They turned an abandoned auto shop into a plant sanctuary and community hub.
In our Plant PPL series, we interview people of color in the plant world. If you have suggestions for PPL to include, tag us on Instagram @latimesplants.
It’s a quiet Sunday night along Jefferson Boulevard in West Adams, but the Plant Chica is buzzing with activity. Inside the neighborhood plant shop, it’s standing room only as a group of LBGTQ writers listens to poetry and dines on vegan tacos.
This is exactly what co-owner Sandra Mejia had envisioned when she and husband, Bantalem Adis, set out to open a plant shop in their neighborhood: a community space where everyone is welcome regardless of who they are or what they look like.
“I’m all about the underrepresented community,” says Mejia, 33, a first-generation American whose parents immigrated to Los Angeles after fleeing civil war in El Salvador. “I want to do anything I can to empower people.”
When the evening’s host, Sasha Jones, owner and CEO of events group Cuties Los Angeles, thanks Mejia for sharing the Plant Chica with the queer and trans community, applause and cheers reverberate throughout the outdoor patio of the former auto shop.
“She’s amazing,” Jones says of Mejia. “She’s an incredible ally. And it feels so healing to be in this environment filled with plants. The space is magical.”
Mejia grew up not far from here in what she describes as a green desert without plant shops and drop-in activity centers. When she attended a charter high school in Pacific Palisades, she says she felt “embarrassed to be from the hood.” Today she is proud of her roots because it has shaped who she is.
“If I hadn’t grown up in South Central, I wouldn’t have been pushed to change the narrative here,” says Mejia, who has fond memories of growing up with a mother who had a green thumb and filled their house with plants. “I want the kids who come here to know that they can be business owners no matter what they look like.”
“My son said he’s going to be a business owner someday. I want that for other POC kids. Representation is everything,” she said.
Her parents played an even larger role in encouraging her to invest in her community. “My father was a pastor,” she says. “I’m an entrepreneur because of them. I did my first food drive for Nicaragua by collecting cans when I was in the first grade.”
The Plant Chica started in 2018 as a side job when Mejia was working as a medical assistant at UCLA. As a new mom, she struggled with the demands of balancing work and parenting. She started selling plants on random street corners in the hopes of opening a family business that would allow her more flexibility to spend time with her son Alem, 5.
The coronavirus pandemic proved they could. “Our plant sales grew overnight,” says Adis, 34. And because they were already established as an online company selling plants on Etsy, they were well prepared to handle the surge in plant sales. Regardless, the couple were so busy, they were forced to install a pair of greenhouses at Mejia’s parents’ house to accommodate their inventory and transform the garage into a shipping office.
In an ironic twist, the incredible demand for plants during the pandemic propelled them to open their first bricks-and-mortar store in 2021.
Finding land in their neighborhood proved difficult. When Mejia and Adis laid eyes on the auto body shop in West Adams, it had sat idle for years. Where many saw a run-down commercial space, Mejia envisioned not only a plant shop, but a safe place for the community to gather.
After a new coat of paint, and the addition of string lights, the auto body shop now has the feel of a verdant greenhouse with the expansive outdoor patio serving as a welcoming sanctuary for monthly events.
In the retail shop, there’s racks of reasonably priced houseplants — rubber plants, ZZs, alocasias and calatheas among them. Tall birds of paradise and lacy tree philodendrons rest on the ground and fill the space. Low-maintenance pothos, succulents and hoyas hang from the rafters of the curved metal ceiling. “I like hoyas because they are so resilient and bloom when they’re happy,” Mejia says. “Just like humans.”
There’s also a comfortable sitting area. A swing features a touching plaque with a quote from writer and poet Damian Leon: “Immigrant parents, With their wings cut, Still teach their children to fly.” Custom street vases, planters and rugs by Los Angeles artist Louis LIV are inscribed with bold, bright blue “Crenshaw” and “Los Angeles” graphics. And in the middle of the shop, there are the wish list plants: rare varieties imported from around the world.
Mejia hosts monthly events that she says she would have enjoyed growing up in the neighborhood. In addition to poetry nights, the Plant Chica has hosted a Black-owned community market, a Hispanic Heritage Celebration, movie nights with Gorilla Rx Wellness, storytelling and water balloon parties for kids, a Black Women’s Yoga Collective, plant clinics, and her famed “Adopt-a-Plant” events.
“Not one person showed up at my first free plant giveaway in 2018,” she says with a laugh. More than 500 people attended her most recent plant donation. “We gave out more than 2,000 free plants,” she says. “It’s a great way to give back.”
The couple’s civic-minded spirit has caught the eye of more than just plant fans and community groups. The Plant Chica is one of 15 companies that was awarded a $25,000 mentorship and venture capital support grant this year from the Annenberg Foundation.
The couple hope to use the money to open more greenhouses in similar neighborhoods and create more jobs for people who are traditionally underrepresented.
“My husband and I are both so passionate about our business,” says Mejia. “We love what we do. Yes, I love plants, but I love that people can walk into the Plant Chica and feel like this is a community space. I feel like there are more and more plant shops who want to connect on deeper levels. We took something that was already here and turned it into something beautiful. We definitely want to inspire other businesses to give back to their neighborhoods.”
The Plant Chica, 4522 W. Jefferson Blvd., Los Angeles, (right behind Mel’s Fishshack). Open Wednesdays- Fridays, noon to 7 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. theplantchica.com