Uncertainty and anguish have pervaded the life of Juana Villalba, 49, since she left her native Paraguay for the first time on Saturday in search of answers after her daughter went missing in the collapse partial of a condominium in the Miami Beach area on June 24.
His daughter, Leidy Luna Villalba, is among 86 people missing since most of the oceanfront apartments at the Champlain Towers South complex in Surfside, Florida collapsed for reasons that remain unknown. At least 54 people died in the collapse; around 200 people have already been identified, officials said on Wednesday.
Lourdes Luna, Leidy’s cousin, arrived in Miami alongside Villalba early Sunday morning. Since then, they have attended at least two daily briefings with rescuers and forensic scientists looking for people missing in the rubble. Luna helped Villalba make sense of the situation, as Villalba mainly speaks Guaraní, an indigenous language common in the rural village of Eugenio Garay, where the family lives.
“The family had a lot of hope when they fired us,” Luna, 38, told NBC News in Spanish. “They were hoping we would bring Leidy home. But now that we’re here, the reality is different.”
At the dawn of a new life – and a new career
With each passing day, the possibility of finding Leidy Luna Villalba alive and the dozens of people missing in the rubble dwindles. After the standing part of the 40-year-old building was demolished on Sunday, rescuers were able to search more areas without an unstable structure threatening their efforts, officials told Luna. She hopes this means that they will soon learn what exactly happened to her cousin.
On Wednesday evening, officials announced that search and rescue efforts at the collapsed building would shift to a recovery operation, signaling the official end of the search for survivors.
Leidy Luna Villalba was about to graduate from Universidad San Lorenzo and become a nurse when she accepted a weekend job to help care for the three children of Sophia López Moreira, sister of the first lady of Paraguay, Silvana López Moreira. Lopez Moreira; her husband, Luis Pettengill; and their three children are also among those missing.
The job provided the 23-year-old with the money she needed to pay for her college education.
This led her to leave – for the first time – her small impoverished village near Tres Kandú peak, the highest point in Paraguay.
“It was the first time she had traveled outside of Paraguay, neither more nor less than the United States,” Luna said. For a young woman determined to overcome her predicament and provide a more dignified life for her parents, deciding to embark on this journey was no light decision, she said.
“It was a lot of things. It was not an easy decision for her or for the family. It was like another world for us. It was a challenge, a very important challenge that she wanted to take up,” said Luna said, “until that happened.”
She had worked for the first lady’s family for over a year before moving with them to Miami.
A mother’s plea resonates among American Paraguayans
The tragic news struck a chord with Paraguayans living in the South American nation and those who have relocated to the United States. journalists from the family home in Eugenio Garay for any information.
“I ask for news of my daughter. I don’t know anything about her and I’m desperate, ”Villalba told ABC TV Paraguay.
Her calls have been heard by Paraguayans like Silvia Bosch, a Miami real estate agent who has set up a GoFundMe page to help the family. Bosch and Evelina Lowenthal, who own a travel agency in the Miami area, asked Eastern Airlines to donate flights for Villalba and Luna to get to Miami from Paraguay as they begged for information on Leidy Luna Villalba .
With the help of the Paraguayan Consulate General in Miami, Luna and Villalba obtained an emergency visa to enter the United States this weekend, after obtaining their first passport. With the support of the Paraguayan Americans, they will stay in Miami indefinitely until they know something about Leidy Luna Villalba.
His story represented the reality of working-class young Paraguayans who are desperate for a better future, Bosch said. Luna agreed.
“Leidy is a beautiful person, inside and out, a girl with dreams like many Paraguayans who want to improve themselves. She has always been an independent and hard-working girl,” said Luna.
“At first we were reluctant to come, but now we’re here, and it’s a roller coaster of emotions,” she said. She pointed out that Villalba sometimes regretted going to Miami, and other times she was glad she came. “It’s a mixture of feelings and emotions that we can’t explain many times over. We miss Leidy so much.”
Besides being a hard worker, Leidy Luna Villalba was known as a brilliant mind with an infectious smile. Her dog Wendy along with her nieces and nephews, who know her as Tía Peteta, are seen all over her TikTok page dancing with her. Luna said everyone in the family called her Tía Peteta since one of Leidy’s nephews Luna Villalba came up with the nickname after struggling to pronounce her real name.
“She adores them so much,” Luna said. “And she loves animals. He misses his dog so much. It’s almost as if she senses his absence.
“Of all the cousins, Leidy was the most witty, the most creative, almost like one of those actresses who overplay all the time. She was spontaneous and very happy. That’s why sometimes I want to tell her mom that she wouldn’t like to see her like that, ”Luna said. “Her smile is as happy as you see it in her photos.”
Bosch and Lowenthal have mobilized to support the family in Paraguay. Their support has been crucial in helping Villalba and his family get through such a difficult time, Luna said.
“Their constant support and encouraging messages have been one of the most important factors since this tragedy occurred,” she said. “It wouldn’t have been possible for us to come here without them. We would still be in Paraguay in uncertainty, so we are very happy to be here despite the circumstances.
Bosch said she plans to give Villalba and Luna the money collected through GoFundMe to help them pay for any expenses during their stay and help them make up for the money Leidy Luna Villalba allegedly worked to earn.
“We know that nothing is going to ease the pain they are having right now,” Bosch said. “But at least we want to be able to help them alleviate some of the economic burdens they might have during this time.”
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