The Gasparilla Pirate Festival is held annually in Tampa on the last weekend in January to commemorate the invasion of Tampa Bay by the legendary pirate José Gaspar, who is called the “last of the buccaneers” (www.gasparillapiratefest.com). For just over a century, the people of Tampa have come out in droves to watch the parades, to celebrate in the streets, and to enjoy the city in which they live. From its original format, which consisted of only a single street parade and a small mock invasion on horseback, the festival has grown to include a Children's Parade (held on the preceding weekend as the main event), a reenactment of the pirate invasion on the water, an exclusive invasion brunch event at the TBPAC, an all day street festival, the Day Parade, and the adults-only Night Parade (www.gasparillapiratefest.com). The event has an average attendance of 400,000 people and involves over 50 "Krewes" which are private clubs that organize floats for the parade (Gershman 2005). One particular Krewe, Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, is considered the host of the event and is credited with organizing the very first pirate invasion reenactment in 1904 (Danielson and Wilmath 2010). The official website for Gasparilla, www.gasparillapiratefest.com, emphasizes the philanthropic side of the event; the parade is free to the public and the numerous "beer gardens" donate all of their proceeds to charities. This year, it took place on Saturday January 30th. But in spite of Ye Mystic Krewe‟s supposedly nicer side, there has certainly been controversy regarding this community festival. In 1991, Ye Mystic Krewe cancelled it altogether rather than give in to pressure to integrate their private club and admit people of color (Gershman 2005).
The two sources which I found for information regarding Gasparilla are at odds about one issue in particular; whether or not any of the legend is true. According to the article „The Legend of Gasparilla: Myth and History on Florida‟s West Coast‟ there is not any shred of evidence that there ever was a José Gaspar (d'Ans 1980:5). The official website for the pirate festival, www.gasparillapiratefest.com, tells a different story. There is an explanation of the festival‟s historic background which implies that the famed invasion of Tampa truly occurred. But while D‟Ans says that this festival is not rooted in an actual occurrence, he is not making the point that this takes away from the validity of the legend; instead he argues that the "historical truth of the legend of Gasparilla is its very existence" and that wise historians know that mythic legends tell about volumes about the societies that keep them alive (d'Ans 1980:5).
The legend is traced back to John Gomez, who died in the Tampa Bay area in either 1875 or 1900, depending on which version of the myth you subscribe to (d‟Ans 1980:10). It is said that he, the son of a pirate himself, witnessed the legendary invasion of Tampa, and that he told this story throughout his remaining years, which is how we have the story today (www.gasparillapiratefest.com).
Participant observation was expected to be my primary method for data collection at the Gasparilla day parade, however I also spoke with a few parade-goers, and also documented the event with photographs (Kolaja 1956:159). Nearly all of the people that I spoke with knew that I was there for an ethnographic project, and their reactions to this were enthusiastic. I say that "nearly all" knew about the nature of my attendance, because there was a small amount of natural conversation between myself and others en route to the parade site, which didn't really facilitate or require and explanation from me. My first true informant was a man who was about 35, wearing a Budweiser tee-shirt who initiated a conversation with me. I had been standing alone, and this apparently made me look like quite the outsider (Vidich 1955:354). He and I chatted about the weather, why I was there, and then he proceeded to tell me about the previous year when, as an employee, he had been on the Budweiser float in the parade. Our conversation concluded with his insistence that I accept a beer from his cooler and a strand of beads. Immediately thereafter, I spoke with a small group standing under a tree, about 12 feet away from the street, trying to avoid the steady rain. The group was comprised of 3 males and 3 females, all of whom were probably in their early to mid-twenties who had attended Gasparilla once before. I was able to give away my strand of beads to one of the girls in this group, before I left the parade site. My photographic data collection was hampered as the rain picked up in intensity, however I did my best.
