Cristina Sumaza was supposed to be trying on wedding dresses last September as she got ready for a destination wedding in the small beach town of Rincon, Puerto Rico. But instead, the San Juan native, 30, was bracing for Hurricane Maria to hit the island.
Sumaza fled her high rise in the metro area of San Juan to be with her mother as she went through cancer treatment in the western part of Puerto Rico. When the hurricane made landfall on Sept. 20, causing a historic amount of damage and knocking out power to the entire island for several months (it is still out in many rural areas), “I was super stressed and nervous. I had to leave my business and I had no idea when I could go back, because the roads were so bad,” she says. “When I came back home, all the windows in my apartment were broken and people had no information. I was like, ‘Obviously the wedding is over. We’re not going to do this. Let’s just cancel it.’”
So Sumaza focused on reopening her business, Lote 23, a chic outdoor food park and event space in San Juan’s hip Santurce neighborhood.
“We were able to re-open after one week with gas equipment, adapting prices to the reality we were facing, because people were getting desperate, looking for food,” she recalls. “I had more than 100 people depending on it for work, but everybody came together to clean it up, and pull together to reopen.”
As Sumaza’s mother relocated to Miami so her chemotherapy could continue uninterrupted, she encouraged her daughter to get back to wedding planning.
“She felt guilty,” Sumaza shares. “She said, ‘Are you not doing the wedding because of me?’ She really insisted we do it. It was a good push to make it happen.”
Driving out to scope out her original wedding venue, “I was super surprised that things were in good shape. It’s kind of corny but it gave us hope. We realized this could be a nice distraction, something to get excited about, and we could all come together.”
Sumaza pushed the November wedding date back to January 20, “while everybody got back to fully working,” she explains. “At first I felt a little weird continuing on with the event, but everyone responded so well. This gave people work during this crisis. It gave people a reason to have their employees stay there and keep working and recover quickly. The wedding coordinator, the decorator and the food, and everyone were super eager to work. It was also a form of getting back to normal, whatever the new normal was.”
And as she walked down the aisle to marry San Juan lawyer Juan Carlos Suarez, 36, on Jan. 20, Sumaza felt a sense of relief.
“It had all been so depressing. All anybody had wanted to talk about was the hurricane so after all the negativity it was such an escape. It was post-Maria, my mom had just finished her surgery and we knew she was cancer free. And my husband and I had gotten through all of this together and it was like proof of your relationship’s strength. It tripled the emotion.”