COCHABAMBA, Bolivia (AP) – Thousands of miles from New York where Mónica Lozada-Rivadineira was brutally killed last month,
her relatives in Bolivia are stunned by the murder and anxious to see who will get custody of her 4-year-old daughter, who was found abandoned in the city.
The relatives recall a happy, independent woman who in 2001 left Cochabamba, a colonial city in this poor South American country, to find a better life for herself and her daughter.
“Her dream was to save up money in the U.S. and come back to Cochabamba to open a business and buy a house,” said her 24-year-old brother, Jaime Ríos Rivadineira.
The 26-year-old woman vanished on Sept. 24 and New York police allege her companion killed her.
Her daughter, Valery, was found the night of her disappearance, wandering barefoot.
Lozada’s companion, César Ascarrunz, is being held on charges of strangling her, dumping her body in a pile of trash and leaving her daughter abandoned in a city street.
New York authorities at first could not establish the child’s identity and showed her on television seeking information about the girl. The footage caught the attention of people across the United States and later in Bolivia.
On Thursday, police found a body in a Pennsylvania landfill – where New York trash is hauled – and it is believed to be that of Valery’s mother, though final identification is not complete.
Seated in his family’s modest living room filled with framed school awards, Mó-nica’s brother Jaime leafed through a photo album with pictures Mónica sent from New York – each with a handwritten note on the back.
“We’re at a water park, the mural behind us makes it look like we’re sitting with seals, and my shirt is stained with ice cream,” Lozada wrote on the back of one photo showing a smiling Valery in her arms.
Offers to adopt Valery have poured in, but for now Valery is staying with a foster family in Queens.
Jaime says his family wants to honor choices Mónica would have wanted, which might mean Valery staying in the United States.
“We don’t want to take away the dreams Mónica had for her,” Jaime said. “She lived for her daughter, worked for her so she didn’t lack for anything ... She was always with her and was always saying ‘I want my daughter to grow up strong and beautiful and to study.”’
Mónica herself was usually at the top of her class in high school and later studied to be a secretary at a local college. When she wasn’t studying she would go out to a local nightclub, always dressed in the latest fashion.
Her brother says he still can’t believe she’s gone.
He recalls how she always insisted on being one step ahead of him and how she would speak up for him when he was too shy.
Mónica’s estranged husband, 25-year-old Juan Car-los Saavedra, is also in Bolivia.
The pair met in high school and were married in the summer of 2001. It was Mónica who decided the couple should move to the U.S. with Valery, not yet 1 year old. Mónica was already pregnant with their second child, Juan Carlos Jr.
The couple traveled to Mexico for a Baja California honeymoon.
“That was the happiest time in my life, that beach was so beautiful,” said Juan Carlos.
While he had a U.S. visa, Mónica and Valery didn’t, so they all crossed together illegally and settled in a house in the Southern California town of El Centro, he said.
Juan Carlos got a job and Mónica soon gave birth to Juan Carlos Jr.
But then, Juan Carlos says, marital problems began, and when Juan Carlos Jr. was one-month-old, Mónica disappeared with Valery.
Juan Carlos’ mother, Ana María Rivera, traveled from where she lived in San Francisco to care for the baby boy.
Desperate to find Mónica, Juan Carlos returned to Cochabamba, but she wasn’t there.
Soon after, he had his mother bring Juan Carlos Jr. home to Cochabamba as well.
While Mónica’s relatives declined to speak about Juan Carlos, or the couple’s 3-year-old son, they say Mónica left at that time to start a new life in New York with the support of relatives living there.
Back in Cochabamba, with no idea where Mónica and Valery were, Juan Carlos said he fell into using marijuana and was imprisoned in Janu-ary for drug possession.
His father, a civil engineer who has been raising the little boy, says he told authorities his son had bought marijuana and merely asked the police to give his son a scare.