By Carlos Harrison
It's hardly surprising that a state colonized and named by Spaniards would be home to an armada of Hispanic festivals and events – and centuries after Juan Ponce de Leon and other Spanish explorers first set foot on Florida’s shores, the state definitely lives up to its heritage.
Hispanic festivals in Florida run year-round and statewide. And there are new ones being added all the time. Here’s a sampling:
Arrrr, mateys! January is when Tampa celebrates its plundering at the hands of the pirate Jose Gaspar. It begins with a re-enactment of the invasion, with a flotilla led by the fully-rigged pirate ship Jose Gasparilla. The colorfully costumed pirate “krewes” celebrate their successful takeover of the city with a parade, sharing their wealth by tossing beads and doubloons to the spectators lined along the route. The party continues with a street fest, with live entertainment on multiple stages.
Bright lights, Ybor City. Staged for more than three decades by the Krewe of the Knights of Sant’Yago, the nighttime parade features brilliantly lit and decorated floats, bands, costumed “pirates” and the king, queen and royal court of the Sant’Yago Krewe. It’s part of Tampa’s list of Gasparilla Festival activities, usually falling a week or two after the “invasion” and Pirate Parade.
Tampa’s Ybor City honors the Cuban, German, Italian, African-Cuban, Jewish and Spanish immigrants who first settled the neighborhood in 1886. The street festival started as a “verbena” – a day of rest – for the workers who rolled cigars in the neighborhood’s noted factories. Now, nearly 70 years later, the free festival involves closing down La Setima (7th Avenue) and filling the street with food, music, exhibits and entertainment.
International means global, but films, stars and directors from Spain and across the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking Americas are a major part of what puts MIFF on the map. It runs for better than a week in early March, with so many films, talks and after-parties it’s impossible for anyone to attend them all. There are also plenty of red-carpet celebrity-sighting opportunities, and chances for Q&A’s with filmmakers and the actors who bring the stories to life on the big screen.
The “smaller” Spanish island in the Mediterranean (as opposed to its Majorcan neighbor) had a big impact on St. Augustine. The original 13-hundred or so colonists came over as indentured servants to work on a Scottish speculator’s indigo plantation south of the city. They ended up fleeing his despotic rule and asking for help from officials in St. Augustine, who freed them and granted them land parcels to settle on. Their descendants are still there nearly two-and-a-half centuries later, and still proudly proclaiming their heritage. Which the Menorcan Cultural Society happily celebrates and shares with everybody who comes by the Llambias House in St. Augustine’s historic center. They’ll be telling stories, singing traditional songs and serving up Menorcan (or Minorcan; they spell it both ways) clam chowder, a variety of pilaus, and offering their signature datil pepper sauces and jellies for those who like to spice things up.
For real Latin flavor it’s hard to beat Tampa’s annual Cuban Sandwich Festival in March. It includes live music, art and cultural exhibitions and, of course, the sandwich competition that gives the two-day festival its name. Restaurants and sandwich makers from across the country challenge each other to make the very best Cuban sandwich in the land. Categories include traditional, non-traditional and “popular vote.”
This is it! South Florida’s premier Hispanic event of the year, including what bills itself as the “largest block party in the world,” happens in the heart of Little Havana. It actually stretches over 10 days of beauty pageants, sports events, food and concerts, culminating with Calle Ocho, a 23-block street festival. It’s grown to include live salsa, merengue and Caribbean music on 30 stages, and claims to draw a million people.
The streets of downtown Orlando fill with proud Puerto Ricans waving flags, celebrating their heritage and their connection to the Isle of Enchantment. Come early, stay late. The parade is followed by a string of salsa, merengue, hip-hop and reggaeton artists performing deep into the night at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts.
The name translates to “United in Music.” It’s a lovely thought, fitting the festival organizer’s goal “to unite Latin Americans in Florida.” And what better way to do it than with a day-long celebration filled with Latin music, dance, performances, workshops, art, games, food and beverages? In, of all places, the city where the Spaniards first planted their flag. In fact, the family-friendly fiesta takes place at St. Augustine’s Francis Field, a few short blocks from the Castillo de San Marcos.