Three themes that epitomize Gasparilla for me include the potlatch aspect (exchanging of beads and the sharing of alcohol), the bacchanalian nature of the event (provocative dress and crowd-agitation), and the nurturing of pride for local historic legend. Everyone I have spoken with regarding Gasparilla agrees that the whole point of the celebration is public intoxication. My informants said that “this festival is for Tampa what Mardi Gras is for New Orleans”; definitive and nearly obligatory. It was my first time attending and they were thoroughly shocked because I consider myself a native here.
Gasparilla is basically a Classical reversal-festival (Forsdyke 2005:74). The understanding scholars have of the reversal-festival is that riotous party atmospheres and reversal of social norms and roles (for example, business men pretending to be pirates) provide a release for the working class people (Forsdyke 2005:73). This makes sense, regarding Gasparilla, because the majority of the festival goers that I saw at the parade site were ordinary middle-class locals and the entertainment for the day was provided by the white collar men in the prestigious “krewes”.
My final impression of this community festival is that it matters very little to the party-goers if there was a real pirate named José Gaspar, or if Tampa Bay ever was invaded by marauders. It doesn‟t even matter if it rains, as it did this year. For locals, this event seems to create a distraction from the boredom that follows the busy winter holiday season and provides a sense of unity, all with an exciting backdrop.
11:30 am Left my house in Clearwater, FL. It‟s a cloudy day. I meant to get a much
earlier start but there were some issues with that.
12:10 pm I‟m driving down W. Kennedy and near Dale Mabry, and I‟m starting to see signs that there is road closure up ahead.
12:26 pm I decided to park at a book warehouse of sorts and walk into the festival area to
avoid high priced parking. Since I‟ve never been to Gasparilla before, I‟m not sure exactly where the “action” is but I know that I can follow the sound of cannon blasts and the flow of foot traffic until it becomes more obvious where to go.
Image 1. Local churches, businesses, and residents selling parking to festival attendees. West Kennedy Blvd and South Plant Avenue.
12:30 pm People are walking towards the southwest, mostly in groups. Some groups are all male or female, but most seem to be a mix of genders. Some people are in full costume, others are only partially costumed (for example, a pirate shirt or hat
worn with a normal outfit), and others are dressed normally, although nearly all of the women in normal clothes have put together outfits that are provocative, in spite of the cool breeze and drizzle.
Image 2. Some people are congregating near portable bathrooms, others are walking towards Bayshore Blvd. Hype Park Avenue and West Platt Street.
12:40 pm Walking in a small crowd (15 people), which is comprised of 2 or 3 smaller groups. The people leading the way are middle aged and carrying or rolling coolers to the parade site. There are 3 college girls directly behind me. I asked the girls if they know where “stuff is going on” because I have never been to this event before. They are friendly with me and say that they are not sure, just doing what I‟m doing- walking with the flow of foot traffic.
Image 3. Mostly “normally dressed” festival goers, some with coolers, on their way to the parade site. West Platt St.
12:50 pm The group I‟m walking with starts down a sidewalk that goes under the bridge to Davis Island where three police officers are posted to ask festival-goers to
make sure there is no alcohol in their coolers. The group passes by without
acknowledging them, but the last person in the group, a middle aged man, seems nervous to ignore them and stops to say “Really?” Just out of the police officers‟ view, his friends, ahead of me, debate whether or not to go back for him, to stop and wait, or to let him catch up later on. While they discuss they refill their drinks from their coolers.
12:57 pm I‟m at the parade site now. There are vendors dragging or pushing long rectangular carts loaded with (among many other items) beads, inflatable toys, and pirate flags. In several different areas there are festival food vendors, portable bathrooms, and beer vendors. Here, the ratio of fully costumed pirates is higher than it had been on the walk to the parade site. Most people have also adorned themselves with beads.
Image 4. People stand under the shelter of the bridge, as it drizzles just slightly. A vendor (right) sells an inflatable toy. W. Bay St and Bayshore Blvd.
Image 5. Police security was rumored to be increased for this particular year. In this particular spot, four Tampa Police officers stand and watch the crowd for violence, underage drinking, and drug use. Bayshore Blvd.
