Sofia Valiente leads the way through sticky black muck to the lone tree left amid miles of shoulder-high sugar cane, glowing a hallucinogenic green in the blistering noon sun.
Get lost here in Belle Glade’s cane fields and rescue would require a helicopter, if our phones had signals to call 911, which they don’t.
But Valiente is an assured guide. We approach an ancient-looking cypress tree, frightening a cat-sized barn owl that swoops silently away.
The tree’s gnarled trunk marks a former homesite where two Glades pioneer families tried to ride out the apocalyptic 1928 hurricane that drowned more than 2,500 people. Many members of the area’s prominent Schlechter and Stein families, whose descendents still live in the Glades, perished in the storm.
The old tree, the families’ tragedies and their perseverance touch Valiente.
“This tree is all that’s left of the house.” says Valiente, 26, a fine art photographer who is working on her second project in the communities around the rim of Lake Okeechobee. “The Steins protected it as a memorial when they could have planted more cane.”
She’s fascinated by the Glades’ legacy of human triumph over nature and disaster: the men who wrenched farmland from the swamps, the farming families and field workers who stayed on the rich muck, building Pahokee, Belle Glade and Clewiston despite hurricanes, floods, drought and the area’s poverty, as well as how the black, white and immigrant communities are braided together while being virtually ignored by the rest of the state.
After growing up in Plantation’s bland suburbia, the ‘Glades authenticity speaks straight to Valiente’s heart.
“Here, I finally get Florida. They’re so isolated out here, but there’s something precious that’s been preserved,” says Valiente, 26. “People come out here and they feel something. They don’t know what is is, but there’s a richness. History here is very present. It’s not been paved over.”
She calls her current photography project, ForeverGlades, which she says is a look at the history of the area and its people seen through a contemporary lens.
She arrived in Belle Glade five years ago, fresh out of Florida International University with a fine arts degree and a fellowship from Fabrica, an Italian foundation that supports social change through the arts.
She’s stayed on after working on a photo book about Miracle Village, near Pahokee, where more than half the community are convicted sex offenders.
She admits she arrived naive and unprepared, knowing nothing about her subject.
“I had no plan, no experience with anything like this. I was 22, had never met a sex offender,” said Valiente. “My first picture was a guy with a lollipop. It was so stereotypical. I realized I had to let my own preconceptions go.”
Florida mandates sex offenders live at least 1,000 feet from schools and parks, but some cities lengthen the restrictions to nearly half a mile, making it difficult for released sex crime inmates to find housing. Most sex offenders must register yearly and carry the label for life.
In 2009, the late Pastor Dick Witherow established Miracle Village off Muck City Road in duplexes built for the Jamaican cane cutters that growers once hired for the fall harvest. About 100 sex offenders, overwhelmingly men, live there alongside a group of retired Jamaican field workers.
Miracle Village says it investigates released inmates on probation before offering housing to those deemed unlikely to re-offend. They wear ankle monitors. The Village has said it doesn’t accept pedophiles, serial rapists or those who committed violent crimes.
Eventually, Valiente spent weeks living among the residents.
Her photographs are not so much compassionate as they are the work of a curious mind. What are these people really like?
“This was a way to look beyond the stigma, to find the person there,” she said.
Valiente says each resident is required to tell the others what he or she did, a transparency that she found freeing.
“Can you imagine knowing the worst thing a person has done? We’d all be afraid of everyone we came in contact with. But these people know the worst about each other,” she said.
Before Fabrica published a book with Valiente’s photographs, she asked residents to describe their crimes. Their handwritten letters are published in the back of the book.
Some were found with child pornography on their computers.
One man wrote a single sentence: “I had sex with my younger brother.”
One man said that when he was 20, he met a girl in a bar. She wore a plastic bracelet that designated those over 21. They had sex, but it turned out that she was really only 15.
Others did things too terrible to repeat.
At her Pahokee cottage behind a white columned Southern-style plantation house not far from the town’s famous alley of royal palms, Valiente leads the way across a lush lawn to a path ending on the flat-topped Lake Okeechobee dike.
While her Belle Glade apartment’s air-conditioner is being fixed, she’s living there with her boyfriend, Jose Zaragoza, a former Glades-area newspaper reporter turned operations director for the Glades Initiative, a non-profit that coordinates health and social services for Glades residents.
At sunset, they climb the dike with a cocktail to watch the sun set over the lake, an event almost as celebrated in the Glades as it in the Keys.
They have become people of the muck.
Together, they know people up and down the lake. At Brown’s Soul Food in Belle Glade, a dimly lit Jamaican restaurant, we eat peas and rice and stew chicken, redolent with allspice and thyme, while the couple catches up with the waitress.
“Jamaican bars figure big into my nightlife,” says Valiente. Zaragoza adds, “They have rotating dinner parties at various bars and restaurant and we go to the domino tournaments on Sundays.”
Valiente’s view of the Glades through her camera lens is mostly optimistic and non-political. She doesn’t delve into controversies such as Big Sugar’s hold on the communties, polluted Everglades water, the lack of services or the causes of the area’s intractable poverty.
She refuses to endorse the idea that young black men’s only way out of the Glades is football, a notion rooted in the talented college and NFL players to come out of Glades Central, Pahokee High and Glades Day schools.
“I never want to reinforce that stereotype that football is the only road out of the Glades. There’s so much more here,” she says.
Recently, Valiente learned she is a finalist in the prestigious Knight Foundation’s Knight Arts Challenge, a grant given to artists and organizations to enrich communities through art. When the project is completed, she hopes to mount what she calls “a non-traditional exhibit” in downtown West Palm Beach or Lake Worth.
“Wouldn’t it be cool to build a replica of a Glades dredge boat,” she muses over her stew chicken.
Trying to support herself with her twin passions of Glades culture and photography hasn’t been easy, but for her, this is now home.
“This is no longer an assignment,” she says. “It’s my life.”
She made a little money recently from the publication of “Rooted in the Muck,” a booklet with profiles of influential Glades figures she says exemplify what it means to be “from the muck.”
She quotes a popular Glades saying: “’Once you get the muck stuck in your toes, you never leave.’ I think that’s going to be the way it is for me. “