The roar of a crowd of thousands in downtown Barcelona falls to a whisper with the whine of a gralla, a Catalan reed instrument. Suddenly, three bodies are hoisted above the melee. They face each other, arms interlocked, hands clutching each others’ forearms. Three more climb atop, place their bare feet on the original three’s shoulders and, likewise, stand tall, arms clasped. Three more scale up. Then three more. And another set. And another. Finally, three helmeted toddlers monkey-climb their way to the peak of the steep column and crouch at the very top. The smallest raises a palm towards the sky. The crowd erupts into cheers as, from top to bottom, the human tower disassembles in a matter of seconds.
These human towers, or castells in Catalan, have become a symbol of Catalonia, a region in northeastern Spain vying for greater autonomy. Declared a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2010, castells are emblematic of distinct Catalan culture and, lately, have cropped up in pro-independence rallies throughout the region—even though most participants, or castellers, claim the practice is apolitical and principally a way of upholding tradition.
Historians claim the first castells appeared in the southern Catalan town of Valls in 1902. Throughout the 19th century, castells “were more of a circus act,” historian Pablo Giori explains, formed by immigrants from southern regions such as Andalucia, who came to the wealthier north looking for work. It was a paid gig. “Now it’s seen as something pretty bourgeois, but before it was done by people from lower socioeconomic circles. If you were sending your kids up there, you clearly needed the money,” Giori says.
Almost every village boasted two competing castell groups, or colles, funded by the opposing political parties of the day: monarchists and republicans. Beginning in 1939, under Francisco Franco’s regime, castells weren’t banned like many other symbols of Catalan culture—such as the sardana, a traditional dance, and the region’s language—but competing colles were unified to quash political differences.
It wasn’t until Franco’s death and the restoration of democracy that castells became the symbol of Catalan identity they are today. As Catalans recovered public spaces denied to them under the dictatorial regime, they injected their celebrations with the sense of risk and danger that came with renewed freedom. Human towers and pyrotechnics, another staple of contemporary Catalan festivities, became cultural mainstays.
“There’s this uncertainty, you don’t really know if you’ll succeed until you finish,” Caue, a casteller with eight years of experience, explains. “It’s really aesthetic, it causes an impact visually. I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t impressed.”
The tower is held up by an intricate weight distribution arrangement. The base, or pinya, is made up by as many as one hundred castellers all pushing into each other with their chests (and conveniently creating a human mattress to cushion a potential fall from up high). Towers can contain as many as nine or 10 levels, each layer consisting of as many as five castellers.
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When asked how castellers keep their balance, Caue recites their motto with poetic elan: “força, equilibri, valor, i seny," or “strength, balance, courage, and wisdom.”
“It’s a collective effort in which everyone really matters, whether you’re at the base or in the tower,” he says. “If you’re not there, or if you don’t do your part, the castell will fall. It’s a really special feeling.”
Based in Barcelona, writer Meaghan Beatley shares her travel stories on Twitter.