September 27, 2020

They Passed the Long-Distance Test

The Zoom wedding of Victor Gabriel Santiago Hernandez and Dr. Erika Alejandro Crespo Martínez, held on June 27 in their West Harlem studio apartment, was beamed to more than 75 households across Puerto Rico and planned in less than a month. It was the result of a question each had asked the other when New York City was in lockdown and chances of catching the coronavirus seemed higher than average: Why waste time?

Their wedding was a surprising show of spontaneity from a couple whose relationship was built on patience and pacing.

Dr. Crespo Martínez, 28, and Mr. Santiago Hernandez, 27, met in San Juan in January 2016 when both were students at the University of Puerto Rico, from which they graduated. Dr. Crespo Martínez was in her second year of dental school at the San Juan campus. Mr. Santiago Hernandez was studying graphic design at the Carolina campus. Mutual friends introduced them one January night at La Placita de Santurce, a marketplace and popular island hangout with restaurants and bars. Mr. Santiago Hernandez was distracted the rest of the night.

“You know that feeling where you’re with 20 people but you have your eye out for that one person, and when you can’t see her you’re looking around trying to find her?” he said. “That’s how it was with Erika. She brings this different sort of energy into a room.”

ImageThe groom and bride prepare for their Spanish-only Zoom ceremony.
Credit…Maridelis Morales Rosado for The New York Times

Mr. Santiago Hernandez was too shy to get a sense of how intoxicating that energy might feel up close, so he added her on Facebook a few days later. She took the online bait with enthusiasm. “I won’t deny that I saw him first,” she said. “I liked that he wasn’t trying to catch the attention of everybody in the room, that he was on the shy side.”

The Facebook ping tallied their mutual connections at 20, reinforcing a sense that their meeting was inevitable. Still, two months of texting would go by before Mr. Santiago Hernandez gathered the courage to ask Dr. Crespo Martínez for a date.

When he finally did, a first glimpse of her at La Cubanita, a watering hole in Old San Juan, overwhelmed him with emotion. “It was something I’ll never forget,” he said. “I saw her standing at the top of the steps wearing this blue dress, and time stopped for me. I took a picture of that moment in my mind that will always be with me. She looked like something out of a movie.”

Time flew that night for both. Within weeks Dr. Crespo Martínez was forgoing weekends home with her family in Aguada, in the island’s western coastal valley region, to spend time with Mr. Santiago Hernandez in San Juan. She didn’t tell her parents why.

Credit…Maridelis Morales Rosado for The New York Times

“Victor and I both have big families, and we’re both really close with our families,” Dr. Crespo Martínez said.

Her parents, Edwin Crespo and Denise Martinez, raised her and a younger brother, Francisco Crespo, alongside a batch of cousins and aunts and uncles in Aguada. Mr. Santiago Hernandez’s family, in San Juan, includes his parents, Gabriel Santiago and Lydia Hernandez, his identical twin brother, Gabriel Antonio Santiago, and a younger brother, Antonio Santiago, plus a similarly long roll call of cousins and extended relatives.

Dr. Crespo Martínez’s decision to keep the romance to herself was her way of protecting her family, and herself, from falling in love with Mr. Santiago Hernandez too quickly.

She also knew the relationship was about to be tested. Dr. Crespo Martínez had already planned a monthlong summer trip to Spain with dental school friends when she and Mr. Santiago Hernandez started seeing each other. “I worried that he would get back to his regular routine and I would be left out,” she said.

Throughout the trip, though, they texted so much she rarely peeled her eyes from her phone. “My best friend kept saying, ‘You are so in love with that guy,’” Dr. Crespo Martínez said.

By June 2018, when she graduated from dental school and Mr. Santiago Hernandez graduated college, they were embedded in each other’s lives. Dr. Crespo Martínez spent two weeks sheltering at Mr. Santiago Hernandez’s parents’ house during Hurricane Maria, and their parents started seeing each other socially. Happily ever after, though, was a ways off. Dr. Crespo Martínez was leaving that month for a two-year residency at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City, something she had set her sights on before she started dental school.

Credit…Maridelis Morales Rosado for The New York Times
Credit…Maridelis Morales Rosado for The New York Times

“Our relationship couldn’t be a stop sign for our goals and dreams,” Mr. Santiago Hernandez said. Still, his heart was sinking. “It started hitting me about a month before she was leaving,” he said. “I was counting the days. There was this place at La Placita we used to go to on Sunday nights where they had live music, and I kept thinking, maybe this is the last time we’re going to be sitting here.” His melancholy clung to him through his graduation, days after she left, but lifted temporarily when he opened a present from his parents. “It was a ticket to New York,” he said. “It meant so much, thinking I could hop on a plane and see her.”

Dr. Crespo Martínez settled into an apartment on the Upper West Side with Dr. Astrid Justiniano, a friend who was also a dental resident. She couldn’t stop thinking about Mr. Santiago Hernandez. “I would go to museums or dinners out, and I would always be thinking, I can’t wait to show this to Victor,” Dr. Crespo Martínez said.

