Hugo Miranda connected with Immokalee on the first visit. He had heard friends talking about a town that resembled Mexico, two hours west of Miami, but he couldn’t imagine what that would look like. Then one night a few months ago, he was at Harry’s making pizzas, in his spot on the oven station that he’s held down since the day the Design District restaurant opened, and a familiar face walked through the door. Lucas Benitez and his family made themselves at home on table 11, and Hugo couldn’t believe his eyes. The co-founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers had come to the pizzeria, to him. Hugo had seen him talk, heard his speeches advocating for the migrant workers and their rights, when the slave trade rings were busted in early 2000s. He had always been inspired, but this was a sign. It was at that moment he decided to make a visit to Little Mexico.
“It’s something that just called me, and it’s only 2 hours away,” he explained on a recent morning at Harry’s over fruta cristalizada from the market. “Wow, it was magic. They have a radio station 107.7, and I’m listening as I arrive on a Wednesday night. It’s their open assembly, so I go and sit among the crowd. They were showing a Cantinflas movie, and we were all laughing. There was a beautiful vibe and big giant murals.”
Coffee and sweet bread was served, and Hugo’s favorite thing, Mexican pumpkin empanadas. He thinks he must have eaten three of them. In addition to the good food and company, a photography lead. That evening he wouldn’t bring his big camera, a Japanese-made, medium format Kowa/Six. First he would break ground without it, sensitive like a seasoned documentarian to how those around him might react to unsolicited intrusion. The Kowa isn’t exactly inconspicuous. No, for now he would just observe, because a chance to work his craft would come sooner than anticipated. Around 4:30 the next morning, buses would congregate in a nearby parking lot to pick up the farmers and take them to the fields. He would be there to capture it.
It’s no surprise Hugo was drawn to this adopted homeland. Born in Los Angeles to a Chicana mother, Maria, and raised in Oruro, a small city in west Boliva, his father’s country, Hugo has the blood of many homelands flowing through his veins. The Quechua, Aymara and Spanish origins on his Dad’s side made his grandparents precious about food, that is to say its significance to the family, how it should be prepared and the profound influence on their identity. In the early days it made a deep impression on Hugo. These were hard people, determined to make a life for the family, bound by a sense of pride and work ethic. They would talk to Hugo a lot about this. Grandfather Ciprián used to walk for days from the “altiplano” high plains to sell freshly-picked herbs in the city. He made his way up in mining and knew what kind of food came from every corner of the country. Whether it was a maid or aunt or cousin under Grandma Rosa’s direction, she could tell when quinoa was not washed seven times! His mom would try to fool her sometimes to everyone’s delight. Ciprián would sit with a bowl of hot steamed quinoa every morning for breakfast. This was quinoa country. On his mother Maria’s side, his grandma Juanita, a Tejana, spoke no English but rather to young Hugo softly through her cooking. They forged a warm, special connection through food for the 12 years he was in California before heading south.
Immokalee is the ultimate source for Hugo. Its own land bears tomatoes and squash, potatoes and calabazas. As the largest warehousing point in South Florida, product coming up from Homestead and down from the north is shuttled back out again, servicing distributors big and small. You’ll find trucks coming in from Georgia, even Texas, to pick up. And it’s a canvas for his portrait of a people through which he is finding himself as an artist.
Hugo started cooking here in Miami about 15 years ago and has lived in Little Havana ever since. Before joining Harry’s, he worked at the sub shops and on and off, this and that. Then he decided it was how he was going to make a living. From his drives out west, Hugo has been supplying Harry’s in Design District with things like radishes that end up in Orange and Radish Salad and Wood Oven Roasted Half Chicken with Salsa Verde. But his focus is growing Hugo’s Chiles, his small distribution business servicing Mexican establishments from taquerias and restaurants, to bodegas with pungent chiles of good quality, both fresh and dried. It’s how Hugo’s real love, photography, is being funded.
“I was looking for a way to finance the photography thing,” he continued. “I started with chiles. I’d see the price, then introduce myself as cook to various stores in my neighborhood. Most are paying about $6 a pound for bad product from some distributor. Your nose can tell the difference. Chile de arbol, guajillos… They smell up the car!”
Bring back memories or be inspired, like us, to make new ones. Follow along Hugo’s travels through his vivid portraits of food and small town life at Hugo’s Chiles. And wave hi to the guy in the bandana the next time you visit Harry’s. You’ll never see him the same way again.