Awhite Ford Tempo pulled into the parking lot. The bride emerged from the car, in veil and trailing gown. She stepped carefully across the blacktop, which shimmered in the heat of an 80-degree afternoon.
At a liquor store across the street, an unkempt man paused to stare.
"She looks so pretty," said Sylvia Gomez, the groom's sister.
The bride moved past a video rental shop to a storefront office where you can purchase automobile insurance or apply for immigration. Or, be wed.
"We were going to get married in June," said the 18-year-old bride, Cecil Pozos. "But we decided to make it earlier."
So, on the Saturday before St. Valentine's Day, Pozos and Jorge Monzon were married at the San Antonio Wedding Chapel in Mission Hills, in a small room with burgundy carpeting, folding chairs and a wooden podium along one wall.
The whole thing took 15 minutes. Cecil and Jorge filled out some papers and paid $140. A minister who also acts as a notary and an auto-insurance saleswoman read brief vows. The "Wedding March" played from a tape recorder in the corner.
"It seems romantic, I guess," said Jorge, also 18 and wearing a tuxedo.
Seven couples tied the knot at San Antonio last weekend. Everyone, said a worker there, wants to get married on Valentine's Day. Except the place wasn't open Sunday, so they had to settle for the day before.
Co-owner Eduardo Boglio maintains that San Antonio is the only storefront chapel-auto insurance-immigration office in the Valley, and a check through the yellow pages supports this. Such establishments are more common downtown, where a dozen or so are clustered in the blocks surrounding the Civic Center.
And the Mission Hills chapel looks like any one of those downtown--a simple office with a counter up front and an adjoining room where mail-order ministers perform the ceremonies. No blood test is required at such chapels, as long as the bride and groom state under oath that they have been living together.
"Sometimes the bride comes in white," said Nellie Lopez, a minister and office worker at San Antonio. "Some of the couples have been living together for a long time; they already have kids. They don't care about dressing up."
Downtown chapels were even busier than San Antonio last weekend. The Mexicana Wedding Chapel married 11 couples, said owner Carlos Reyes. Reyes and employees at other chapels said most of their customers are Latino.
The Catholic Church in Los Angeles, with its large Latino membership, is beginning to worry about the popularity of these ceremonies. Father Anastacio Rivera, director of the archdiocese's Hispanic ministry, has researched the problem and believes he has discovered why some Catholics are eschewing traditional church services.
The church requires that couples spend three months going to counseling and lectures before they can be wed.
"A lot of our Hispanic people feel that this becomes an obstacle course," Rivera said. "A lot of our people unfortunately decide they are going to short-circuit the process and go to wedding chapels."
Lopez, at San Antonio, believes there is another reason. She said many of her customers don't speak English and don't want to hassle with the blood test and county license required for traditional church services or for some clerk's office ceremonies.
"They go to court, and the clerks are very rude," she said. "It's easier with us."
County officials dispute this, saying the city clerk's office is regularly staffed with Spanish-speaking workers. Latinos accounted for one-third of the 11,000 county marriages last year, said Iris Spencer, acting division chief with the county's civil-processing division.
Jorge Monzon said he decided to get married at San Antonio because his brother had been married there. Another couple wed that day said it was convenient--the chapel is near the Valley's largest Latino neighborhoods.
A $140 ceremony at San Antonio, although more expensive than the county's $50 fee, affords a complimentary Polaroid snapshot and slightly nicer surroundings. Ornamental drapes cover one wall; potted silk flowers are set about the room.
Besides, couples can take care of their car insurance and amnesty papers while they are getting married. San Antonio does not offer discounts for combined visits, Lopez said.
Wedding chapels in Los Angeles have names like "Always Forever Yours Wedding Chapel" or "Azurdia Tax Service." Their advertisements in the yellow pages read alike:
NO BLOOD TEST.
One chapel promises, "a perfect setting for a precious day, . . . your wedding dream come true."
There are stranger places to be married. A Los Angeles cruise line offers ceremonies at sea--aboard either "a Mississippi Paddlewheel Riverboat" or "a Topsailing Cannon-Blasting Pirate Ship."
A Valley couple recently took their vows in a hospital room with the bride in full dress and the broken-legged groom in hospital gown and T-shirt.