Gasparilla ~ Tampa’s Golden Key

Gasparilla. It’s more than just boobs and beads.

At the end of every January, Tampa is invaded by pirates (or grown men dressed as pirates), who take the key to our fair city and turn it into a rum drinking scene of mayhem and fun. They shoot guns, sling swords, and yell “AAARRRGH” at giggling children.

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Sounds a bit silly, doesn’t it? Maybe it is, but the spirit of a legendary pirate named Jose Gaspar is all the people of Tampa need to remind us of our common cause – coming together, doing good, and enjoying life.

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Who Was Jose Gaspar?

Jose Gaspar was a lieutenant in the Royal Spanish Navy before he abandoned his post and headed for the coastal waters of Florida. It was here, in the late 18th century, that Gaspar pirated his way to great fortunes. Referring to himself as “Gasparilla,” Gaspar built his band of pirates by capturing sailors and forcing them to join his crew or walk the plank.

Facing capture by the U.S. navy for looting American ships, Gaspar is said to have ended his own life by wrapping himself in chains and jumping off his ship, his sword defiantly held toward the sky. And his untold fortunes? They allegedly sunk somewhere off the western coast of Florida, never to be seen again.

Why Gasparilla?

In 1904, Tampa civic leaders planned a city-wide celebration and opted to use the swashbuckler, Jose Gaspar, as their mascot. The pirate themed festivities were so well-received that the following year, forty of the city’s most well-connected citizens secretly formed a celebration-planning group called Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla (YMKG). This group planned to dress as pirates and surprise the people of Tampa by invading the city and taking it over.

And invade they did. They came by land and water looking for the mayor. It was the key to the city they sought. And they didn’t stop “plundering” until they found it. The people of Tampa loved the pirate festival and asked YMKG to carry on the tradition every year.

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What Gasparilla Means Today.

What was once a one day celebration with a parade of pirates has evolved into a season of community events. The season begins with the children’s parade, the captain’s ball and the official Gasparilla parade, held on the last Saturday of January. The parade has become the third largest in the U.S. with over half a million attendees.

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The season of pirating continues into early March with the Gasparilla art show, movie festival, distance classic, and of course, a few more parties to wrap up the festivities. The season is never officially over though until the key is returned to the mayor.

But before the key is returned, there are a few good deeds that need to be done. The pirates visit hospitals and schools, doctor’s offices and clinics. They also donate time and money to charities. You may even spot a few in full pirate garb collecting money for Salvation Army.

While partying after the parade this year, I was complaining that my feet hurt from walking, my head hurt from all the noise, and I could not bear to see one more scantily clad woman yelling for beads.

And just then, I spotted the pirate captain holding the shiny, gold key to the city. I looked around at all the bright colors and happy faces and I remembered why we were all there.

To show pride in our community.

To help others.

To enjoy life.

That’s really the key to Gasparilla, boobs and all.

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