All eyes are on the tiny child, perhaps seven or eight years old, as she gingerly but quickly and purposefully scales up the side of the tower. There is no safety net or rope to catch her if she falls. All the more nail-biting given it’s a human tower on which she precariously balances, seven human stories high, perhaps 12 meters tall, that is beginning to creak and sway. The buzz of the arena fades to a momentary silence as everyone looks to the barefoot girl in her traditional outfit - white trousers, cummerbund and team orange shirt, her ponytail trailing down her back beneath her safety helmet. The gralles, primitive oboes, blast and drums rally her spirit, hurtling towards a crescendo. Thousands in the arena call out and chant in support. Then the whole stadium bursts into feverish cheers as the little girl reaches the top of the dizzyingly high apex, crouches on the shoulders of those beneath and raises her hand, crowning the tower - job done - or almost, she still needs to get down.
She begins an immediate descent and reaches the base within a few seconds. The thick bough of people that forms the tower’s foundation reminds me of the nature-inspired patterns of Gaudí’s architecture. Without pause, the girl thrusts herself into the outstretched arms of her proud and relieved mother, who caresses and kisses her. The little girl is delirious with joy. She has learnt some of the most important lessons for a Catalan: “Strength, balance, courage and common sense” - the de facto essence of the Catalan spirit.
Welcome to the 24th Concurs de Castells competition, celebrating its 80th anniversary, in the stunning Catalan coastal city and 2012 “Capital of Catalan Culture”, Tarragona. Declared a UNESCO “masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity” in 2010, the “castell”, human castle, according to the organisers of the competition, is a tradition that began 200 years ago in the small village of Valls, just 20km away from Tarragona after a village dance. From these small roots the tradition spread around Catalonia until in 1932, the competition was inaugurated in Tarragona to mark these amazing feats of “human engineering”.
In the competition there are currently 39 different types of human towers that can be built, varying in size and structure, with names such as “quatre de vuit” – four by eight, which represents the people width versus the people height of the tower. A group of twenty experts calculate and debate the points to be awarded for each castle. The teams get five rounds of tower building each. The most stable towers have a girth of four people. The highest and most difficult tower ever achieved was a tower three people wide by a staggering ten people high.
We are human towers
In the pit of the arena I speak to the red shirted, Maritxell Marti, team member of the reigning castell champions, Villafranca. She says castells epitomise the Catalan spirit. “I think when you build a human castle; all the things that Catalan people aspire to like solidarity, everyone helping each other, are there”.
In fact the tagline for the castells competition is “Som Castells” – we are human towers; and many Catalans believe the demonstration of teamwork and courage demanded in these extraordinary displays reflect the region’s psyche.
Although teams from throughout Catalonia compete for the esteemed trophy and prize money, this year €15,000, it is the unity between them that one notices most. As Martin den Ambtman and Anouck Wiggers, young tourists from the Netherlands said, what they liked to see was how different teams encouraged and even physically supported other team towers if they faltered.
Raimon Jene, of team Poble Sec, Barcelona, sweating and breathless after completing a third round of castell building, agrees that these towers are a powerful symbol of what it is to be Catalan. He says the castells are built from “tradition, cooperation, strength, targeting an objective and overcoming challenges”.
And the castells increasingly seem to strike a chord amongst Catalans. Jordi Suriñach, spokesperson for the castells competition told me that that this year was the largest in the event’s history - both in terms of competitor and spectator numbers. 32 teams amounting to an estimated 11,000 castellers took part and it attracted a crowd of almost 10,000. The organisers even had to extend the competition duration from the traditional half day to over one and a half days.
So what is behind the sudden growth in interest in this uniquely Catalan tradition?
A groundswell of support
The groundswell of involvement and support in the competition has been interpreted as a reflection of the strengthening pride and regional identity amongst Catalans and the dramatic increase in support for independence. Recent polls suggest backing for a referendum on independence is at an all time high of 74%.
A month ago, on 11th September, 1.5 million protestors took to the streets of Barcelona, marking Catalonia’s national day, La Diada. From a sea of yellow and red Catalan flags could be heard the chant “Catalonia - a new European state”. Many were calling for complete secession from the rest of Spain. Those leading the rallying cry were high-profile Catalan politicians and personalities including Sandro Rosell, the president of FC Barcelona, one of Catalonia’s most revered global exports.
According to Spanish writers and commentators Ricard González and Jaume Clotet in a recent New York Times article: “The immediate cause of Catalonia’s sudden outbreak of secessionist fever is so-called fiscal looting. Before taxes, Catalonia is the fourth richest of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions. After taxes, it drops to ninth - a form of forced redistribution unparalleled in contemporary Europe.”
But it is not just economic woes that have driven Catalans to seek more autonomy from Spain. Its population often feel out of sync with the rest of country. This led to violent oppression during Spain’s Franco era that began in 1939 when democratic processes were annulled, the Catalan language was suppressed; and approximately 4000 Catalans were executed.
Even after the transition to democracy in the late 1970s Catalans still found their values at odds with the rest of Spain. In 2010 Catalonia banned bullfighting, a practice that purportedly represents the epitome of Spanish culture; sending a clear signal that Catalonia’s sensibilities were very different to those of the rest of Spain and more aligned with the rest of Western Europe.
Catalonia also punches above its weight when it comes to global cultural influence which gives it a real sense of regional pride. Its famous sons include the genius architect Antoni Gaudí and artist Salvador Dalí; the region is seat of the legendary Barça football club; was the home of Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli, regarded as the best restaurant in the world before it closed in 2011 and whose influence revolutionised global cuisine; and despite Franco’s attempt to crush the Catalan language, its usage has enjoyed a renaissance and is spoken as the lingua franca in much of the region.
An independent Catalan state?
When I ask the beaming Maritxell Marti, whose Villafranca castells team has just won the 2012 Concurs de Castells, whether Catalonia will be independent one day, it is clear she has a taste for victory: “I hope so, I really, really hope so.”
But despite the towering success of the Catalan independence movement, it’s still at risk of being toppled. The Spanish government is not going to concede easily to increased Catalan autonomy, let alone independence; and has made its position very clear. There’s a ban on secession in the Spanish constitution and Spanish Army Colonel Francisco Alamán Castro recently made the following ominous statement: “Catalonia’s independence will be over my dead body and many others’ too.”
However, despite the hostile undercurrents, Artur Mas, the president of Catalonia has called a snap election for 25th November, considered essentially a referendum on greater autonomy saying to regional parliament: "The time has come to exercise the right to self-determination."
If what it takes to build something as magnificent as the human towers is courage and solidarity I wouldn’t be too surprised to find that the Catalan independence movement powered by such spirit is heading towards a crucial tipping point. Upon an ever strengthening base of grass roots support, it’s conceivable that the Catalans might just one day build a new architecture on which its children can climb towards a more autonomous future.
Photography: Charles Wardhaugh