Love that overcomes distance, phobias and a 20-year age gap

Roberto (left) and Roman at their wedding in Buffalo, N.Y., on April 22. Photo: Aliaksandra Photography

Back in March 2018, neither believed they could meet a lifetime partner through a dating app. 

Roberto Villanueva liked Roman De La Cruz’s sweet and shy disposition and Roman liked Roberto’s candor. Perhaps such traits could be traced to their upbringing: Roberto, 48, was raised in Manila and became an accomplished professional in Manhattan. Roman, 28, grew up in the coastal province of Pangasinan where people’s livelihood was rooted in agriculture.

The couple’s journey from the Philippines to New York City was filled with adventure and laughter. Not to mention resilience because in the course of  their romance, Roberto suffered a knee injury that led to a months-long confinement in his Manhattan apartment. By September 2018, when Roberto had recovered, he returned to the Philippines to celebrate Roman’s birthday on the beautiful islands of Cebu and Palawan. 

As a city-loving person afflicted with entomophobia (fear of insects), botanophobia (fear of plants) and xylophobia (fear of forests and wooded areas), Roberto contemplated their future. He was still not sure about the possibility of a long-term relationship with a biophiliac, who preferred a traditional life in the province where he grew up: Would Roberto be willing to pack up his Manhattan studio apartment and live in a village where the nearest major department store was 40 minutes away? And would Roman be willing to swap out his tranquil five-minute walk to the neighborhood beach with a five-minute walk to the chaos of NYC streets?

Since the couple’s first meeting, they’ve met up in other Asian countries and sent each other thousands of online chat messages and Milk and Mocha emojis. They used the emojis as a fun way to express their affections for each other. Even when they weren’t connected by a mobile phone or computer, Roberto could hear the sound of Roman chuckling. 

At the Gay Pride parade in Manhattan. The couple co-founded a humanitarian and environmental outreach organization in Roman’s province of Pangasinan called Frenz4Hope. Courtesy of Roberto Villanueva

In August 2020 at the height of the COVID pandemic, and with his mother’s blessing, Roberto proposed to Roman virtually via Google Meet and committed to relocating to the Philippines where they would build a life together. 

When Roberto underwent a spine surgery, he had to give up being a concert dance artist, relearn how to walk, and accept permanent debilitating nerve pains, body spasms, and neurophysiological and sensory deficits. Despite all these challenges, Roman never stopped cheering him up.

The K-1 visa process took two-and-a-half years, instead of the standard seven to eight months. They persisted. They never stopped learning new things about each other. Roman always had a small appetite. At one point, after Roman watched Roberto’s voracious appetite in action, Roman said: “I think you love food more than you love me.” Roberto, with a grin, responded: “I love you both equally.”

On the late evening of March 11, 2023, Roman finally arrived in NYC, his new home. This also marked his first visit to the U.S. While he had seen endless photos and videos of New York, nothing could prepare him for the introduction. In Roman’s words, “Wow, it’s so cold and expensive here! And the food portions are so large!”

Roman also discovered Roberto did not eat or keep any rice at home, nor put salt in his food. Roberto eats mainly bland steamed fish and meat with blanched vegetables. Filipinos consider rice as their primary staple food and eat it with savory dishes. 

One night, Roman teased Roberto by saying he was calling 911. “We have an emergency—we don’t have rice at home!”

Roberto initially booked the Buffalo, New York wedding and reception venue for December 2022. However, a delay in Roman’s visa processing forced Roberto to postpone the special event for his family and close friends until April of 2023.

Participating at NYC’s Biggest Day at Lincoln Center ‘The Wedding’ on July 8.

Roberto made all the wedding decisions. As a New Yorker, he wanted every guest to be dressed in black–to honor NYC’s popularized head-to-toe black style. Roberto also choreographed a dance duet entitled “Tender Love”; his part required use of a chair. A reception for Roman’s family and friends was also held in Pangasinan at 5:30 a.m., on April 23–due to the 12-hour time difference.

Since Roman’s arrival in the U.S., Roberto noticed Roman’s infrequent moodiness. Nonetheless, Roberto has always managed to quickly turn Roman’s mood around. Roman also promised to work on his sporadic moodiness, which Roberto appreciated.

Furthermore, as the two spent more time together in NYC, Roman noticed Roberto’s workaholic tendency. Roman questioned Roberto about this and Roberto eventually agreed to curtail this tendency.

While there are certainly some differences between the two, they do have a couple of similarities. Both have large families (over 25 each) and enjoy being homebodies.  

(C) The FilAm 2023

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