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