Tears, joy and adrenalin: the impact of human towers on Catalan culture

Everyone that has ever visited Barcelona has probably walked down the famous La Rambla, paid the maximum price for a little tapas and has seen the Sagrada Familia by the great Gaudí. But this city, the capital of Cataluña, has a lot more to offer than mass tourism. Take a walk on the wild side and explore the true Catalan culture, starting with the tradition of the human towers.

This old Catalan tradition proves the strength of the cultural identity of Cataluña. People of all ages and social classes work together to build human towers that can reach up to twenty meters high. At the very top a small child (called enxaneta) climbs up to the top, symbolically holds up four fingers in the air (representing the four stripes of Catalan flag) and quickly climbs back down again. This tradition takes place every two years from June until November at festivals and other occasions.

Castellers de Barcelona

Castellers de Barcelona team gym rehearsal

Castellers de Barcelona team gym rehearsal

Castellers de Barcelona was the first human tower club in the city and was founded in 1969. Three times a week the team practices for the Castell contests in their gym, located outside the city center. The president of the Barcelona team, Daniel Montes, is very proud to be part of the 4th oldest human tower team of Cataluña and explains why building castells is just the same as any other sport.

“It is true that every one is allowed to collaborate with us. We need as many people as we can in the base for stability. But for the actual tower we need the right people for the different layers and positions. We have a team of experts that choose the exact type of people we need and who posses the four elements that represent our motto: strength, balance, courage and common sense.”

One five year old girl, Eva, possesses these elements, and is one of the selected enxanetas who gets the honor of climbing to the top of the castell. Just like anyone else during the rehearsals she is focused, proud and does not hesitate while climbing to reach the top. Her father Joseph watches Eva rehearse from the sidelines, not letting his little girl out of his sight.

“I will join the lower part of the castell, the base, while my daughter climbs up the tower. It is our father daughter moment,” says Joseph proudly.

All the children are very well prepared, Daniel Montes explains.

“We keep refining our technique and have special psychologists that talk to our team and children. They teach them how to concentrate, not be afraid of heights and how not to get distracted by sounds, music and the crowd. If something goes wrong we have two doctors around, and there is always an ambulance near during the shows. It is no more dangerous than football.”

Joseph is not afraid of his little daughter Eva getting hurt.

“The whole family and I support this, we are proud that our daughter joins this Catalan tradition”

Historical meaning of the human towers

But what is it that makes the Catalan people so proud of this sport?

“When I was younger I did not see a lot human towers on the streets, now they are everywhere”, Joseph says.

Here is why: since the 1980’s human towers have been popping up like mushrooms. It all began with the Catalan separatist movement in the mid 19th century. Individual organizations and political parties started demanding full independence of Cataluña from Spain. In 1932 Cataluña was granted a statute of autonomy, but it only lasted until the Spanish Civil War and the beginning of general Franco’s dictatorship in 1939, which was based on Spanish Nationalism and Catholicism. Catalan autonomy vanished and its language and cultural traditions where forbidden, including the human towers. After Franco’s death in 1975, Catalan autonomy has been restored and the human tower tradition has become more meaningful than ever. On November 16, 2010, human towers were declared by UNESCO to be amongst the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. The Mayor of Barcelona, Jorde Hereu told other media that the human towers are a symbol of Barcelona.

He said: “Castellers and Barcelona share a philosophy and certain values like cohesion, strength, teamwork, inclusion and commitment.”

Social cohesion

Social cohesion during practise: Everyone is allowed to join and watch the rehearsals

According to sociologist and team builder Alvaro Solache city squares are the center of social activity where citizens and castellers join to build extraordinary things.

“Human tower associations have become a national cultural identity of Cataluña, they have become an example of open, integrative culture. It’s amazing”, Solache says.

Every Sunday the team of Barcelona performs on these squares full of proud citizens that come to watch the show. While the tower is rising, traditional music is played on the musical instrument the gralla and all the spectators are filled with adrenalin, joy and national pride. People’s eyes fill with tears while watching the little enxaneta reach the top.

“I am not a fan of individualism. This tradition is a good way of bringing people together. I always cry while watching the human tower”, Joseph admits.

Even Dutch student Paco, who has joined the base of a human tower was amazed by its impact.

“I felt this strong feeling of commitment. We were all just standing there, holding each other, trying to keep our focus. Everyone feels very responsible because you know that if you mess up, somebody might get hurt”, he explains.

Not only does this tradition reinforce social cohesion between the citizens of whole Cataluña, it also provides a sense of community for the teams. According to Sergi Rubia I Olives, a man that promotes the human towers via social media, the team feels like a family.

“We are not just making towers all the time, we share many things in life and go on trips and attend concerts together. We are a family that goes through good and bad times.”, and that’s what makes this tradition one of a kind.