Gasparilla: More than a Moral Holiday?
When I first moved to Tampa and heard about the Gasparilla Pirate Fest and its central figure, José Gaspar—“last of the Buccaneers,” both were foreign to me. I felt slightly embarrassed that my knowledge of history was so lacking that I had never heard of Gaspar, the former Spanish Navy lieutenant who instilled terror among West Florida residents at the end of the 18th Century and the beginning of the 19th century.
Gasparilla dates back to 1904 when the first reenactment of Tampa’s capture by pirates was staged. That first year a tradition was born when Tampa’s leaders held a surprise (mock) pirate invasion of Tampa as part of a festival. Inspired by the legend of Gaspar, the original members of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla dressed the part—as pirates—and captured the city, having arrived on horseback. During Gasparilla 1916, Tampa was invaded by a ship normally used for hauling animals, but in 1954 a 165 feet long, 100 feet tall, 18th century West Indiaman replica was commissioned. The Gasparilla tradition has remained an annual event with only about ten exceptions in more than 100 years. Made up of about 700 of Tampa’s business elite, Ye Mystic Krewe continues to spearhead the carnival. (Like the Mardi Gras krewes in New Orleans, Ye Mystic Krewe members are fully costumed—except as pirates.) The festival takes place over several weeks. There is a Saturday afternoon Children’s Parade which includes krewes, marching bands, along with various school and other organizations. This is an alcohol-free event with an Air Invasion and a “Piratechnic” Extravaganza featuring fireworks.
The invasion of the city is held on the last Saturday in January every year. My first attempt to attend the day parade that follows the invasion did not go well. Minutes after arriving I grew ill; police who saw me being hauled home by my husband and friends probably assumed that I was just one more person engaging in the festival’s public drunkenness, to my chagrin. (I’m a teetotaler.)
This year I returned but witnessed the invasion instead. (The events are broadcast live on a local television channel.) What a noisy event! After the appearance of hundreds of boats in a flotilla, along came the José Gaspar with cannons booming, loaded up with hundreds of pirates who fire (fake) pistols. The boat docked at the Tampa Convention Center just after noon and the mayor of Tampa surrendered the key of the city to the pirate captain. A portion of the crowd that watched the invasion scurried to collect beads from the arriving pirates before the pirates boarded buses that would take them to the Parade of Pirates held that afternoon. Many other onlookers rush to secure any remaining good spots along the parade route, along which the pirates and other krewes toss beads and coins at throngs of onlookers.
It seems that much of the first three months of every year are chock full of Gasparilla events: Gasparilla Pirate Fest includes an Annual Festival of the Arts, a Distance Classic, Half Marathon and an International Film Festival among other events. The third parade takes place at night and winds up in “party central”: historic Ybor City. I haven’t braved this event as yet but know it draws a large crowd as well. The final event is “The Gasparilla March Triumphant: The Return to the Sea” at which the key of the city is returned to the mayor by pirates before they board José Gaspar, signaling the end of the festivities. The impact of Gasparilla on the local economy is said to be around $14 million annually.
Gaspar is a symbol with a long reach. The local football team is named the Tampa Bay Buccaneers; their logo is the skull and crossbones associated with pirates, and their mascot is Captain Fear, a pirate. Guess where Captain Fear lives. Anchored in the stadium, that is home to the team, is a 103 foot pirate ship which fires its cannon when “the Bucs” score! (The ship is Captain Fear’s residence.)
Given all of this, imagine my shock to discover that it is highly unlikely that José Gaspar actually existed or that the José Gaspar has no motor and sits on a barge during the invasion! What meaning is there in an annual invasion by barge for a fictional character? Is it a moral holiday? A time to let people ignore the usual rules of propriety?
Or is there more to Gasparilla? The fact that krewes refused to allow racial minorities or women join until the 1990s reminds us that Gasparilla began as entertainment for Tampa’s (white) elite. In 1991, the lawyers, bankers and other white businessmen of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla cancelled the festivities rather than allow people of color to join! By the next year, the first four blacks had joined this krewe and an all female krewe was formed; the party was back on! (I’m not sure how racially diverse the 700 invading pirates are but I think they are all male.) However, the celebration draws people from a variety of racial/ethnic and class backgrounds suggesting—if not necessarily demonstrating—a racially and socially unified city. Anthropologist André-Marcel d’Ans argues that some of the newer events, such the marathons, help to diversify Gasparilla in terms of race, class, and age. What explanations do you have for this century-old tradition based on a fictional character? What do you think we learn about race, class, and gender by examining Gasparilla?