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'Say Her Name.' Paraguayans Make Sure Leidy Luna's Story Isn't Lost In Surfside Ruins

CHECKLIST OF DREAMS Leidy Luna Villalba, the nursing student and nanny from poor, rural Paraguay who is among the missing in the Surfside condo collapse.
CHECKLIST OF DREAMS Leidy Luna Villalba, the nursing student and nanny from poor, rural Paraguay who is among the missing in the Surfside condo collapse.

In Paraguay and South Florida, the tragedy of a poor, but diligent and compassionate, nursing student has taken on special meaning in the Surfside condo collapse.

Among the scores of people still missing in last week’s horrific Surfside condo collapse is one of Paraguay’s most powerful families. Sophia López Moreira is the sister-in-law of President Mario Abdo Benítez and the sister of First Lady Silvana López Moreira. Sophia, her husband and three young children were in the 12-story Champlain Towers South building.

But as heartbreaking as their tragedy surely is, what has stood out in recent days in Paraguay is the remarkable outpouring of emotion for the family’s nanny: 23-year-old Leidy Luna Villalba, who is also missing in the building collapse.

The passionate public reaction for Leidy grew louder after her mother, Juana, gave a tearful interview to ABC Color TV in Paraguay last Friday in a mix of Spanish and indigenous Guaraní that's common in their poor, rural village of Eugenio Garay in Paraguay's southeastern Guairá province.

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Juana emphasized how hard her daughter has strived to improve her situation, finishing her nursing degree while working to help support her family — "always happily, never complaining.” Those nursing skills recently helped Leidy land a job as a nanny to Sophia López's children in the capital, Asunción — and a chance to travel with López’s family to Miami last week.

READ MORE: Several South American Feared Lost in Surfside Tragedy, Including Sister of Paraguay's First Lady

It was Leidy's first trip outside Paraguay. Her first chance to see a beach and swim in the ocean, a marvel she may not have been able to experience because the Surfside condo building fell the same night she arrived.

“She was doing her checklist of dreams and in the middle of one it was taken from her," said Meli Peña, who grew up in Paraguay and now lives in Tampa as an arts producer. She’s been following the eruption of Paraguayan social media here and there sharing Leidy's story.

“Leidy Luna represents the 80 percent of Paraguayans working hard, trying to be something more. They can all connect — and they identify with her," Peña said.

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So much so that last week many Paraguayans responded angrily when Leidy's mother said officials there had still not contacted her. “Say Leidy’s name!” some Paraguayans shouted on Twitter to a government already facing massive protests over its mishandling of the pandemic.

“Leidy’s tragedy is an added ingredient to people’s anger and pain," said Mabel Rehnfeldt, a leading investigative journalist in Paraguay and one of the ABC reporters who interviewed Leidy’s mother.

“There are two Paraguayan families facing the worst emotional hurricane of their lives right now," Rehnfeldt said. "But people are saying Leidy’s family should not be less important than the president’s.”

The government has since been reaching out to Leidy’s family; it brought her brother Diego Luna, who works in Argentina, back to Paraguay so he can travel to Miami this week.

Paraguayan expats here in South Florida are concerned, too. Miami realtor Silvia Bosch says she of course feels terrible about López’s family, especially the children. But it bothered her that the initial media coverage in Paraguay and here focused solely on them.

“Nobody was saying anything about Leidy, the nanny," Bosch said. "She’s a person, too — she’s a human being, too. And she was dreaming to help people. That’s why you study to be a nurse, because you want to help people.”

Bosch was moved over the weekend to start an expat GoFundMe effort to help Leidy’s family. Other Paraguayan expats have pitched in — including Evelina Lowenthal, who owns a travel agency in Bay Harbor Islands. She suggested to Eastern Airlines — which flies directly between Asunción and Miami — that it donate tickets to Miami for Leidy’s family.

"They agreed immediately," Lowenthal said.

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Others have suggested Leidy's family will need legal help here in Florida, if not back in Paraguay.

All this outreach has taken the family in Eugenio Garay by surprise, says her cousin in Paraguay, Lourdes Luna.

“It seems Leidy’s suddenly become a common cause," Lourdes told WLRN. "She’s more than just the hired help now. People want her tragedy to mean something.”

That fervent response may mean something important has changed in Latin American countries like Paraguay — especially that social media has greatly amplified ordinary people’s voices. What's more, Paraguay’s population is young, like Leidy: most are under 30, and as the recent pandemic protests have shown, they feel more frustrated than hopeful.

If Leidy has become a symbol it's because, as her mother Juana said, her story — even if it ends tragically — carries a spark of hope.

That includes what friends and family say is one of Leidy’s favorite hobbies: rescuing hungry stray dogs from the street and finding them homes. It’s part of her nursing instincts, they say.

And one more reason to make sure that although she's feared lost in Surfside, her story won't be.
Copyright 2021 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

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