Roy Renteria remembers when he first spotted Maricela "Mari" Perez, a nursing student at Aurora University: It was 1985, and she was perched on one of the floats at the Fiestas Patrias parade, part of a September festival celebrating Mexican Independence Day.
"That was my first vision of my beautiful wife," recalls Roy, 57, seated with Mari, 47, in their Aurora home.
Still, a year would pass before a mutual friend would introduce them. They started out as casual acquaintances — so casual that Mari even teased him, she remembers, saying, "Someday, we should date!"
But the joke lost its comic overtones within a few months, when, as Roy puts it, "We started to see we had some chemistry."
Roy, a second-generation Mexican-American, quickly discovered, however, that their chemistry was no match for Mari's parents.
Like Roy, the Perez family had ties to Guanajuato, Mexico. Unlike him, they had strict rules about courtship, which they expected their seven children to obey. After a few friendly phone exchanges, Roy was invited to attend 6:30 p.m. Saturday Mass with Mari and her family.
That was it. Roy was not allowed in the house, and the two can still recall sitting on the front porch for one hour after many Saturday Masses.
"Being a professional and more Americanized, I wondered what I was getting into," Roy admits. "But my heart told me to stay."
Mari marveled at Roy's patience. "I knew he was in love with me since day one," she admits with a laugh. "But still, he respected my parents' traditions."
Finally, after a year, Mari's parents loosened their grip. A little.
"We had more freedom," Roy explains, "but sometimes her younger brother had to chaperon."
It wasn't the only challenge in their relationship. Roy was working two jobs, one in the circulation department of a west suburban newspaper, the other in the kitchen at a local restaurant. He was young and ambitious, and in love.
"The world was in front of me — except for her," he says. "I just thought I had to try. No other girl out there could hold a candle to her."
Mari was struggling in a different way. She had gotten her first nursing job, in the oncology unit at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, which included some night shifts. The work was demanding, and she felt pressures.
"I didn't know what I wanted," she says. "I hadn't dated a lot. I had a tough first nursing job. I felt like I was in over my head."
Roy, certain they had a future together, began working on a new goal: studying to become a Catholic like Mari. He was midway through the process when he got the call. Mari told him she was moving to Mexico.
"I needed space," she says now.
She also told Roy she didn't want him to wait.
Roy tried hanging on to the hope that they would get back together, but after six months he gave up. He kept busy and began dating other women. He completed his religious training and was baptized.
Nearly two years passed. Then Roy learned that Mari was back in town — and engaged to another, a man from Mexico.
Roy still cared about Mari. What he didn't know was that she harbored feelings for him too — a discovery helped along, she says, by the growing realization of her fiance's immaturity and selfishness. She had returned to the U.S. to plan and save for their wedding when she learned that her fiance had gone on a vacation with pals. It was the last straw for Mari, one that compelled her to reach out to Roy.
"I called Roy," she explains, "but I didn't expect him to be home." She had hoped to just leave a message — but he answered.
When Roy heard her voice, he immediately drove to her house on his motorcycle, to take her for a ride. "I knew it was one of her favorite things to do," he said.
"I remember holding him," Mari says, "and thinking to myself, 'This is the guy.' "
Her fiance wasn't exactly out of the picture yet. He flew to Aurora from Mexico, demanding that she return with him.
Mari refused. That was May 1991 — just months before the August wedding she had been working toward. Over the next few weeks, Roy helped her cancel all the wedding plans — and make new ones.
One night, sitting at their favorite restaurant, Roy recalls, "we decided to get married. I never proposed. We just knew we were going to be together."
A year into their renewed relationship, Roy's godfather told Roy's parents that it was time for them to ask for Mari's parents' permission for the two to marry — a tradition Roy was happy to follow.
"I was raised that when you get married, your wife becomes your family," he says. "I wanted to do everything right."
Roy still remembers what Mari's father told him: "Remember, you took my daughter from her home, not a bar, so treat her right."
On June 19, 1993, a horse-drawn carriage took the newlyweds to their new house in Aurora.
Twenty years later, they still live in Aurora, where they have raised two sons, Diego, 18, and Marcel, 15.
Roy is a property manager and owns an urban soccer league for kids and adults, Sol Soccer. But his favorite role, he says, is being Mari's supportive husband. In 2004, she earned her master's degree in nursing from Northern Illinois University and is now a nurse practitioner.
"Between our jobs, our family and our friends," Mari says, "we have all these pieces of the pie, and our lives are full. We are so blessed."
"The one thing I appreciate is that he has confidence in me," Mari says of Roy. "He has supported me in everything I've done and allows me to grow. That's such a high priority."