Image 6. A man, a woman, and two young children (left) stand under an umbrella as the crowd goes by. Vendors in the distance are calling out to the crowd, and a woman (right) eats a funnel cake as she walks. Bayshore Blvd.
1:14 pm Starting to rain.
Image 7. A man struggles with his umbrella, while trying to hold on to his beer as well. A friendly arm reaches out to assist. Bayshore Blvd.
1:15 pm Chatting with my first informant! His reaction to this as a project is somewhat approving and enthusiastic. He works for Budweiser and was on a float last year, which he says was really “cool” but entails getting up really early to start drinking. He insists I get in the spirit and gives me a strand of beads and a beer from his cooler.
Image 8. My informant (left), and his friend (right). At the parade site, on Bayshore Blvd.
1:35 pm Vendors start selling ponchos. A young man buys one and tells his date they can share it.
Image 9. A couple (right) walks south on Bayshore in ponchos with their cooler. A small group of young people (left) are drinking and talking together as well.
1:50 pm I excuse myself from the informant‟s group of friends and start to wander in the crowd again. I notice that the proportion of festival goers in pirate costume has increased in the past hour.
Image 10. “Pirates” mingling with regular people on Bayshore Blvd.
2:15 pm I walk across the street, towards the shelter of a large oak tree. A moment later a scantily clad woman drags a stroller up the curb, also attempting to find shelter from the cold rain.
Image 11. Young woman with stroller seeks shelter under a tree, as the crowd carries on in the rain. Bayshore Blvd.
2:20 Begin chatting with a small group of festival goers there under the tree. The girls are taking pictures of each other, and one insists that none of the pictures end up on facebook, because she is a teacher. The guys are discussing how unfortunate it would be to “get a girl pregnant this early in the semester” and all three agree that it would “ruin the semester”.
Image 12. A group of friends greet each other, some are dressed in pirate themed clothing and some are wearing beads. Bayshore Blvd.
2:35 pm I start heading south on northeast Bayshore again. There are crowds if young men yelling “Show us your tits!” to a group of young girls who pass by. Nobody seems bothered by this jeering, and everyone appears to be having a good time.
Image 13. A girl drinks with her friends on Bayshore Blvd.
2:40 pm I observe that a large and dense crowd has now formed on the part of Bayshore that is near the bridge that leads to Davis Island.
2:45 pm In that large crowd, a smaller and more intense crowd has developed. There are about 20 or 30 people packed in very tightly and there is a sort of chaotic organization to this. Two or three men in the center are drumming on their chests and the group around them are yelling and encouraging them, but I don„t notice any disagreement that would indicate this was a fight about to break out. One man takes off his shirt and starts spinning it over his head.
Image 14. The crowd cheers on as a couple of men become frenzied and eventually, one of them takes off his shirt. Bayshore Blvd.
2:50 pm In a heavy rain, I begin walking towards Kennedy Blvd to find my car, hoping it hasn‟t been towed.
Image 15. A “pirate” exits a portable bathroom and turns towards the street festival. W. Bay St.
1980 "The Legend of Gasparilla: Myth and History on Florida's West Coast" Tampa Bay History. USF Library Online. http://www.lib.usf.edu/ldsu/digitalcollections/T06/journal/ v02n2_80/v02n2_80_05.pdf
Danielson, Richard and Kim Wilmath
2010 Gasparilla invasion, parade, will go on as planned (only wetter). St. Petersburg Times, January 30.
2005 Revelry and Riot in Archaic Megara: Democratic Disorder or Ritual Reversal? The Journal of Hellenic Studies 125(1):73-92.
2005 101 Gasparilla. St. Petersburg Times, January 28.
1956 A Contribution to the Theory of Participant Observation. Social Forces 35(2):159-163.
1955 Participant Observation and the Collection and Interpretation of Data. The American Journal of Sociology 60(4):354-360.