ELSA — It was an overcast Friday afternoon as an unexpected cold front caught the Rio Grande Valley off guard, but the warmth of true love persevered for couples, courtesy of Hidalgo County Justice of the Peace Jason Peña.

Peña, of Precinct 5, and fellow JP of Precinct 2 Jaime Jerry Munoz, officiated free weddings over the Valentine’s Day weekend — painting an image of what weddings have to look like for now due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Normally, a traditional wedding would be held at a venue, with the bride and groom surrounded by their family and friends, bridesmaids and best men, a celebrant and band, to name a few.

Instead, the wedding for the 24 couples who were officiated by Peña on Friday were married in a little spot outside behind the JPs office in Elsa.

Backdropped by a banner of the justice of the peace’s information, Peña and his staff livened the setting up with Valentine’s Day themed decorations: various heart-shaped balloons, posters that said ‘You + Me,’ and hearts hanging on the banner.

Next to the setup, on a table covered by a bright red sheet, there was a bowl filled with Ring Pops, a container holding up individual roses for the brides, and a tiny vintage-looking truck that blasted the pivotal Wedding March piece.

For Lessly Pena, 21, and Cesar Perez, 22, the timing of the county offering free weddings aligned perfectly with their own plans. Because of COVID-19, Lessly said their wedding plans kept getting pushed back, citing the increase of cases related to the virus.

“We got engaged on the 14th of last year,” Lessly said after saying how great it felt to get married on Friday. “We just decided to do it close to Valentine’s too.”

With Peña leading the ceremony, Cesar and Lessly, who was holding one of the individual roses, exchanged their rings, then pronounced husband and wife for the first time.

Lessly and Cesar’s ceremony, though short and quick, nevertheless showed the true message of Valentine’s Day: COVID-19 can take away all the celebration, but ultimately, it cannot stop true love.

Lessly Peña, 21, and Cesar Perez, 22, were one of 24 couples who were married on Friday at the JP’s office in Elsa. (Monitor photo)

In order for Lessly and Cesar, as well as all the other couples, to be able to get married for free on Friday, they needed to have a valid marriage license that was obtained at least 72 hours before the wedding. If couples didn’t have one, they were allowed to ask for a waiver.

With witnesses not a requirement, each wedding was also by appointment.

“It kind of balances things out,” Peña answered when asked how it felt to be able to officiate weddings during COVID-19. “You get hit up with all these negative things, a lot of death in 2020, a lot of arrangements, capital murders, things like that.”

“When you get to do something like this, that’s positive, it makes you feel better,” Peña said. “It makes you feel good.”

Justice of the Peace Jason Peña marries Israel and Victoria Ramirez during a ceremony in celebration of Valentine’s Day outside his office Friday in Elsa. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

As much as we may miss large gatherings, in this case weddings, Peña also added that 2020 was a reminder to everyone that not everything is promised, which is why he was glad he was able to offer free weddings on Friday.

“Cut all that stuff and do what counts,” Peña said, “Just get married with that one person that you love and want to share your life with.”

While Peña officiated weddings on Friday in Elsa, Munoz also offered free wedding ceremonies in Pharr.

“We’ve all learned in 2020 that you’re not promised tomorrow,” Peña said. “It makes me feel good that I could give this back to them and they can take advantage of a day like this.”