Andrea Perez began to worry when night fell on Oct. 10 and there was no sign of her teenage daughter, Romina.
Her worry turned to fear when she got a text message from Romina’s cellphone — “Hi mom, I’m OK. I’m moving to New York with a friend. Don’t worry.”
The words catch in her throat as she struggles to explain it — the message just wasn’t from her daughter.
“Something about that message just wasn’t right,” Perez said, holding her phone tightly with both hands. “I knew something was wrong.”
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Perez reported her daughter missing on Oct. 11. Three days later, Perez was roaming the neighborhood with pictures of 17-year-old Romina Fernandez when a call brought her home. Police were waiting outside. They had news.
A body found ablaze next to a dumpster Saturday night was identified by police as Romina, who lived just a couple blocks away.
The gruesome discovery confirmed the fears of Romina’s family and friends, who remembered her bubbly personality and constant smile.
“She was always smiling,” Perez said. “If she was going through something, it never showed.”
Dozens of posts popped up on Twitter as her friends took to social media to say goodbye. Filtered pictures uploaded by loved ones show a normal teenager goofing around with her friends.
“She was funny, loud, friendly and always laughing,” said Nichole Marques, 22, who met Romina in the neighborhood.
The teen was born in Uruguay. By 2, she was living in Miami. At 9, she was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, which required her to inject insulin after every meal. When Romina vanished, her upcoming doses of insulin remained intact.
Romina had left Miami Killian Senior High last year after complications from the disease caused her to miss too many days of school. Perez said her daughter would spend her time preparing to take the GED and looking for a job.
“Eventually, she wanted to work in cosmetology,” Perez said.
For Romina’s family — her mother, stepfather and two young sisters, ages 5 and 9 — mourning and searching for answers have been coupled with financial hardship. The family has had to borrow money to cremate and bury Romina, and has been given a 30-day eviction notice from the trailer they share at Li'l Abner Mobile Home Park in Sweetwater.
The family rents the trailer and has been notified that the practice is not allowed in the mobile home park — only the owner can live in the trailer, and the family doesn’t have the means to buy it.
To alleviate the family’s toll, friends and members of the community shaken by the events of the last two weeks have gathered to raise funds for Romina’s burial.
“This is a small community; everybody knew her,” said Basheer Mustafa, 27, who owns a convenience store on Flagler and 111th Avenue where Romina would shop. “Most of the customers come in, pay and leave. She would come in with a smile and say hello. She was quiet but always very polite.”
Mustafa and Marques are organizing a fundraising event and memorial service on Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. at Ronselli Park in Sweetwater. They have also set up a website — http://www.giveforward.com/fundraiser/7186 — to collect donations.
As police search for answers, family and relatives of Romina continue to mull over the details of her disappearance.
Friends of Romina told Perez that the night she disappeared — at 6:20 p.m. — she called them. In Spanish, the teen said she couldn’t be their friend anymore and was moving to New York with a man.
Perez says her daughter never spoke to her friends in Spanish.
“She spoke perfect English, and perfect Spanish. But she spoke to her friends in English and to family in Spanish,” Perez said. “That has to have some significance.”
Wednesday, as Perez worked to process the news of her daughter’s death, she received a letter in the mail.
The note echoed the earlier text message and phone call — in her daughter’s handwriting.
“Hola Mami. I’m OK. I’m going to New York with a friend. He bought me food and my medicine. Don’t worry. I’ll call you in a month.”