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Many flavors, one big party

In Ybor City, thousands enjoy the diverse sounds and tastes of Fiesta Day. And there's enough paella for everyone.

By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 9, 2003

Puerto Rican vendors sold plantains on Saturday. Italian vendors hawked cannoli.

But the Banawas, of Filipino descent, sold it all.

At Ybor City's 57th annual Fiesta Day, Serny Banawa and his son, Fermin, served up fried eggrolls, chicken-on-a-stick and steaming bowls of crawfish etoufee.

And that was just the top of the menu.

"A little bit of money off funnel cake, a little bit of money off blooming onion," said a grinning Serny Banawa, a U.S. Navy veteran who moved to the United States in 1964.

"You can tell I've been in America for a while."

Somehow, Filipino-American vendors selling Asian, Cajun and Middle Eastern cuisine fit Fiesta Day just right.

Thousands of people swarmed Seventh Avenue for the event, which celebrates Ybor's ethnic roots and even broader slices of life. They listened to salsa, watched flamenco dancers stomp in time to hand claps and inhaled deeply around the world's biggest dish of paella.

"We were multicultural before it was cool," said Annette DeLisle, president of the Ybor City Chamber of Commerce. In the cigar factories, "you had Spanish next to Jewish, next to Afro-Cubans, next to Italians."

At the Fiesta Day parade, held later Saturday afternoon, Latin and South American flags were marched down Seventh Avenue.

Marlene Butkus is from Costa Rica, but her sister had been tapped to carry the Costa Rican flag. So instead, Butkus grabbed a Colombian flag and marched shouting, "Viva Colombia!"

"It's such a great feeling," she said. "I'm so proud of my culture."

Hillsborough County Commissioner Kathy Castor and her family marched with several flags, including those of Ecuador and El Salvador.

"Someone from Uruguay took my Uruguay flag and was dancing down the parade route," Castor said.

Despite the chilly, overcast weather, Castor said she was happy with the turnout at the parade.

"We're so fortunate to live in a very dynamic and diverse community," she said. "It's something to celebrate."

One thing everyone celebrated was the food.

More than a dozen vendors sold everything from Greek gyros to Jamaican jerk chicken to Italian sausage.

One vendor sold arepas, a Colombian dish with gooey mozzarella melted inside a cornbread pancake. Another sold the same thing under a different name: "Mot-sa-pies."

"Is that a banana?" asked Juanita Kindred, standing before a tray of Puerto Rican food and staring at what appeared to be a heap of unpeeled, deep-fried bananas,.

No, she was told. That's alcapuria, a meat pastry.

Kindred laughed and ordered two.

She came to Ybor with her sister, Bettie Turner. Both are retired office workers from Atlanta, Ill., who winter in Riverview.

"Tastes like sausage," Turner said, nodding approval.

John Doyle was polishing off a stick of shrimp shish kebab when Joyce, his 13-year-old daughter, asked him for money.

"Universal language," he said as he handed her a $5 bill.

Doyle, of Irish descent, moved to Sarasota last year from Seattle. He and his daughter, who is adopted and of Korean descent, stumbled upon Ybor Saturday after she played piano in a talent competition.

They were pleasantly surprised.

"It's interesting, seeing something other than what you're accustomed to," he said.

A minute later, the Doyles found themselves at the main attraction: A bowl of paella the size of a kiddie pool.

Among a long list of other ingredients, eight Columbia Restaurant workers stirred in 350 pounds of rice, 450 pounds of chicken, 150 pounds of shrimp and enough garlic to kill a platoon of vampires.

On Friday night, some poor souls had to chop up 100 pounds of onions.

"I'm sure a lot of tears were shed," said Casey Gonzmart, the restaurant's co-owner.

But the final product was worth it.

What better symbol for diversity, Gonzmart said, than a simmering stew where the whole is better than the sum of its parts?

-- Times staff writer Jay Cridlin contributed to this report. Staff writer Ron Matus can be reached at 226-3405 or .

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