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Human castles - a metaphor for the Catalan spirit

Por: | 11 de octubre de 2012


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

Colour Tower Central

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

Hay 24 Comentarios

Looks like great fun, I might visit this event next year.

This looks like a lot of fun :-)

This looks like it was a lot of fun :-).

Great to get some insights from the Catalan region, it seems to a great part of that country.

Great to get some insights from the Catalan region, it seems to a great part of that country.

Clever parallels and photos here that remind us that Catalans are culturally, linguistically and now economically different from the rest of Spain. If it comes to independence, I hope that the leaders in Madrid and Barcelona can sit down and talk about how to go forward together as close friends and neighbours. An agreement will be needed.

Enormous parallels here routed in Catalan culture. Europe awaits the outcome of the poll. I wonder how the military might respond?? My generation remember Spain under Franco, I can't think we'd return to it. In reality if the Catalans want to walk away from Spain, I don't see that Madrid can force them to stay.

Claro... y luego pasa lo que pasa y si no mirad el vídeo...!

¡Bien por Cuchillero!

Cuando nadie nos ve.

Good luck

Good comeback Potsy....
I guess I've been told...

Thank you so much TomCap for giving supporting evidence about how debate is understood by those who believe are the essence of Catalunya.

Chuchillero, I'm not at all sure what any of your comments have to do with this cultural tradition, but I am quite certain where they come from because the venom that drives them also gives them away for what they really are. The fact that you claim to be a Catalan has as much validity as most of your other observations. Your use of this spectacle as a way to argue for your perception of the present situation in Catalunya is interesting, not just for its ignorance, but for your apparent lack of concern for how clearly that ignorance is evident. It's very nice that the English version of a newspaper of this size and which originates in the Spanish State carries such an article, but although we appreciate it, we know very clearly that it will be our responsibility to present ourselves to the rest of the world and that it will be the views of that outside world that in the end can help to make a difference to our hopes and dreams as a people. Your opinions and the opinions of those like you have become a sort of "white noise" that is heard only by yourselves anymore, almost like a bunch of inbreds living in the hills with only each other for so long that the smell of their own farts have become a natural fragrance to them. So please keep illuminating us all with your poison pettiness in your adopted language "Cuchillero" because it's quite obvious that at least to this point, the greatest victim of your "cuchillo" has been the English language.

Really interesting article. It's worth noting that the Catalans aren't the only ones who do this. The Indians have a festival called Dahi Handi in Mumbai where they form human pyramids.

There's also another Catalan pyramid tradition called Falcons which is equally insane....

Oh, thanks! So nice of you! I'll try harder though.


Resulta curioso ver la interpretación de los turistas que vienen a España.

Por cierto, el origen de los Castellets está en Valencia, no en Cataluña.

Cuchillero, muy acertado tu comentario.

Thanks for this.

To say the least that's a very candid slant over Catalans. It follows from the comments that people living in Catalunya are aliens, members from a different planet who are nothing to do with their counterparts of the rest of the Iberian peninsula. Because they are "built from “tradition, cooperation, strength, targeting an objective and overcoming challenges” clearly in contrast with the "others" who dwell down the borders. So, who are those evil Spaniards? Lets be clear: far more than half of the population of Catalunya are either immigrants or first generation descent immigrants from the rest of Spain or abroad. And these are by tradition those who are more vividly expressing their enthusiasm for secession. Actually, it was a phenomenon for survival embracing these deep national feelings otherwise they would had been certainly rejected by the local and rather parochial society. No surprise, isnt' it?. During the last thirty years, fabulous amounts of resources have been poured over the country to build a national spirit directed to nurse the political leading target and get rid eventually of the burden for solidarity with other poorer regions in Spain. The argument of Franco's repression is real though perhaps we need to remember that was carried out mainly by the other Catalans, those who were in favour of the ancient regime. A different breed of Catalans? Certainly not but they were the same people with different interests to protect, as usually happens everywhere. Ultimately, all is down to a simple thing: the economy. Catalunya is relatively richer compared with for example Extremadura and it won't surprise anybody the direction of fiscal cash flows. Exactly the same than in other countries. They can argue over the size of that unbalanced trade but Catalunya has been enjoying huge benefits in a similar vein as Germany from Spain. Do you spot the difference? It is who holds the power what hurts.
The metaphor doesn't stand because it's a fallacy build over the years of hammering propaganda in schools and media. Catalunya is not Utopia and you'll find blatant examples of inequality and xenophobia, let alone lack of solidarity, not only towards the rest of Spain but within self borders as well. If unsure, ask the other Catalans, those who were brought to work in times of plenty and now are rejected on the grounds of using the health system paid off with taxation on the real Catalans (?). Els Castellers are to my eyes paradoxically another chilling example of the true Spanish essence where human life is unnecessary put at risk in a similar way than in bullfighting for the sake of old fashioned romantic fibs in views to support an alleged difference. What's at real stake here are the necks of young kids and not whatsoever any sort of ludicrous national pride. By the way, I'm a Catalan myself.

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