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TAMPA'S GOOD KNIGHTS

Much later, after the knights of the realm have conquered the old world once more and the City of Kings lies at their feet, after the caballeros have had their fill of hand-rolled cigars and cafe con leche, after a glorious night that would have made their papas proud, the room grows quiet.

The talk turns to the bend in the road.

It's a special place the men know well, the street corner where darkness becomes light and the past swims before their eyes, alive once more.

They're home.

To those who stand on the sidelines, it's just a parade, the annual Illuminated Night Parade in Ybor City, which was held last Saturday. The bend in the road is just the intersection of Nick Nuccio Parkway and Seventh Avenue, the corner where the dimly lit parkway meets the bright main street of Tampa's Latin quarter and the parade hits full stride.

To the Krewe of the Knights of Sant' Yago, it's the moment they celebrate their heritage. And the march they make each year from downtown Tampa is symbolic of their quest to preserve a way of life they thought had passed from Ybor City forever.

"Ybor City is what it's all about," said Dick Russo Sr., current president of the social group, which is Tampa's youngest krewe and perhaps the most egalitarian. "We have a purpose. We want to hold on to our heritage. This is not just a party."

It's a familiar struggle to many ethnic groups: the demands of assimilation battling the desire to retain the old ways and strong culture. For the Knights of Sant' Yago, the krewe is an attempt to bridge both worlds.

At a time when political correctness is at a premium and private krewes are being criticized, not embraced, the Knights of Sant' Yago has been accepted by Tampa, even though the group has no women or African-American members.

When Russo marches down Seventh Avenue, he sees the hard work of his forebears who helped him become the insurance executive he is. His grandfather owned a small restaurant here, catering to the cigar workers. His father worked in a shipyard to make sure his son would be the first to attend college.

When Dennis Alvarez was a boy, he used to beg for beads and coins as the Gasparilla pirates stormed Tampa in their annual parade.

Now, Hillsborough's chief circuit judge rides in the Sant' Yago parade, the night when the sons of immigrants become Knights, barons and kings.

"This is my life," he said Saturday night during the Night Parade. "This is where I grew up. This is our heritage."

Most of the krewe's 250 members have similar stories _ even though many do not live in Ybor City anymore.

"I think every group in the country has lost a little bit of the culture their parents had," said Joe C. Granda, one of the krewe's founding members and a former king. "We were trying to bring something back to Ybor City. We want to bring the good times back."

The fiestas that once enlivened Ybor City each Saturday are gone _ wiped out like the hundreds of little homes that the city's cigar workers once inhabited. But Sant' Yago's seven social events each year keeps the spirit alive.

Started 20 years ago, the krewe encompasses members of differing backgrounds, ranging from a bank president to salesmen. Three prominent judges are members, but so are several bailiffs who work in the county courthouse with them.

Almost 75 percent of the krewe are Latin, particularly from the Spanish, Italian and Cuban cultures that settled Ybor City, members say. The rest of the group is varied, with people from many different cultures.

"Gasparilla is old money," Circuit Judge B. Anderson Mitcham said last week. "But the krewe of Sant' Yago are real people."

Sailing through controversy

That ethnic membership base and humble beginnings have allowed the Knights of Sant' Yago to cruise through one of Tampa's most divisive conflicts unscathed.

Last year, when Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, the city's oldest krewe, was being assailed for not being representative of the community because it didn't include blacks or women, few said a word about Sant' Yago.

Gasparilla, bowing to extreme public pressure, has since admitted four black members. Sant' Yago has yet to do so, although its bylaws do not prohibit such a move. (Both groups are unyielding on the issue of women, and say they will not admit them.)

Still, the same people who slammed Gasparilla are not wiling to take on Sant' Yago.

"I haven't heard many objections to the Ybor City krewe," said Henry Carley, president of the Tampa chapter of the NAACP and a vocal critic of Gasparilla. "They appear to be special and unique."

Carley said that many blacks feel a kinship with Hispanics because both groups were originally denied membership in exclusive groups.

Hillsborough County Commission Chairwoman Sylvia Rodriguez Kimbell, a black woman of Afro-Cuban descent, said she is not offended by Sant' Yago's exclusion of women.

"I probably should be, but I'm not," she said. "I look at things from an economic standpoint. I see it as a means to getting people to Ybor City."

Each year, the krewe's night parade draws up to 175,000 people to Ybor City, once a struggling, depressed neighborhood but now seen as an emerging tourist destination. The parade is the city's second largest, ranking behind Gasparilla, which draws an estimated 250,000 people.

