My America...Journeys

"Let every fellow tell his tale about." Chaucer

Sunday, November 12, 2006




In 1904, Tampa, Florida suffered the first of its pirate invasions when forty brigands of the high seas, albeit on horseback, rode into town. Lack of a ship not withstanding, they were honoring the notorious if mythical 18th century pirate Jose Gaspar. They were Foul-smelling, ill-clothed, scruffy, bearded, broken toothed, and scarred. Bent on general mayhem, they forced the mayor to surrender the keys to the city, then proceeded to loot and pillage the then sleepy little cigar making capitol.

They’ve been doing it every year since. In January, an estimated half million people will welcome them back to the Gasparilla Pirate Fest.

The Gasparilla Days Parade is more than just five hundred thousand people gathered along the world’s longest continuous walkway. It is more than just beautiful young women yelling themselves hoarse for penny-a-pound beads--that for one day at least are coin of the realm--more than a gathering, more than a party, more than the donning of Halloween costumes and prancing around safely behind gobs of makeup, false teeth and imitation scars. It is the multi-hued and many faceted history of this city itself, past and present; and for the visitor, it is more than just a parade.

The original forty “Pirates” formed Ye Mystik Krewe of Gasparilla, whose number grew to seven hundred members of the established business and commercial community. In February, they will sail into the harbor aboard the SS Gasparilla. Their takeover will be complete as they lead twenty-seven Krewes, representing the diversified history and culture of the fort that became a village that became a city, its high rise office buildings gleaming in the noonday sun. For Tampans it is Mardi gras, St. Patrick’s Day and Cinco de Mayo all rolled into one.

There will be English privateers, Spanish nobles, Buffalo Soldiers,peasant rebels, riverboat gamblers, and distaff Krewes celebrating a Greek Goddess and the lives of little known but nonetheless notorious female pirates of the Caribbean. There does not seem to be any rational explanation of why all of these bloodthirsty ladies were Irish, though.
No matter the notorious or frivolous image they wish to project, all the Krewes are in fact social clubs, sponsoring community help programs and fostering a connection to the ethnic and social roots of the community.

For the visitor, the festivities begin when Children’s Parade kicks off the week long celebration and Ye Mystik Krewe “Pirates” battle the city once again with their "Piratetechnic" fireworks display. Once again, they will win, once again paving the way for the actual “invasion"..

For the entire week, the city is a buzz of anticipation, offering visitors the opportunity to sample many of the historical, cultural and gustatory icons the city has to offer.

1886 was a pivotal year in Tampa history. It was then that railroad baron built a railroad line to the then sand covered cow town. He completed the Tampa Bay Hotel, his monument to excess in 1891. A prime example of American Gilded Age extravagance, it was a quarter mile long, had 511 rooms, topped with gold minarets that were visible from anywhere in town. It was complete with electricity, telephones and amenities that could well have set the tone for today’s international hotels. In 1899, The Rough Riders—with 30,000 troops with 20,000 horses and mules--camped on its 150 acres awaiting the orders to sail for Cuba, while Theodore Roosevelt wrote his daily letters home to his wife from the downstairs study.

Today, the gold minarets still gleam, standing as a tribute to the untold riches of Tampa Bay history as a National Landmark and Museum. The dresses of early 20th century of Gasparilla royalty are here, many designed by Anne Cone Lowe, who also designed Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy’s wedding dress and bridesmaids gowns.

And once again, the present-day Rough Riders, will march five hundred strong to celebrate their charge up San Juan Hill.

Across town, Ybor City, also founded in 1886—prophetically the same year that the Statue of Liberty was unveiled—would become home to more the hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Spain, Cuba and Italy. They would produce more cigar makers than Havana, establish a vibrant entrepreneurial and mercantile hub, and in the process create one more facet to the multicultural pastiche that is Tampa.

Cuban immigrant Casimero Hernandez opened a little corner coffee and sandwich shop in 1905. His granddaughter would marry into the Gonzmart family. They would take over the Restaurant and today, under the guidance of fifth generation Gonzmarts, the six Columbia Restaurants are flourishing throughout Florida. Cezar Gonzmart was one of the founders of the Krewe of Sant Yago in honor of Spain’s Patron Saint James.

Fifty-One years after Casimero opened his doors, Bern and Gert Laxer opened the doors on an equally modest restaurant. But modesty does not fit into the Bern’s Steak House lexicon. With its thirty food charcoal grill, 1,200 gallon fish tank, a 212 page wine list and a wine cellar holding 90,000 bottles of the fruit of the vine, Bern’s has become renowned throughout Florida. In 2002, Laxer’s son David partnered with Chef Jeannie Pierola to take Bern’s into the 21st Century. Progeny of Cuban-Spanish parents, Jeannie Pierola has combined her eclectic tastes and myriad skills to create her “One World Under Food” at the sleek Side Bern’s. To visit Tampa and not sample her One World Cuisine is to have led a deprived life.

On parade day, a well fed and walked-out visitor would be well advised to arrive early, because the rising sun will shine on lawn chairs and sleeping bags of bead hungry early arrivals. By noon, it will almost be possible to walk across the bay on the decks of the thousands of boats that greet the SS Gasparilla as it sails triumphantly into the harbor and disgorges the seven hundred members of Ye Mystik Krewe, joined by their fellow Tampans and whoever wants to join the fun. It is a garish, noisy, celebration of Tampa, with ship after ship, castle after castle, carrying gaudily and sometimes outrageously dressed Krewes. And for one day, Tampa will be theirs—and yours.WDJ

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