59. The world of castells and the construction of a reimagined community

This post is also available in: Catalan

Aida Ribot Bencomo
University of California, San Diego


In the previous decade or so (2010-2019), castells or human towers—literally “castles”—, arose as an emblematic expression of the Catalan society. They appeared and gained visibility in myriad contexts—for example, covers of academic journals, bank commercials, tourist posters, and beer commercials on television. This came about amid a debate on the sovereignty of the Catalan people and the growing support for proindependence positions that developed in the same period. The ethnographic work I carried out within two castellers teams (known in Catalan as colles castelleres) in the metropolitan area of Barcelona during 2016 revealed micropractices that, although specific to the casteller activity , promoted a sense of community and collective responsibility that is based on solidarity, equality and cooperation between participants. Two of the practices that I analysed and will present here focus on the use of the body and physicality, as well as on communication between members of the team, who are known as castellers. In the previous decade, popular and political movements related to the Catalan sovereign project—for instance, Òmnium Cultural and the ANC (Assemblea Nacional Catalana)—strategically extrapolated this sense of community found at castells to reimagine a present-day Catalan society based on similar relations.

If a Catalan thinks about the world of castells, even if he or she does not have much knowledge of it, he or she will probably know the traditional values that are always repeated: “strength, balance, courage and common sense,” or the expression fer pinya (literally, “to make/form a pine cone,” a reference to the base of a castell; the expression is used more generally by Catalans to convey the idea of working together to achieve a common goal). These expressions are not only a metaphorical interpretation of how castells are defined by its members and the practice underpinning its activity. Rather, in the embodiment of these expressions via participation in the activity, they are interpreted in a much more literal way. That is, participants embody or materialize these values and expressions through their bodies and the physicality—or physical contact—that they experience, generate, and promote.

The notions of cooperation, collective responsibility and egalitarian relations surrounding castells are partially developed through the body and the physical contact required to build the towers. Bodily practices related to the construction of towers, distinctive clothing, and beer drinking were three very practical activities that participants learned and used to form a casteller identity within this community. Although some activities raised concerns and tensions among participants (such as the use of alcohol, the roles and the regulation of bodies), the practices I analysed required participants to interact, cooperate and be responsible for one another. For example, when castellers put on their support sashes, they usually need another person to help them wrap it around their waist. And when participants learn to position themselves in the pinya or the base of the castell, they must protect others with their hands and arms, in addition to sharing the burden and balance with others. If they do not do so, the castell collapses. Castellers then learn to withstand pressure and pain collectively and learn to support each other to decrease individuals’ exposure and risk.

The perspective of the body is especially interesting in the Catalan context: none of Catalonia’s other emblematic and representative cultural expressions mobilizes the body to achieve the same level of continuous and supported contact between participants as castells do. Mountaineering, choral associations, football, sardanes and other folk activities (for example, correfocs and bastoners) associated with Catalan culture require minimal or no physical contact. Traditionally in Catalonia, the use of one’s own body, postures or the expression of emotions has been understood in a refined and contained way. In general, the cultural forms that have been considered distinctively Catalan since the nineteenth century have emphasized this sense of both mental and physical restraint. To give an example, the physical rigidity, discipline and restraint embodied in sardanes have been symbolic of the type of “refined” Catalan urban identity of the middle classes of the late nineteenth and late twentieth centuries. Meanwhile, less contained, less refined and more physical and emotional forms (such as castells) had never been representative of this identity up until now. Today, the use of the body in castells seems to break the association between social classes in Catalonia, as this activity voluntarily brings together people from different backgrounds, creating a practice that violates everyday Catalan norms and stereotypes.

From a linguistic perspective, castellers also had to learn to become members of the community—that is, they had to socialize into castellers. This entailed learning to interpret and communicate with others in a context of tension; team members had to make use of the most economical and practical language possible because they often have to adjust their body in a matter of seconds so as not to endanger the structure. It is important to keep in mind that Catalan was the most frequently used language among participants, even in the case of those who self-identified ethnolinguistically as Spaniards, Argentines or Americans, among other identities.

