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'This Is What We Came From': Photographer Finds 'Old' Florida Preserved In The Glades

Photographer Sofia Valiente grew up in Davie, but for the last three years she’s been documenting the history of the Glades region around the southern lip of Lake Okeechobee. Her project is a 2017 Knight Arts Challenge winner.

Valiente recently told WLRN’s Peter Haden how the idea was born when she came across a set of books by Laurence E. Will, the self-proclaimed “Cracker Historian of the Glades.”

VALIENTE: I began to realize a lot of people he talked about, these original settlers, their family members, were still there. And still a big part of the community — the modern day generations of these pioneers. And still that very strong connection that they have to their roots. Some of them, it’s almost as if you’re speaking with their great-great grandparents when you speak to them. I really admire that. You know, and it’s such a way of life that’s completely different than the rest of South Florida.

WLRN: In what way?

Well, the industry there is agriculture. There’s a tremendous history there that all of South Florida should really understand -- that story of pioneers, the original settlers and preparing the land.

What did you know about the Glades before you had gone out there?

Before I went out, I actually didn’t even know the Glades existed. I grew up an hour away in Davie, and I had no idea what the Glades were.

When you envisioned Florida on the map at that time ... you were in Davie, and what was above you?

Maybe some farmland. And some universities. And Disney.

Credit Sofia Valiente / www.sofiavaliente.com
Sonny Fritz Stein III, is a fourth-generation Stein son. The equipment next to him is a dragline bucket used to dredge the land for farming.

How did you find yourself in the Glades?

A friend of mine was going out and said, “Oh, would you like to come and see this area?” Visually, it’s a pretty interesting place. You know, it’s like this little pocket that many people don’t know about. I thought, “Oh, perfect. Let me go out and tag along.”

Taking [Highway] 27 up north, part of that is protected land. Then you begin to see some sugarcane, and these big sugarcane fires that happen and these big smokes. And you’re going somewhere completely different. It was like going back in time. You have all these very old buildings from the 30s.

Aesthetically, it was like something I’d never seen before. But it was still Palm Beach County and still South Florida. It seemed to me that, a lot of what is “old Florida” is kind of preserved here. And it became more and more clear to me that, you know, this is what we came from in South Florida. This is what we were.

When you think about the famous Western films, you had the canyons and the desert. Here it’s like that same story but instead of the canyons and deserts, it’s the river of grass and the swamp. This area was referred to as a useless area.

Oh yeah. A swamp!

So these are the people that said, “Ah, lets try it out. Lets see.” That’s the visionary. And we owe a lot to those people — the people that came when it was nothing.

Credit Sofia Valiente / www.sofiavaliente.com
The Sara Lee Doll, the first black doll, was made by Sara Creech of Belle Glade. Here is a replica photographed with one of the original models for the doll, Mary Owens. She says the doll has her nose.

What kinds of things do you photograph for this ongoing documentary work?

It’s definitely rooted in anthropology. It’s actually my life. The pictures come later.

One of the groups that I’m really close to in the area is the Jamaicans in Belle Glade. These are people that came to cut the sugarcane by hand. Some of the Jamaicans operate what I call their modern day juke joints. There’ll be certain events, like domino tournaments or drink-outs or round robins.

I look alot at the old photographs that were made in Florida. There was a handful of photographers that came to Belle Glade during the Great Depression. There are some photographs that were made in the juke joints at that time. And it’s pretty amazing, because it’s that same scene in 2018.


There’s a richness there, you know? Where I live in Belle Glade, I live on the same street that Zora Neale Hurston lived in the 1930s. She wrote “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”

Every nook and cranny of the Glades has a story. Growing up in the suburbs, all the houses look the same, you know. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But it really just clicks for me, living in the Glades.

They have a saying in the town: "Once you get the muck stuck in your toes, you stay there."


NOTE: Sofia Valiente seeks a South Florida woodworker/builder with a passion for history to build an old freight boat for her 2019 exhibition in West Palm Beach. www.sofiavaliente.com

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