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Reaching for the sky: Catalonia’s human towers

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 their breath, a young child climbs to the top of the human structure and, raising their 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 Barbera Fabra, the communications director of Colla Joves Xiquets de Valls. "However, this is not exclusive, so everyone can join a colla if they want, even if their families have never been part of it."

HOW A TOWER IS BUILT

The human towers are formed by castellers standing on the shoulders of one another. A tower is typically six to ten human stories high.

"Castells are high and complex human constructions. Every construction is formed by a pinya, a tronc, and a pom," said 16-year-old casteller Claudia Domenech a member of Colla Joves Xiquets de Valls.

"You can totally join a pinya even if you have never trained, but only in the most external part of the base of the tower (the pinya). The people in the core part of it need to be very well-trained," Fabra said. "It is always better if you ask someone the basics of the position to avoid getting injured before joining in."

The next level, the tronc, is formed from the strongest people. The tronc stands on top of the pinya. On top of the tronc is the pom de dalt (or pom, for short). It's the uppermost level of the tower, and it's 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.

"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," Fabra said. "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!"

A TRADITIONAL CELEBRATION

Castells are an important part of Catalonian celebrations and 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."

Each performance consists of multiple castells being built, Fabra said. "In the performances there is usually more than one group of human towers, who have to build three different towers and a final pilar (a tower of only one person (per) floor)."

Contests are held, where the top three castells receive prizes. "During the contest, every colla has five rounds to assemble and disassemble three castells, which add up in a ranking," Domenech said. "The colla with the most points wins."

Fabra explained that before, during, and after the performance, musicians play a variety of traditional melodies on a traditional Catalan wind instrument known as a gralla. The songs are almost the same for every colla so that they are easily recognized. 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."

The colla, or the team that makes the tower, wear colorful costumes to show what colla they're a part of. "We wear a red shirt with the emblem of the colla, a sash, and white jeans," Domenech said.

Torrell's favorite part of the colla is "when we fall from a castell but we don't give up and keep doing castells."

CHANGING TIMES, CHANGING CASTELLS

Castells originated in Valls in the vicinity of Tarragona, northeastern Spain, at the end of the 18th century.

"When the tradition began, castells were a religious dance, and only males were allowed to participate. As the years went by, they have become a non-religious activity, where people from every religion and background can join," Fabra said. "And, of course, the entrance of women has changed the story of human towers, dramatically, and it has allowed us to achieve greater goals and higher towers."

Over the centuries, many different types of castells have emerged. Domenech explained that castells range from a pilar – with just a single person on each story – to nou sense folre, one of the highest and hardest castells that she has ever formed. This type of castell has nine people per story.

"When you are on top of a castell, you feel many things, but I think that adrenaline is the dominant feeling," Domenech said.

"A castell has different parts that work together to assemble it. It's possible because everyone knows what to do and has their position," Domenech said. "They are deeply rooted in the Catalan society and have been for many years. They mean social cohesion."

For all Catalonian citizens, castells are an important part of their 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 Jansa said. "They are like a second family."

"We have people of all ages, religions, cultures, political opinions," said Jansa. "We unite for a common goal: doing the castell."

Alice La, 16, is an iGeneration Youth reporter living in New York. Read more stories on igenerationyouth.com

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