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Building on Catalan Culture

While spending last summer in Barcelona, a Catalan friend encouraged me to see the castells, or human tower building. The competition is unique to Catalonia, a region of northern Spain with its own history, language and a strong independence movement. The tradition dates back to the 18th century and was declared a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2010.

I was fortunate to catch the local castells at our neighbourhood festival and it was exhilarating experience. More than a skilled competition or a display of strength, they bring urban community together with passion beyond anything I’ve seen in Toronto or North America.

Castells take place in the many beautiful public city squares throughout the region, something the city of Toronto sorely lacks. Hundreds of people, young and old, fill the square to watch and many join in spontaneously to help build the base of the tower. The inclusive nature of the event is striking—men, women, teens, grandparents participate and children play an especially important role.

Castellers build the human towers and compete in teams. I was surprised to see spectators and members of the opposite team join in to help. Unlike North American culture, this community-building activity is less about competition and more about teamwork to achieve the highest and most complex structure.

Team members climb over each others’ shoulders into position. Strong, stocky men are typically at the bottom to a the strong base and women are an integral part of middle and top of the structure. Towers range from four to 10 levels.

In stark contrast with North American urban culture in which people rarely make eye contact, castells require physical contact to be successful. People press against one another, some with their hands and others with their entire body, adding their weight to reinforce the tower’s base. It’s a closeness that literally bonds the community together.

Castellers wear a traditional costume of white pants, a black sash and a coloured team shirt. The sash supports their lower back and provides a foot or handhold for others while they climb up. It only takes about 15 to 20 minutes to build and disassemble each tower but it takes hours for the teams to gather and get prepared. But much of the fun is for the community to meet and catch up at their leisure before the competition starts.

Young boys and girls complete the top of levels of the tower because of their light weight. Fatalities are surprising rare, with only two deaths in the last 30 years, owing to tremendous training and planning. After the last death of 12-year-old in 2006, helmets  were introduced for children. I can’t imagine children, let alone adults, being allowed to take part in a risky event like this in Toronto with or without helmets.

When the last child scales the structure, and reaches their place at the top, they signal victory by raising their arm in the air with four fingers erect in a sign that is said to symbolize the stripes of the Catalan flag. The crowd celebrates while the children slide back down. The layers peel away and the tower is dismantled as quickly and carefully as it was built. But the magical energy and sense of shared identity remains with the people long after they leave the city square.

Photos and video by Wendy Gold

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