Our differences make us beautiful, interesting and unique – and our cultural heritage is a big part of that. Where our ancestors came from, what blood we bleed and what traditions we inherit enrich our lives and fill us with pride. To learn, celebrate and remember is time well invested in connecting with who we — and others — are on a deeper level. Tampa Bay is one incredible magnet for diversity, and for our events edition, we’re celebrating this by spotlighting its thriving cultural events scene.
“Tampa Bay is known for its diverse cultures and backgrounds that laid the foundation for our beautiful destination,” says Santiago C. Corrada, president and CEO of Visit Tampa Bay. “Our community is a melting pot of thriving historic neighborhoods that are represented through live events and festivals hosted throughout the year.” Since Tampa and St. Petersburg’s three largest non-white ethnicities are Black, Hispanic and Asian, let’s take a deeper dive into those cultures’ heritage events.
Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Festival
Brought to life by the City of Tampa, the inaugural Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Festival was held in May at Water Works Park. The free event packed a rich lineup of cultural programming in one afternoon, including performances and food representing Vietnam, Korea, China and the Philippines.
The festival was an outcome of a meeting Mayor Jane Castor convened last year with staff members and AAPI community members and leaders to address the aggressive acts occurring nationwide toward Asian-Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic.
AsiaFest came up at the meeting. The annual event held for 35 years by the Asia-American Coalition of Florida in Tampa had stopped several years ago.
“The feedback from community members was that they really missed having a festival like in previous years and were longing for that opportunity again,” says Raquel Pancho, the city’s Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator. “A wonderful outcome is that we were able to fill that void so people could network and celebrate together.”
At the first AAPI Heritage Festival, around 20 exhibitors participated and about 500 people attended. There were cultural dances, martial arts, poetry readings, historical costumes and a fashion show representing the different regions.
“It was a very enthusiastic day and that camaraderie really showed,” Pancho shares.
As city liaisons for the newly establishing AAPI Advisory Council, Pancho and Donna McCallister, senior special events coordinator for the City ofTampa, are recruiting board members to help make next year’s festival an even bigger success.
“Inclusivity is the biggest thing,” McCallister notes. “This city is growing incredibly exponentially these past few years and the mayor wants to make sure everyone feels part of the growth.”
The next festival is planned for May 2023 at a location to be announced. Other local Asian heritage events throughout the year include PhilFest and a Dragon Dance and Lunar New Year Festival.
Tampa Bay Black Heritage Festival
The largest African-American event in the Bay area, this 10-day festival features local and national speakers, musicians, poets and artists. Focused on promoting diversity and cultural sensitivity, festivities traditionally begin the weekend before the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and end the weekend of it. Each day provides people of all ages with an opportunity to increase their awareness of African and African-American culture and history.
Samuel Lamar Wright Sr. led the first Tampa Bay Black Heritage Festival in 2001 after learning that Tampa was not considered a destination for Black people, according to Florida State University research.
“I could understand why,” he recalls. “We used to have the Florida A&M vs. Bethune-Cookman game here, the Museum of African American Art, the Mailou Art Fest — and all of the things that attracted Black people here, we no longer had them.”
Active with the Tampa Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau (now Visit Tampa Bay), Wright formed a think tank of Black business leaders in 2019 to address the problem. They concluded that creating a Black heritage event would help put Tampa Bay back on the map.
“I thought, many of our young people will never set foot in Africa, but maybe we could bring some of Africa here and they could understand some of Black folks’ contributions to this country and world,” says Wright, who was also inspired by visiting Africa.
Wright gathered local performers and sponsors and held the first festival over the course of three days in Lykes Gaslight Park, packing in around 2,500 people. It has since expanded to 10 days in coordination with several organizations, moved locations a few times to accommodate more people (14,000 attendees is the current record) and attracted international and national patrons and artists, in addition to continuing to lure locals. The city and county are among its steadfast supporters.
“We decided we wanted to make it the heart and soul of Tampa Bay,” Wright says. “It was a spiritual movement to make sure we educate people on the contributions of African-Americans in this country and I’m grateful that it continues today.”
Leading the all-volunteer production are William Sanders and Ruby Jackson, co-chairs since 2010. In addition to six signature events, they coordinate with the local Martin Luther King Jr. parades (St.Petersburg’s is among the largest in the nation), and others celebrating Black heritage.
“We thought if we could incorporate all of these different groups into our calendar we could help promote everybody and ensure it did not overlap with our dates,” Jackson notes. “We wanted to make sure everyone can have a great gathering at their event.”
Programming includes a health village addressing topics specific to the Black community, a more recent addition of a technology village to engage kids, a heritage gala and leadership luncheon.
The next festival is Jan. 6-15, 2023 at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park. Other local Black heritage events throughout the year include the Tampa Bay Collard Green Festival, St. Petersburg Black History Bike Tour, Pinellas African American Heritage Celebration and Black Heritage Expo.
ViVa Tampa Bay Hispanic Heritage Festival
To kick off National Hispanic Heritage Month, over 10,000 people flock to the annual ViVa Tampa Bay Heritage Festival— the largest Hispanic event of its kind in the Bay area. The family fun day delivers a vibrant daytime lineup of food, drinks, art, culture and music.
“Our goal is that our guests leave with an appreciation for the roots of Hispanic cultural heritage in Tampa, the arts and the traditions held,” shares Arlene Marie, festival creator.
Marie, whose lineage is Puerto Rican, organized the inaugural event in 2015 in Centennial Park, drawing about 5,000 attendees.
“There was nothing here to celebrate Hispanic heritage,” Marie recalls. “The first festival was all sweat and tears.
The event outgrew that space within a couple years, with record attendance eventually approaching 15,000 people. Initially programmed with local dancers and musicians, more well-known names have been added to the lineup through the years. One thing remains the same.
“It was and still is very cultural,” she says. “It brings a spirit of unity and togetherness.”
The musical lineup spans salsa (Cuban), meringue (Columbian), bachata (Venezuelan) and pimba (Dominican). The Miss Latina program has participated, as well as local first responders and businesses. And the food is amazing, Marie points out.
ViVa Tampa Bay also provides scholarship grants to high school students and disaster relief through the Course of Action Foundation. In addition, the ViVa Tampa Bay Community Heroes Awards are held leading up to the festival to recognize the contributions made by local Hispanic and Latino Americans.
The next festival is Oct. 8, 2023 at Perry Harvey Park. Other local Hispanic heritage events throughout the year include the Taste of Latino Hispanic Heritage Festival, Cuban Sandwich Festival, Festival de Bomba Y Plena and Conga Caliente.
There are many other cultural events in Tampa Bay. Gujarati Samaj of Tampa Bay’s India Fest is Florida’s largest Indian festival of dance, with over 12,000 attendees and over 1,000 participants from youth to seniors. The Italian Club of Tampa’s Festa Italiana is 25 years strong. Oktoberfest celebrations pepper the Bay. And on and on. It seems nearly every week there’s a culture to be celebrated in Tampa Bay.