The krewe is totally responsible for the parade, which it took over from the Chamber of Commerce in 1985, when the chamber announced it couldn't afford it anymore.

"Our purpose is to perpetuate our Latin heritage," said Manny Alvarez, president of Manufacturers Bank of Florida and a former krewe king. "We do that by helping to revitalize Ybor City."

One day, Mrs. Kimbell hopes the group will admit women, but she's not holding her breath waiting for an invitation.

"They'll pat your cheek, get your coffee and pull out your chair," Mrs. Kimbell said. "But they won't let women in their club. That's the Latin way."

But unlike Gasparilla, Sant' Yago does have a recognized women's group, a place where women can form their own business contacts and create a support network. The equally prestigious Las Damas De Sant' Yago, was founded by Adela Gonzmart, wife of krewe founding member Cesar Gonzmart.

"I have never heard of one woman who wants to be a member of the krewe," said Mrs. Gonzmart, an owner of the Columbia Restaurant and former president of the Ybor City Chamber of Commerce. "And that's the truth."

Another reason that Sant' Yago may escape controversy is that the group's members are not entrenched in old-Tampa society and money. While many Sant' Yago members are powerful and successful, their ranks do not dominate the downtown big business scene as the Gasparilla pirates do.

"Rightly or wrongly, it was perceived that the Krewe of Gasparilla is where all the power lay," said Bob Buckhorn, Mayor Freedman's executive assistant. "Gasparilla became a lightning rod."

Mrs. Kimbell said Sant' Yago does not attract lightning because it still retains its populist roots.

"It's not an elitist group," she said.

"Brotherhood of Men'

They were five knights sitting around a square table: Henry Fernandez, a doctor; Cesar Gonzmart, a restaurant owner; Joe Granda, a financier; Joseph Lopez, an insurance executive; and Daniel Martinez, a sales manager.

The year was 1970. The place was the Las Novedades restaurant.

As usual the men were talking about the old days, slipping back in time to discuss Ybor City's famous clubs: The Cuban Club, the Italian Club, Centro Asturiano and Centro Espanol.

The heyday had been in their father's generation, when every Saturday saw a fiesta and each Sunday afternoon a tea dance. But with urban renewal in the 1960s, large sections of Ybor City had been torn down and Tampa's historic Latin district was in decline.

The five men wanted to reverse the decline _ or least hold on to what cultural heritage was left.

The Knights of Sant' Yago was born.

Gonzmart provided the backbone of the group. On a recent trip to Spain, he'd discovered the story of the Royal Order of St. James, which was founded in 1175 to protect the country against invaders and escort travelers to see the shrine honoring the patron saint of Spain, Sant' Yago.

"It sounded so right," recalls Granda, 67. "They were good knights, they were protective knights."

And he adds: "It was true history, not like Gasparilla."

After meeting for two more years and establishing a link with the existing group in Spain, the first meeting was held in 1972. Members called the group "The Brotherhood of Men."

The krewe quickly filled a void for prosperous Ybor City businessmen.

"On the other side of the tracks, if you want to call it that, they had the Yacht Club, Palma Ceia Golf Club and Ye Mystic Krewe," said Martinez, 61. "We needed someplace to fit it."

But Martinez and other founders take pains to deny rumors that Sant' Yago was created because Ybor City's prominent Latin men were never admitted to the Krewe of Gasparilla. "That's a myth," said Martinez. "We just wanted to have fun."

To become a member, a man must be sponsored by two current members and must be interested in Latin culture. Financial standing or prominence in the community does not play a role in the selection process, members say.

Hard work is also the key to succeeding in the krewe's complicated aristocracy. Only extremely active members can receive a knighthood. Of the 250 members, only 63 are Knights. Similarly, one is elected King or Baron, the krewe's highest honor, only after years of hard work.

Unlike Gasparilla, the group has no full-time staff to coordinate its parade. Instead, businessmen squeeze in tasks before and after work, during lunch and even on vacations. The group designs its own floats and costumes.

"We come from humble beginnings," says Knight George Diaz, who designed the elaborate floats and costumes, most featuring detailed (and accurate) crests and coats of arms. "But we try to do everything first class."

The krewe sponsors seven events a year, including a coronation ball, debutante ball and the parade. But the Illuminated Night Parade is the krewe's big night.

Last Saturday, under a cool, clear night, the men assembled in the shadow of modern Tampa. In velvet and jewels, the sons of immigrants start the pilgrimage toward the light at the top of the hill, to drink in the music of a thousand cheers.

The knights of realm starting marching toward that bend in the road.

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