The community of Broken Arrow, Okla., after the May 31 storm system that… (Tom Gilbert, Associated…)
Before Samuel Cifuentes walked out the door, his younger brother warned him about the storm bearing down on Oklahoma City.
"Tené cuidado. Ya viene un tornado," Byron Cifuentes said. (Be careful. A tornado is coming.)
Samuel dismissed his brother's worry. "Ha bueno. Al que le toca, le toca." (Well, if it's your time to go, it's your time to go.)
A few hours later, Samuel Cifuentes was gone.
At least 20 Oklahomans died in a tornado outbreak 10 days ago. Almost half of the storm's victims — four adults, including Cifuentes, and five young children — were Guatemalan.
"It was a tragedy, bro," said Felix Cabrera, a pastor for Quail Springs Baptist Church who has been helping immigrant families recover from the storm. "It's hard because it's our people; it's our community; they're immigrants."
Cabrera added, "They don't have papers."
Oklahoma's resident population of immigrants who entered illegally swelled from an estimated 50,000 in 2000 to 75,000 in 2010, according to the Pew Research Center. In response, the state's conservative lawmakers enacted some of the strictest laws in the nation governing how such immigrants would be treated by state agencies.
The ongoing tensions were apparent after the May 20 tornado that ripped through Moore and southern Oklahoma City. Some families who were in the country illegally initially hesitated to ask for help.
Then the May 31 disaster killed three families from the state's small Guatemalan population of almost 8,000 (as of the 2010 census). The children were born in the U.S., but the adults had migrated from one of the world's most disaster-prone countries to one of the most disaster-prone states in the U.S.
Samuel Cifuentes, originally from Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, crossed into the U.S. more than a decade ago with a cousin in search of work.
"Our country is a poor country, and thank God we made it through," said the cousin, Octavio Aguilar. He and Cifuentes wanted to make a better life for their families in Guatemala, he said.
As the storm approached, Samuel Cifuentes called his two brothers. He said he had taken cover in a storm drain under a bridge behind his home, with his wife, Florinda Santos Cucum, and their 4-year-old son, Alex. Samuel was calling to say they were OK. "Estoy bien," he said.
Her cousin Yolanda Santos and Santos' three children — Brandon, 8, Lesley, 7, and Chris, 4 — were with them.
Byron Cifuentes, 29, who worked with Samuel in the back of an Oklahoma City restaurant with other Guatemalans, said his brother didn't show up for work the next day.
He went to Samuel's house. It was still standing, but the families were nowhere to be found.
Officials believe they were swept away by storm water. All but Yolanda's body have been recovered.
A third Guatemalan family also couldn't find safe shelter.
Miguel Chicoj was taken by surprise when he saw the storm approach while he and his wife, Maria Pol Martin, were grocery shopping in Oklahoma City, according to a friend, Ausencio Acosta.
Scared, the couple and their three children — a young girl and boy and a 16-day-old son, Rey — piled into their van. They thought they'd make it home to Hinton before the storm caught up to them, Acosta said.
The roads backed up with traffic. They were stuck. The wind roared. Dirt splashed their van. They couldn't see ahead. Martin turned to her husband.
"Mi amor. Nos vamos a morir," she told him, according to Acosta. (My love. We're going to die.)
When Chicoj awoke after the tornado hit, the van was upside down. His wife and their baby were dead. Chicoj and his two other children were injured. They were released from the hospital and are recovering at home, Acosta said.
Now the family is arranging funerals, and repatriation of the bodies of Martin and Rey to Ninchaj in Guatemala, Acosta said.
The Guatemalan consulate in Houston has said it will pay to return the bodies, a duty normally performed on border crossers who die of dehydration — not storm victims in Oklahoma.
"It is unusual, it is very — " said Jose Barillas, the consul general, pausing as he searched for the right word. "Out of so few affected victims [in Oklahoma], half of them are Guatemalans. I don't know what to say."
Octavio Aguilar said he and Cifuentes played soccer every Sunday night since entering the country 14 years ago. Every week, Aguilar said, Cifuentes sent him a text message around 9:30 or 10 p.m.: " 'Hey bro, we gonna have a game at 11:00, 11:20, be there on time.' That's his text on every Sunday night for me."
Last Sunday there was no text, and there was no soccer. Octavio Aguilar spent the day searching.
He and other volunteers found three of the children's bodies, he said, including his cousin's son. Then he prayed.
"That was a sad day," Aguilar said. "Because Sunday afternoon, we sat and cried, you know?"
Times staff writer Rick Rojas and data analyst Sandra Poindexter contributed to this report.