A Considerable Town

Why Drive to Vegas? Mayra's Wedding Chapel Is Right Here in East Hollywood

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Thu, Mar 1, 2012 at 8:00 AM
click to enlarge Lindabelle Montero, left, and Mayra Sossa - NANETTE GONZALES
  • Nanette Gonzales
  • Lindabelle Montero, left, and Mayra Sossa

Here comes the bride, all dressed in cream satin, with a sparkly brooch on her hip. "They've been together for a very, very long time. Like, two years?" says Yesenia Villanueva, 22, the bride's classmate in nursing school.

Driving north on Normandie Avenue, just before the road crests and the Griffith Observatory comes into view, signs advertising the only business between Beverly and Melrose ask, "Why go to Vegas? Marriages -- $170.00 -- Matrimonios."

Why indeed? This is Mayra's Wedding Chapel, and officiating today, as on most days, is Lindabelle Montero, imperious in her burgundy minister's robe and black, high-heeled ankle boots. Montero, 40, lives with her sons in the back of the house, works at a desk in the foyer and performs weddings in between.

It was Montero's mother, Mayra Sossa, who decided to transform the living room into a nondenominational wedding chapel in 1986, much to her then-teenage daughter's dismay. Despite dreams of being a singer and an actress, Montero became a notary at 18, a Universal Life Church minister at 21 and her mother's eventual successor as East Hollywood's marriage and legal-work linchpin.

"Thank you all," Montero says. "We're gathered here today in the presence of these two people to unite them in legal matrimony."

The bride and groom, Emily and Manuel, stand before 12 friends on ceramic tiles that look like wood, beneath a $600 fiberglass bower with Ionic columns, brimming with fake flowers. The chapel seats about 20, with a love seat, a couch and 17 mismatched chairs cloaked in white and adorned with translucent gold ribbon. Chiffon billows over doors and windows, and angel figurines -- some gold, some sparkly; some clothed, many not -- pepper the room.

On the couch in the back, a voluptuous woman answers her iPhone in a low voice, listens intently and begins rifling through her fake Louis Vuitton bag.

"Raise your right hands," Montero says. "Do you both swear that the information you provided on your license is true, and so help you God?"

Most clients are Filipino or Latino and live within walking distance of the chapel, Montero says. But she's also married numerous Koreans, Scandinavians, Russians, Armenians, Jews, Hindus and Africans, along with a man who claimed to be an executive producer on the movie As Good As It Gets (via their assistants, the men credited as executive producers of that film both deny any Mayra marriages). Once, at 3 a.m., Montero married an Oakland Raiders player ("I got the kick of the alcohol as he was repeating his vows. We got, like, five calls from his attorney the next morning").

Montero married several gay couples in 2008 and still offers commitment ceremonies, but she draws the line at Muslims, "just because of what's happened since 9/11."

Not that any terrorists could make it past the security cameras, barred windows and bolted locks. Those were installed after the family was robbed at gunpoint in 2001, when Montero was seven and a half months pregnant. When the disheveled woman aiding the robbery attempted to tie up mother and daughter, Montero's mother slipped away and ran screaming onto Normandie, forcing the criminals to flee.

"Girl, my mom is no joke," Montero says. "Snap, she's dynamite, a feisty little lady."

Sossa, Montero's mother, emigrated from Costa Rica in 1969 and established the chapel after a day care center proved too stressful. Though she still answers phone calls and monitors the video feed, the 65-year-old Sossa no longer lives on-site. She spends the majority of her time at her nearby home with Lindabelle's half-brother, 31, who is mentally disabled.

Although marriages comprise 75 percent of the chapel's business, its legal work provides a valuable service in this low-income community. Montero handles powers of attorney, international letters, business agreements and restraining orders for women and children fleeing domestic violence. Montero writes more than 100 restraining orders a year, often for little to no charge.

"Some people, they come in here, and they totally have heard from Juan and Maria and Yolanda all the wrong information. They have no idea what their rights are and how to exercise those rights," Montero says. She once helped an undocumented woman who feared her husband would call the INS if she reported he was molesting her daughter, convincing her to protect her child.

"The rings are a circle," Montero tells Emily and Manuel. "The circle has no beginning and no end, as in your true love."

Except, of course, for the 20 percent of clients who return to the chapel to fill out paperwork for a divorce. That includes veterans who've come home to gals who couldn't wait, and one Armenian man who got married and divorced three times over the years to younger women newly arrived from the motherland, all of whom he would eventually accuse of being after his money.

Lindabelle Montero has seen it all.

"Take the left hand of your groom, and as you look at him, I want you to repeat after me," Montero says.

A squeal of "Mama!" pierces, for a moment, the door separating the ceremony from the toddler in question: Montero's 3-year-old son, Joshua.

Montero pushes on. "By the power vested in me by the state of California ..."

The entire ceremony takes three minutes and four seconds.

"Boom, and it's done," says the bride's best friend, Josie Hendricks. Her husband, Scott, removes his tie as soon as the photos are over. Asked what he thinks about the chapel his friends have chosen, he chooses his words carefully. "It's nice. I mean, you know. Yeah, it's nice," he says. "It certainly works, you know, so that's all that matters."

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