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The wait was never long. After the trip his parents gave him, he lived his life in $300 increments. “As soon as I saved that much, I’d start looking for cheap tickets to New York,” Mr. Santiago Hernandez said. By 2019, they were seeing each other once a month in New York or Puerto Rico. To save money, he lived with his parents while working as a designer with DLC/Ogilvy, an advertising firm.

Despite their efforts, the distance crept in. “Victor was working so much that sometimes I would fall asleep before we had our nightly phone call,” Dr. Crespo Martínez said. “We were missing the small things, like having dinner together, going to sleep together,” Mr. Santiago Hernandez said. Around December, he started plotting a permanent move to New York.

Credit…Maridelis Morales Rosado for The New York Times

In February 2019, after kicking his money-saving habit into overdrive, he had scraped together $3,000. Enough, he hoped, to last him a few months while he looked for work in New York. “I bought a one-way ticket,” he said. “I was extremely nervous.”

Dr. Crespo Martínez was feeling different emotions, including relief that he was coming and worry that she had pressured him into leaving his family and career. “I was so happy, but it was stressful,” she said. On Feb. 16, he moved into the apartment she shared with Ms. Justiniano.

Dr. Justiniano, who now works as a dentist in Puerto Rico, had welcomed the extra roommate. “If you know Victor, you know how nice he is,” she said. “He was always trying to be extra helpful and respectful. They were ashamed about him moving in, like it would be a problem for me. But it never bothered me, and they never got tired of each other, even in the tiny room they shared.”

Mr. Santiago Hernandez’s savings had dwindled to $106 by the time he got a job, in May 2019, as a digital designer with Intouch Solutions, a pharmaceutical marketing agency. “I was close to making the decision, OK, no more advertising. I’ll go to work at CVS or any store,” he said. “We even had a conversation about me going back to Puerto Rico.” Keeping his spirits afloat was Dr. Crespo Martínez. She had grown up with a rule: On Fridays, the home kitchen is closed. She imported that rule to New York. “Every Friday, she would make sure she got me out of the apartment, that we went and got some nice food,” Mr. Santiago Hernandez said. “I was so proud of how she handled things.”

Credit…Maridelis Morales Rosado for The New York Times

That summer, when Dr. Justiniano moved to Puerto Rico, they found a studio apartment in West Harlem. They had already started talking about marriage, but in March, as the coronavirus pushed into the city, Dr. Crespo Martínez’s work lent those talks new urgency. Several residents had been deployed to the hospital to help with the crisis. Dr. Crespo Martínez, among them, was assigned a job screening patients in Montefiore Medical Center’s emergency room.

“Our families were so worried, like what happens if one of us gets sick?,” she said. Over a talk on the sofa in their studio in May, Mr. Santiago Hernandez and Dr. Crespo Martínez decided to get married virtually. On Memorial Day, he asked her to step outside their apartment so he could call her parents and ask permission to marry her, in New York, without either family physically present. The blessings he hoped for were received, instantly.

On June 27, with the help of Modern Rebel, a Brooklyn wedding planning company, Dr. Crespo Martínez and Mr. Santiago Hernandez were married in a Spanish-only Zoom ceremony. Daniela VillaRamos of Once Upon a Vow, which provides wedding services, officiated from her Bay Ridge apartment, while the coupled stayed home. Ms. VillaRamos is ordained by the Universal Life Church.

Credit…Maridelis Morales Rosado for The New York Times

As their families settled in for the ceremony, Dr. Crespo Martínez appeared on camera wearing a long white dress with spaghetti straps from ASOS and clutching a bouquet of white flowers from Stems, in Brooklyn. Mr. Santiago Hernandez wore a Calvin Klein tuxedo. They held hands while Ms. VillaRamos reminded them of the journey they had taken together. “It’s been said that happiness can be found in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light,” she said. “That’s what this moment is all about.”

After an exchange of vows and rings, during which Mr. Santiago Hernandez occasionally paused to brush tears from Dr. Crespo Martínez’s cheeks, Ms. VillaRamos pronounced them married. “Even though the ground is shifting beneath us, you are in this together,” she said. With those words, the couple raised their joined hands in triumph, and a gallery of Puerto Rican households erupted in happy cheers.


When June 27, 2020

Where West Harlem

Zoom Reception Dr. Crespo Martínez and Mr. Santiago Hernandez swayed for the camera to “Amapola,” by Juan Luis Guerra as a first dance before a series of toasts. Dr. Crespo Martínez’s father went first, speaking through tears about his gratitude for the strength of their love. Before the camera turned off, the couple cut a wedding cake delivered from Millers & Makers in Ridgewood, Queens.

Homeward Bound The couple plans to return to Puerto Rico in July for a small group celebration. “With any luck, we’ll be able to go back and do a big party in 2021,” Dr. Crespo Martínez said.

Back to Work Dr. Crespo Martínez finished her residency in June and is looking for a job as a dentist. Throughout the pandemic, Mr. Santiago has been working from home. “We live in a small space, but I’m lucky Erika and I get along so well and that I still have a job,” he said.