internet, nothing like that.”
What Huerta’s mom did have was a vision and ambition.
“We definitely moved here to Iowa for a better life,” he said.
Seventeen years later, Huerta just graduated from the University of Iowa as an ROTC cadet with a bachelor’s in finance — making him the first in his family to earn high school and college degrees. After spending Christmas with his mom, two brothers and sister, Huerta will report to Fort Rucker in Alabama for flight school — part of his plan to eventually fly Black Hawk helicopters for the Army.
After the military, Huerta said he aims to keep flying for an air ambulance service, perhaps with a hospital. And while all that seems very much in reach today, his family was a long way from Black Hawk helicopters and college commencements when they arrived in Sioux City in 2005.
“We just moved into his empty house,” Huerta said. “There was nothing, no beds, no nothing. We just had a bunch of blankets and we just slept on the floor. And that was the first real memory of being in and coming to Iowa and starting our family's lives here.”
Huerta’s dad was never much in the picture, and he stayed in Mexico. As a single mom, Maria De Anleu got a job cutting and packing meat at Tyson Foods.
“It was really tough for her,” he said. “She really hated her job. But she knew she had to do it to support me and my siblings.”
The Huertas had plenty to fear in their move to a new country: financial instability; lack of family support; a new language; a harsher climate. But one fear stood above the rest.
“One of her biggest fears growing up was that she, for some reason, would be put in a bad situation where the government would have to take us away,” Huerta said. “I think we, my brother and I, were a big motivation for her to keep working and stay with it.”
‘About the Army’
Although Spanish was Huerta’s first language, he entered the public school system here as a kindergartner, putting him in the same position as many 5-year-olds learning their ABCs. He also benefited from American cartoons.
“I ended up picking it up really quickly,” he said. “I watched a lot of TV, and they were all in English. So I think I was at a good age where I was able to pick it up.”
When Huerta was 11 and in fifth grade, his mom had a falling out with his stepdad and she moved the family an hour north to Sioux Center, where she got a job at an egg factory.
In high school, Huerta played soccer and ran cross-country and didn’t think much about the prospect of college.
“I didn't really have much direction growing up,” he said. “I was just kind of living in the moment in high school. … I didn’t really have many people pushing me toward a certain direction.”
So when a military recruiter called, Huerta answered. The recruiter wanted to meet with him and his mom to pitch Huerta on joining the Iowa Army National Guard.
“She was a little bit sketched out at first,” Huerta said of his mom’s initial response. “She knows about the Army. She knows about war and all that stuff. And in her mind, it was like me going into war and possibly getting shot or getting hurt. So for her, she was kind of hoping I wouldn’t do it.”
But Huerta was on board because of the opportunities it offered.
“Even though she was a little sketched out by it, she respected my decision and allowed me,” he said.
After basic and other training over the summer, Huerta learned about scholarship options through the UI Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program — or ROTC. He and a friend applied, and “luckily for us, we both ended up getting the scholarship.”
Huerta applied for and received additional scholarships to supplement his three-year ROTC ride. “I ended up making more money than I really needed,” he said, which he used to cover living expenses.
After becoming the first person in his family to graduate high school in spring 2017, enduring Army training through the summer and fall of that year, Huerta began his UI tenure in January s2018 — pursuing a degree in finance, alongside his military pursuits.
As an athletic, ambitious kid, Huerta said ROTC was a natural fit — and he emerged as a mentor, leading 20-plus cadets in morning drills and training sessions while also guiding peers with similar academic interests.
Master Sergeant and ROTC Senior Military Science Instructor Chris Janis met Huerta at a “Task Force Ranger Challenge Competition” in 2019 where cadets from campuses in surrounding states went head to head. And Janis said he was impressed.
Recalling Huerta’s leadership of his nine-person team in one of the final events — a march requiring each member to lug a 50-pound pack over hilly terrain — Janis said Huerta drove himself and his teammates to “push even harder because he wanted to win the event so badly.”
“It got to the point when the team crossed the finish line, James’ lips were just white from being so dehydrated,” Janis said, noting Huerta embodies the ideals of a U.S. military officer.
“James is the type of individual we want leading the formations in our nation’s military,” he said. “He truly builds trust. He’s physically fit. He helps others. He has the vast majority of attributes and competencies we are looking for in an individual as they commission in the U.S. Army.”
With her son acting as a translator, De Anleu said she’s “very proud.”
“She said she always knew I would do amazing things and is so happy that things ended up working out,” Huerta told The Gazette.
That, he said, was her dream when she first moved to Iowa — without so much as a bed.
“She said she had always wanted the very best for me but based on our tough situation she wasn't quite certain how things would end up,” he said. “Her main goal at the start was to make sure we would be financially fine and to make sure we were adapting well with our new lives.”
Watching her firstborn graduate from college earlier this month, with plans and next steps in place for an esteemed career flying military helicopters, De Anleu said was exciting.
“She said she had never experienced a college graduation before, but it was really exciting to see me be a part of something so prestigious,” he said.
And while she’s looking forward to his post-commencement pursuits — starting with flight school in the new year — De Anleu said she’s in no rush.
“She is excited about having the whole family together again this holiday and having the chance for me to celebrate with them before having to leave.”
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