Turn a street corner in Barcelona, and you might find this:
Human pyramids are popping up across Spain’s northeast region of Catalonia, of which Barcelona is the capital. They’re called castells — “castle” in the local Catalan language. Many neighborhoods in Catalonia have their own local castells clubs. It’s an 18th-century, UNESCO-recognized tradition specific to Catalonia.
Human tower-building has exploded in popularity in Catalonia in the past 10 to 20 years, as Catalan nationalism has grown. The region has long sought autonomy from the Spanish central government in Madrid. On Nov. 9, Catalonia plans to hold an unofficial, nonbinding vote on whether to break away from Spain and form a new country in Europe.
Many of the castells clubs rehearse twice a week, and perform on weekends, in town squares and at festivals. They even bring along their own music — and as the band plays traditional Catalan folk songs on wooden flutes, participants start clambering atop one another’s shoulders.
The strongest men and women form a circle at the base. Then others stand on their shoulders. Each tier has a different Catalan name: Baixos stand on the ground, then segons stand on their shoulders, then terços atop them, then quarts, quints, sisens, setens and so on — up to 10 tiers high.
“You have to just touch everyone’s body. So it’s like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to touch your boobs!’ But anyway, you have to do it, because that’s the only way you can [climb up,]” says Marta Alvarez, who’s trained to take part in the second tier, segons, alongside other women with roughly the same height and weight. “You have to have strength, but then you have to have equilibrium as well, and balance. When you go back to the floor, it’s just amazing!”
It’s usually a light, agile young girl — called an enxaneta — who climbs all the way to the top.
“It’s fun, it’s cool! You’re up there on top of everyone,” some enxanetas-in-training squeal and giggle, at the weekly Friday night rehearsal of their castells club, the Castellers of Vila de Gràcia, a Barcelona neighborhood. “For me, I get a little nervous,” a 7-year-old admits.
Once on top, the enxaneta waves to the crowd.
“They do a gesture to say ‘I’m here!’ ” says Enric Ucelay-Da Cal, senior professor of 19th and 20th century history at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona. “If you do it with the four fingers, that’s the nationalist sign, corresponding to the four stripes or bars of the Catalan flag.”
Ucelay says building castells was one of the only ways Catalans could express their regional identity and culture under the military dictatorship of Francisco Franco, who died in 1975. Catalan language and culture were repressed under his nearly 40-year rule.
The practice of castells was first documented near the Catalan city of Tarragona in the early 18th century, though similar practices may date back to medieval Venice, or the Roman era. Catalonia’s neighbor, the Valencia region, has a similar tradition.
“Before the Romans ever came to the Iberian peninsula, there they were climbing on top of each other,” says Ucelay. “Some people claim 1,000-year origins to this tradition, but the evidence is difficult to prove.”
Castells are an icon of Catalan culture — a symbol of what citizens can achieve when they work together, says participant Aureli Bisbe.
“It shows we are capable of working together to build interesting structures and stuff. That’s not an easy thing,” Bisbe says. “I like that our culture is able to do that.”