This is exactly what the name says – the Cuba of yesteryear, brought to life again. It’s got reproductions of some of Havana’s iconic settings, from the El Encanto department store to the Havana Cathedral. There’s Cuban music and a dance contest, and chances for collectors, the curious and, yes, the nostalgic, to gather up unique Cuban-themed memorabilia, guayabera shirts, prints, flags, paintings, books and jewelry. Cuba Nostalgia happens in May.
Put on your dancing shoes and salsa, salsa, salsa. It’s four days and nights of live music, more than 50 workshops, more than 30 dance performances per night, pool parties by day, and salsa and bachata dancing at night until at least 4 a.m. It’s all wrapped around the Fourth of July holiday.
Five days. Five hundred performers. Five thousand fans. This is non-stop salsa action, showcasing world-renowned international dancers strutting their stuff and showing others how. It happens at the beginning of August. Highlights include dance workshops, concerts, all-star DJs, parties and, of course, exhibitions by some of the world’s best dancers.
(Orlando) Hispanic Heritage Art Exhibition
The City of Orlando hosts a two-month-long fiesta for the eyes. The art exhibit in the Terrace Gallery at the City Hall Rotunda celebrates the creativity and diverse cultural heritage of Central Florida artists from different Hispanic backgrounds working in a variety of disciplines.
Hispanic Heritage Season runs from September through mid-November, with multiple events celebrating the city’s rich Hispanic history, old and new. Its mission, in the words of its organizers, “is to foster, promote, and preserve the Hispanic heritage and culture in the Tampa Bay Area.” And that includes Hispanics from throughout the Americas and the Iberian Peninsula. There are poetry and poster contests, the selection of a cultural ambassador and at least one gala.
This family-friendly art and cultural festival at Tampa’s Perry Harvey Sr. Park is all about celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month. It includes lots of fun activities, food, dance exhibitions, and music spanning the spectrum of Latin sound.
In case you didn’t know, Pompano Beach and Deerfield Beach have some of the highest percentages of Brazilian ex-pats in the United States. Which might explain why thousands of people turn out to dance and sing along at this festa, with Brazilian art, culture, music and cuisine – complete with a talent show, capoeira exhibitions, and samba performances.
It’s billed as Central Florida's largest Hispanic festival. It started as a primarily Puerto Rican festival but now includes people from Mexico, Central America, South America and the Caribbean. For what? To eat, drink and dance in the streets of downtown Orlando. Did we say big? For past festivals, the city closed off 10 downtown streets, put up four stages and hosted performances by more than 40 recording artists from around the world. And talk about family friendly: One entire street is dedicated to children’s activities.
OK, technically it’s a holiday festival, which just happens to be rated as one of the best displays of Christmas lights in the country by none other than National Geographic. But when you’re dealing with the city where Spaniards first laid claim to the New World, isn’t just about everything that happens here Hispanic in a way? I mean, picture it: strolling past the strings of white lights draping the beautiful and scenic Bridge of Lions leading up to St. Augustine’s Old Town as you gaze at the nation’s oldest Spanish fortress, the Castillo de San Marcos; or standing in the glow of the Christmas tree in the city’s central park, the Plaza de la Constitución. (See? Even the park’s name is in Spanish.) The plaza was built to celebrate the Spanish Constitution of 1812. The lights are up from November through January.
Come on everybody, can you do the conga? In November, Tampa’s Al Lopez Park is the scene for music and dance by national and international performers, along with food, art, a beer garden, traditional cigars and a domino tournament. It’s a free and fun fest for the whole family.
The bomba and plena fest at Water Works Park in Tampa caters to lovers of the percussion-based traditional Puerto Rican musical and dance styles. They’re both music of identity, music of celebration and, hey, the festival is free — what’s better than that?
Oh, baby, this one’s educational and fun. By day, top local and international dancers offer classes running the gamut from beginner to advanced in both salsa and bachata (a popular Dominican style of dance and music, in case you didn’t know). By night, the stars come out — dance stars, that is, with performances by some of the world’s best. Then, there’s music and a chance for everyone to put their skills on display and dance the rest of the night away. For five straight days!
It may not be specifically a Hispanic event, but it attracts enough Hispanic artists, vendors and buyers to qualify as a showcase for what’s hot in the Latin art world. Art Basel lands at the first week of December at venues throughout South Florida, from Wynwood to Miami Beach.