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  1. Opinion

Gasparilla, groping and ink stamp allegations: How things change, and stay the same

Via social media, a woman says a pirate in the big parade pulled down her top to ink-stamp her chest - stamping chests being a Gasparilla tradition. How things change, and stay the same.
Tara Harrelson gets stamped by a member of the Ye Mystic Crewe of Gasparilla during the Gasparilla Parade of Pirates along Bayshore Boulevard on Jan. 26, 2013. (Times file, 2013
Tara Harrelson gets stamped by a member of the Ye Mystic Crewe of Gasparilla during the Gasparilla Parade of Pirates along Bayshore Boulevard on Jan. 26, 2013. (Times file, 2013
Published Feb. 2, 2019

Would it be Gasparilla without a cautionary tale to follow?

Social media has boosted an after-story from Tampa's century-old pirate party last month around town and all the way to the New York Post: Rina Alvarez, 37, took to Facebook to say that at the parade, a costumed, cigar-chomping pirate came up, yanked down her blouse and ink-stamped her breast — very much without her consent.

Yes, a stamp like a teacher would use atop a spelling test to say good job, or like you might see on a piece of fruit.

And yes, you would think "without her consent" was implied.

Except this is Gasparilla.

Related: Accused Gasparilla pirate says he didn't pull down woman's blouse, took polygraph to prove it

And the consensual stamping of women by pirates is one of the bawdier, you could say seedier, scenes you might glimpse at Gasparilla, the city's annual mock pirate invasion that's really hard to describe to outsiders.

Photos going back years show women being so marked, sometimes with a small skull and crossbones. Pictures generally show what appears to be an agreed-upon interaction occurring in more or less PG fashion, though parade veterans will tell you it can get pretty R-rated out there, too.

And you see the wisdom in having the Gasparilla children's parade.

What Alvarez alleges was clearly not that.

She says she was groped. Her Facebook post, which included a picture of two pirates and a plea for help in identifying one of them, got hundreds of comments and eventually a name. (The power of social media.) The pictured pirate himself responded, saying he did not do this. He's gotten a lawyer and taken a polygraph. Tampa Police are investigating.

And this is remarkable: Even the powerful Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla acknowledged that one of its own had been accused and said such behavior is against its values. This week, a Krewe captain told me the man in question is no longer participating in Krewe activities until it's resolved.

Not: Boys will be boys and pirates, pirates. Not: consider the lawless, reckless spirit of the day. Apparently, this is a post-#MeToo Krewe.

Good to hear. Because no mistake about it: If it's true, it's a crime.

Like many Tampeños, I have a complicated relationship with Gasparilla.

I'm bothered by its exclusionary history of being run by the white, male and powerful. And I'm glad to see the new diverse krewes that have become players in recent years even as Ye Mystic Krewe remains the undisputed big daddy.

I dislike the uglier elements of the day — the public peeing, the underage drinking, the people falling-down-drunk by noon.

But how can you look at that spectacle of a festooned pirate ship sailing across the water in a flotilla of a million other boats and a sea of people on Bayshore Boulevard on a sunny Saturday partying and playing pirate, and not think:

Where else but here?

(Though no one has yet been able to explain to me a phenomenon we share with Mardi Gras and other parades: How normal people with jobs and lives lose their minds in a fevered quest for strings of tossed beads, how people yell themselves hoarse and elbow children out of the way, something I have actually seen, so they can pile them around their necks to wear like trophies. Then the next morning, they are Cinderella's pumpkin, no longer pearls and gold but cheap plastic. I just don't get it.)

And so the New York tabloid had its fun, describing allegations of a "costumed creep," though it did not go to the more obvious "Gasparilla groper."

This is more serious than that, the question of whether an assault occurred.

And the answer, and its repercussions, could say something about a Gasparilla evolving, or not.

Contact Sue Carlton at scarlton@tampabay.com.