A Filipino American transgender nursing assistant has been missing for almost a year, and while her family is terribly desperate about the slow process of the search, they remain hopeful that they will be able to be reunited with her someday.
Paula del Mundo, 59, went missing on September 14, 2019 at the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport where she was on a layover en route to Mexico for vacation. She never made it to her connecting flight to Cozumel and hasn’t been heard from since.
“We miss her so much and too worried about her safety. It is so sad that we have not received any updates and developments regarding her reported loss,” Paula’s sister Yolanda told the Asian Journal.
An intensive search was initiated by CUE (Community United Effort) Center for Missing Persons last July 25 to 26, 2020. CUE is a nonprofit volunteer organization dedicated to rescuing and finding missing persons across the United States. Funded by donations, the search assigned for Paula was composed of a 12-man search team from various parts of Texas. They used various search gadgets and had K9 dogs, motorized boats, and drones.
The youngest sister, Lolita, who worked with Paula at the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa, represented the family and flew to Texas to meet the group. With no traces or remains found, the search team decided to undertake another follow-up search scheduled this October.
To saturate publicity of Paula’s loss, production of weatherproof posters will be placed in strategic locations both in Fort Worth and Dallas with the benevolent support of CUE to handle this undertaking, Yolanda shared.
Malaya Movement, a human rights activist group in Texas through the initiative of Fil-Am Sarah Jalandoon, has put up a memorial landmark with plastic flowers and a laminated missing person poster where Paula was last spotted by an airport surveillance camera.
According to Yolanda, through the persistent action of Caiti Le Ward, the caseworker assigned by Malaya Movement, they were able to track down the exact spot where Paula was last seen.
Prior to the lockdown last March, a follow-up search by the family, represented by Paula’s siblings, Leonor a retired nurse from California, and Yolanda from New York was planned.
However, due to the rising cases of COVID-19 in Texas, they cancelled their trip and instead, the family hired a private investigator to continue the search.
After more than two months of no progress, the family decided to call it off.
“Later, we found out, we were scammed and demanded a full refund of the one time upfront $5,000 demanded from us for the investigation services,” Yolanda said.
Paula’s sisters consider her as a force to be reckoned with, a strong and driven individual who always puts her family first.
Which is why they know that she had no plan or intention of going away from them.
At DFW, Paula reportedly had changed her mind about the vacation. She texted her sister in Florida, saying that she was abandoning her travel plans and asked her to purchase a return ticket to Tampa.
“She even relayed her last messages to my youngest sister Lolita, for her to get her return ticket back to Tampa. However, when my sister was about to confirm, Paula could no longer be contacted. It was tough because we feel she does not deserve to vanish and leave her family worrying for her,” Yolanda told the Asian Journal. “It was supposed to be a scheduled vacation treat to be in Cozumel, Mexico where all her travel and accommodation expenses [were] already taken care of.”
For them, it was typical for Paula to make her own arrangements since she is organized and systematic in all her travels, including her last two vacation trips to the Dominican Republic.
“And the thought that she was lost in Texas than in any other state was already terrifying for us to take. She was supposed to be only passing through, in transit. DFW Airport was only her jump-off point to Mexico,” Yolanda said.
Hate crimes against transgender women of color were reportedly on the rise in Texas, according to the local media that talked about a string of transgender attacks in the Dallas area last year.
Airport cameras caught Paula aimlessly walking through the huge DFW airport premises.
She was not carrying any luggage, although the sisters know she had a yellow Nautica trolley bag.
Paula is the ninth among a dozen siblings, two of whom have passed away.
Leonor and Erlinda are based in California, Lilia and Lolita live in Florida and Yolanda is from New York. Susan is in Manila, along with their eldest sister and two older brothers.
“She is my most favorite, special, and loved amongst my siblings,” Susan told the Asian Journal.
A former Tourism Attache in the Department of Tourism New York office, Susan took care of Paula when she was sick, gave her medication and was by her side until she felt better.
“I had to take Paula with me when I was posted in London and spent one-year with me.
She was hardworking, [had] never been late or absent (except when sick), and most liked by her colleagues at the travel agency in London,” she shared.
“My regret, Paula never joined me in my trips [through] Europe, only a weekend [in] England’s countryside, as she refused to take off days from work. Very hardworking and prudent in spending for herself. Now that Paula is missing, I’m praying for her safety and God’s protection wherever she maybe,” Susan added.
Lilia, the nurse practitioner from Lake City, Florida, said that when she and her son first arrived in the States, they stayed with their sister Leonor in California.
Although a doctor in Manila, Lilia took up nursing and while she was preoccupied with her Board review, Paula would always bring food for them to share at night and treated them to the movies.
Lolita was the one who helped Paula the most to settle in Florida.
“For Paula, it was a long-cherished freedom, to live independently. Paula was able to get her apartment adjacent to her workplace. It was Lolita who encouraged her to apply in the same hospital she was working,” Yolanda shared. “Since both of them have different shifts in the hospital, Paula would make it a point to bring food that she cooked for Lolita as Lolita, a single mother with 4 kids hardly has time to prepare her food.”
Married to a U.S. citizen, Leonor, the sister from California, was 24 years old when she left Manila in December 1980.
On the day of her departure for the United States, and after bidding goodbye to everyone, Leonor realized that Paula was nowhere to be found. She found her in her room, alone and crying. Paula told her, “Ate Len, please don’t forget to sponsor me to come to America.”
She made a vow to petition all her siblings to join her in her new home. She made true to her promise and Paula was the first to be petitioned.
At the age of 48, Paula came to America and stayed with Len in California for seven years.
Len also sponsored Paula’s nursing assistant studies and was immediately hired as a caregiver because she finished at the top of her class. Paula’s fluency in Nippongo was an asset she used in conversing with senior Japanese wives who hardly could speak English.
The siblings regularly communicate and discuss their plans of action for Paula. They have tried all possible ways they could think of, even through, spiritual and psychic means.
“We never lose hope. We never cease praying. We regularly pray the holy rosary as a family both in the U.S. and Manila with our special intention that she may be found safe. We continue to believe that one day a miracle is bound to happen,” Yolanda said.
For now, they continue to wait.
“Every cloud has a silver lining. There is always light at the end of the tunnel. And as our family tirelessly pray, whatever the consequences will be, may justice be served for trans Fil-Ams like Paula whose only wish is to reach her American dream,” Yolanda said.