Angélica Varela’s life changed dramatically after she lost her job in March.
Varela, like thousands of Chicagoans, was laid off as the pandemic took hold of the city. Feeling anxious and depressed, she turned to her plants seeking refuge.
She started propagating her own plants and selling them to friends. By July, she opened her plant studio, Semillas, in the heart of Pilsen. It’s been an instant hit. Semillas — Spanish for “seeds” — opened its doors on a hot July day. Customers lined up to shop at the new plant studio.
“As soon as we opened those doors … it went off. We sold out of everything that day,” Varela said.
Chicago plant stores are thriving during the pandemic as plant lovers flock to them, particularly in Latino communities.
Semillas, at 1425 W. 18th St., draws scores of fashionable Latinx millennials and Gen Z-ers every week. The plant studio has high ceilings, and it’s styled with a white couch. Young customers pose outside the studio with their new plants and post the photos to social media.
Varela runs the plant studio with her family; her husband, parents and siblings work there and her grandmother inspired the name.
“I remember just talking with my grandmother and she was planting her own semillas of chile de arbol in her backyard. And it clicked to me right away, semillas! I got the name,” she said.And just like Varela and her young Latino customers, reconnecting with plants is a way to reclaim or recover parts of their family and their culture.
“[Young] people may have grown up seeing their abuelitas or mothers growing and raising plants for decorative, medicinal, or culinary uses. … That type of working the earth or getting your hands in the soil inspires that cultural connection or those ties to older family members,” said Lilia Fernandez, author of Brown in the Windy City: Mexicans and Puerto Ricans in Postwar Chicago.
But it goes beyond that family connection. Loving plants dates back to indigenous cultures in Mexico and Latin America.
“Our ancestors, generations ago, knew how to harness the power of the natural world and live in harmony with it,” said Fernandez.
These practices survived colonization and crossed the border making their way to Chicago. Fernandez said many of these immigrants come from rural areas and they brought the tradition of growing plants for food and medicine with them. And now some younger Latinos are finding connections to their ancestors through plants.
“When we moved here, my grandmother … kept houseplants in her home, and it wasn’t something I noticed but it was there. I wanted to bond with her over something, so I asked her for a clipping of her plant and that kind of sped up my interest and love for them,” said Oswaldo “Ozzy” Gamez, 30. He co-owns the Plant Shop in the Albany Park neighborhood.Gamez grew up around plants in his native Belize and rediscovered his love for plants a few years ago. His store, too, has been booming during the pandemic — he’s even hired three new employees since the start of the pandemic.
“I absolutely love it when I see people my age or younger and they bring their parents,” he said. “They are excited to say I brought my mother, I brought my father here, and it’s really, really touching.”
Gamez said it is that deep cultural connection to plants that makes his job so enjoyable. He walks to the front of the store where they keep the cacti. It’s the part of the store with the most light. The cacti are his favorite.
“Desert plants just remind me of Latinos in general. They are very, very tough plants. You put them through many periods of drought and just at the end see something beautiful — you’ll see lots of growth and flowers,” Gamez said. “Whenever I think of cacti, I can’t help but to think and remind myself of the struggles Latinos have gone through.”Latinos make up almost half of the COVID-19 cases in Chicago. As they struggle through the pandemic and a difficult political climate, young Latinos are reviving a Mexican proverb to keep each other going
Quisieron enterrarnos, pero se les olvido que somos semillas.
They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.
María Inés Zamudio is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @mizamudio.