Directives, through which the listener is called on to do an action via orders, were the linguistic practices that participants most commonly used during the construction of castells. Contradictory though it may seem, the forms employed emphasized the cooperative aspect in the decision-making process. For example, the team leader and other participants who held positions of power in the team hierarchy did not usually exploit power imbalances during the construction of the castell. They used first-person plural forms to give orders—for instance, aguantem (“let’s hold”) and tanquem la pinya (“let’s close the base”). And they deployed other forms that are unconventional within the literature on speech acts, face-threatening acts (FTA), and so on (Searle; Austin; Brown & Levinson), issuing orders from which the typical imperative forms were absent—for example, pugen (“they climb”), van pujant (“they keep climbing”), baixant (“coming down”), avall (“down”), amunt (“up”), terços (“thirds”) or quintes (“fifths”) —the latter two commands refer to the people who are assigned to form specific storeys of the human tower. The second person plural “you,” vosaltres, was non-existent, and the second person singular “you,” tu, was highly unusual. However, among participants who had similar roles in the castell (such as those in the base or the trunk), the use of unreserved orders was common and expected. During their first day, novice team members received instructions on how to ask for help and give orders when necessary, such as calling out pit (literally “chest,” an expression used to make team members push closer together) when they were in the base. This use, in fact, promoted relationships of closeness and solidarity that are more typical of interactions between family members or within much closer and trusting relationships. Explicit instruction to novices to give orders and the nonexploitative use of power relations with unconventional forms of orders empowered participants and helped them feel more immediately and horizontally included in the activities. In addition, this way of communicating challenges many communicative boundaries that are commonly found in everyday life and that are often subject to gender, age, experience, status and other relations. Learning to speak for oneself when help is needed or when there is an unbearable pain that one cannot stand anymore is also a way to learn to be responsible for others, because if one person falls, so do the others.

Since 2010, civic, cultural and political associations have mobilized the casteller community to represent a new national project. In doing so, they extrapolated to the national level the characteristics that have popularly been identified with castells and that thus appealed to a community that is increasingly diverse on the social, cultural and linguistic levels. Sardanes and the characteristics that had iconically represented the type of cultural identity and the type of Catalanism of the late twentieth century have fallen by the wayside. In the last decade, Catalan society has valued and made visible aspects such as hard work, the historical activity, teamwork and the tenacity of castells, characteristics that were popularly represented symbolically and humorously via the Catalan donkey in the early 2000s. In addition, aspects such as pride, courage, physical and mental strength and youth have been added, antagonistically represented by the image of the Spanish bull. Both the bull and the donkey humorously represented the two social, cultural, political, and linguistic communities of the turn of the century. This polarization strengthened the bonds within each imagined community, but it also exacerbated the boundaries between them. Castells therefore incorporate—including symbolically—images, styles and aspects popularly recognized by the two communities, and they have become a symbol that represents more and more people.

The new image for the national project has sought to emphasize some of the features in the world of castells analysed here, such as the collective responsibility, the cooperation, the egalitarian relations, the democratic means of participation, the courage, or the physical contact and the expression of uncontained emotions. The new project has revolved around the idea of letting people decide and build for themselves in a more democratic way something from below (as it occurs with castells), instead of receiving something imposed from above. Moreover, the new image is about speaking loudly and clearly and being responsible for others if the situation (whether social, economic or political) is unfair or feels that way, because speaking up is beneficial to the whole community (as in castells). It has sought to recognize the power of civil society (or the “pinya” of the castell) to make any structure possible (despite contradictions, frictions and differences). It has tried to challenge power and its limits, as well as to celebrate diversity in society, in the same way the casteller world usually celebrates and encourages diversity in shapes, sizes, gender, age or experience. And, finally, this extrapolation has also revealed a modern perspective of Catalan society that, despite being rooted in a historical and local activity such as castells, included aspects that had not historically been associated with Catalan cultural identity before (youth, maintained physical contact, unrestrained expression of emotions, competitiveness, and so on). This combination of elements has emphasized the changes that Catalan society in general experienced during the previous decade to build a reimagined sense of community that has increasingly appealed to a more diverse population.