Every year in Catalonia, crowds of people cheer on the rise and fall of human towers that can reach up to 10 levels high. As the audience holds its collective breath, a child climbs to the top of the human structure and, raising his or her hands in the air, signals the completion of a castell.
Human towers, or castells in Catalan, have been a pivotal part of Catalonian culture for more than 200 years. This tradition has been passed down from generation to generation.
“If your family is ‘castellera,’ they influence you on being part of the same tradition,” said Maria Barberà Fabra, communications director for the performing group called Colla Joves Xiquets de Valls. “However, this is not exclusive, so everyone can join a colla (band) if they want, even if their families have never been part of it.”
The human towers are formed by castellers standing on the shoulders of one another. A tower is typically six to 10 human stories high.
At the base is the pinya. The next level, the tronc, is formed with the strongest people who stand on top of the pinya. On top of the tronc is the pom de dalt (pom, for short). It’s the uppermost level of the tower, made up of children. The smallest children, called enxaneta, climb to the very top.
“When the enxaneta reaches the top from one side and then gets to the other side, the castell is called ‘carregal,’ and then people start climbing down in the same order they climbed up,” 12-year-old casteller Anna Torrell said.
Added Fabra: “The greatest part of human towers is that every person, [regardless of] their age, gender, height or weight, will always have a position in the tower.
“The smallest kids will go at the top of the tower, the biggest ones at the bottom, the strongest ones in the middle. Everyone can be a part of it!”
Castells usually take place in front of the town hall, Fabra said. “Most of the towns in Catalonia have a human tower performance in their annual festivities calendar, so everyone can have castells in their cities.”
Contests are held, with the top three castells receiving prizes. Fabra explained that before, during and after the performance, musicians play a variety of traditional melodies on a Catalan wind instrument known as a gralla. The tune narrates what happens when the tower is being built so everyone in the group can know what’s going on, since most people in the base cannot see anything at all.
“The gralles play and let you know how the castell is doing,” Torrell said.
“And when the enxaneta reaches the top, the gralles play a different tune so you can know when the castell has been successfully assembled. Sometimes you also know when it falls, because the gralles stop playing.”
Torrell’s favorite part of the colla is “when we fall from a castell, but we don’t give up and keep doing castells.”
Castells are an important part of Catalonian culture and traditions. Castells speak to the unity of the Catalonian people and have helped heal the societal divisions in their history.
“What we do unites us a great deal. And we also do other leisure activities, so I have a lot of fun,” 8-year-old casteller Oleguer Caelles Jansà said. “They are like a second family.”
Alice La, 16, is a New York-based reporter for iGeneration Youth, composed of young reporters and artists from around the world. Read more stories on igenerationyouth.com