Uncertainty and anguish have taken over the life of Juana Villalba, 49, since she left her native Paraguay for the first time on Saturday seeking answers after her daughter went missing following the partial collapse of a Miami Beach-area condo building on June 24.
Her daughter, Leidy Luna Villalba, is among the 86 people who remain unaccounted for since most of the oceanside apartments at the Champlain Towers South complex in Surfside, Florida, crumbled for reasons that remain unknown. At least 54 people died in the collapse; about 200 people have already been accounted for, officials said Wednesday.
Lourdes Luna, Leidy’s cousin, arrived in Miami alongside Villalba early Sunday morning. Since then, they’ve been attending at least two daily briefings with rescuers and forensic specialists searching for those missing in the rubble. Luna has been helping Villalba make sense of the situation, since Villalba mainly speaks Guaraní, an Indigenous language common in the rural village of Eugenio Garay, where the family lives.
"The family was very hopeful when they sent us off," Luna, 38, told NBC News in Spanish. "They hoped that we were going to bring Leidy back home. But now that we’re here, the reality is different."
On the verge of a new life — and career
With every day that went by, the possibility of finding alive Leidy Luna Villalba and the dozens of people who remain missing in the rubble became slimmer. Following the demolition of the standing portion of the 40-year-old building Sunday, rescuers have been able to search through more areas without an unstable structure threatening their efforts, officials told Luna. She hopes that means they will soon learn what exactly happened to her cousin.
On Wednesday evening, officials announced that the search and rescue efforts at the collapsed building would shift to a recovery operation, signaling the formal end of the search for survivors.
Leidy Luna Villalba was on the verge of graduating from Universidad San Lorenzo and becoming a nurse when she took on a weekend job to help care for the three children of Sophia López Moreira, the sister of the first lady of Paraguay, Silvana López Moreira. López Moreira; her husband, Luis Pettengill; and their three children are also among those who remain unaccounted for.
The job provided the 23-year-old college student with the money she needed to pay for her college education.
It led her to leave — for the first time — her small, impoverished village located near the Tres Kandú peak, Paraguay’s highest point.
“It was her first time traveling outside of Paraguay to, nothing more and nothing less than to, the United States,” Luna said. For a young woman determined to overcome her circumstances and provide a more dignified life for her parents, deciding to embark on that trip was not a light decision, she said.
"It represented many things. It wasn’t an easy decision for her or the family. It was like another world for us. It was a challenge, a very important challenge that she wanted to take on," Luna said, "until what happened."
She had been working for the first lady’s family for more than a year before heading with them to Miami.
A mother's plea reverberates among U.S. Paraguayans
The tragic news struck a chord with Paraguayans living in the South American nation and those who have moved to the U.S. As initial headlines focused on the missing relatives of the first lady, Leidy Luna Villalba's story seemed to have been overlooked until her mother pleaded to Paraguayan reporters from the family's home in Eugenio Garay for any information.
“I’m asking for any news of my daughter. I don’t know anything about her and I’m desperate,” Villalba told ABC TV Paraguay.
Her pleas were heard by Paraguayans like Silvia Bosch, a realtor who lives in Miami who created a GoFundMe page to help the family. Bosch and Evelina Lowenthal, who owns a travel agency in the Miami area, got Eastern Airlines to donate flights for Villalba and Luna to travel to Miami from Paraguay as they begged for information on Leidy Luna Villalba.
With help from the Consulate General of Paraguay in Miami, both Luna and Villalba obtained an emergency visa to enter the U.S. over the weekend, after getting their first passports. With the Paraguayan Americans' support, they will remain in Miami indefinitely until they know something about Leidy Luna Villalba.
Her story represented the reality of young working-class Paraguayans who are willing to do anything for a better future, Bosch said. Luna agreed.
“Leidy is a beautiful person, inside and out, a girl with dreams like many of the Paraguayans who want to better themselves. She has always been an independent and hardworking girl,” Luna said.
"At first, we were hesitant to come, but now we're here, and it’s a roller coaster of emotions," she said. She pointed out that Villalba sometimes regrets traveling to Miami, and other times she’s glad to have come. "It’s a mixture of feelings and emotions that we cannot explain many times. We just miss Leidy so much."
Aside from being a hard worker, Leidy Luna Villalba was known as a bright spirit with an infectious smile. Her dog Wendy as well as 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 calls her Tía Peteta ever since one of Leidy Luna Villalba's nephews came up with the nickname after struggling to pronounce her real name.
“She adores them so much,” Luna said. “And she loves animals. Her dog misses her so much. It’s almost as if she can feel her absence.”
“Out of all the cousins, Leidy was the wittiest, the most creative, almost like one of those actresses who over-act all the time. She was spontaneous and very happy. That’s why sometimes I want to tell her mother that she would not like to see her like that,” Luna said. “Her smile is as joyful as you see it in her pictures.”
Bosch and Lowenthal have mobilized to support the family in Paraguay. Their support has been crucial in helping Villalba and her family through such a difficult time, Luna said.
“Their constant support and messages of encouragement have been one of the most important factors since this tragedy occurred,” she said. “It would not have been possible for us to come here without them. We would still be in Paraguay with uncertainty, so we are very happy to be here despite the circumstances.”
Bosch said she plans to give Villalba and Luna the money raised through GoFundMe to help them pay for any expenses during their stay and help them make up for any money Leidy Luna Villalba would have worked to earn.
“We know nothing is going to ease the pain they have right now,” Bosch said. “But we want to at least be able to help them ease some of the economic burdens they may have during this time.”