by Jennifer Baljko

Performance art, acrobatic prowess, and political defiance merge in the streets of Barcelona.

I close my eyes, hoping not to witness imminent destruction. A young child, about five years old, hovers two stories above the ground, barely balancing on top of a shaky pillar of flesh. I can’t resist. Despite the pounding in my chest, I peek through my fingers and watch another boy scamper towards the sky. Pressing his hands and bare feet into the backs and shoulders of men and women with wobbly knees, the lanky 10-year-old tow-head passes the balcony where the mayor and other dignitaries stand open-mouthed. The boy climbs higher. The human obelisk sways.

In a few seconds, I’m certain, bodies will collapse upon one another and screams will pierce the crowded Barcelona square, now blanketed in silence.

“What the heck are these people doing?” I whisper to no one in particular. Back home, this would be banned. The insurance liability alone would send shivers down any actuary’s spine.

This, though, isn’t the United States. This is Catalonia, and here, in a province fiercely protecting its customs, language and independence from Spain’s stronghold, human castle building is as much a sport as an art form.

“This is not just a hobby,” Cisco, a casteller (castle maker) for about 50 years, tells me later. “I don’t think there is anything I have spent more time doing, besides spending time with my wife.”

The tradition dates back to the 18th Century, and is loosely tied to a religious dance from Valencia, a city south of Barcelona. Over the years, the custom has morphed into an endurance event requiring a yogi’s balance and Cirque du Soleil dexterity. Teams throughout Catalonia, which rests on the shores of the Mediterranean and in the shadows of the Pyrenees, train during the chilly winter months to perfect the technical aspects of castell (castle) construction and deconstruction. And, then in the summer and fall, wide-eyed locals pack open-air plazas to see if the spires – much like the Gaudí-inspired ones adorning La Sagrada Familia cathedral – will reach heaven.

An American ex-pat tipped me off about the castellers, and with a child’s enthusiasm, he urged me to stick around for the week-long La Mercè party in late September. The castells were one of the festival’s highlights, and would be worth skipping a beach day to witness, he assured me. I pictured the U.S. equivalent of stuffing 20 frat guys into a phone booth. It sounded quirky. I was intrigued.

Now, instead of sprawling out on white sand, I’m watching children dangle in mid-air. I think I may end up in the hospital with a heart attack, along with the mother of the kid who is hovering a couple stories off the ground.

A few minutes ago, things weren’t this stressful. I huddled among the masses in Plaça de Sant Jaume and waited for something to happen. Those in nearby apartment buildings hung out of windows, taking long drags on their cigarettes and Voll-Damm beer. Politicos in suits whooped it up on city hall’s second-floor balcony. A father perched his daughter, ice cream cone in hand, on his shoulders. Tourists readied their cameras. Vendors hawked bottled water and balloons. The smell of bocadillos (sandwiches) and pa amb tomaquet (tomato toast) wafted through the narrow alleyways of the old town.

Four middle-aged men, with bullish physiques and attitudes to match, had elbowed their way through the noisy horde. They interlocked arms and formed a tight circle. A dozen other men and women of varying shapes and sizes, in mint green shirts and white pants, slid into the middle of the ring. They crooked themselves under armpits, squeezed against the chests of the burly men and braced for what would be a painful 10 minutes.

Along the perimeter, more green-shirted men leaned against the inner circle, and behind them, even more men and women pushed in for support, resting their arms on the arms of the person in front of them. Male spectators, stupefied, were yanked into the mix and crammed into a tightly-knit circle that stretched at least 15-people wide from the epicenter to perimeter.

A stocky man, taller than the rest, shouted commands. With the pinya (the base of the tower), firmly planted, it was time to climb.

Four men with sturdy, athletic frames, crawled on top of the lower level. They tightroped their way to inner circle and steadied themselves on the shoulders of the men below. They interlocked arms and shouted down to the captain. Hands from the base wrapped around tier two’s legs and cupped their butts. I chuckled. I suspected this type of groping wouldn’t go over well at summer fairs back home.

On cue, the next round of climbers—men and women with slighter builds—ascended. The four monkeyed up, and, with the precision of ninjas, placed hands and feet on tier two’s calves, hamstrings and shoulders. Together, the four climbers hoisted themselves up and closed their ring.

A hush fell over the restless spectators. Red and yellow striped Catalan flags, draped defiantly down building façades, snapped in the breeze. More castellers climbed.

A drum beat droned. Throoom. Throoom. Throoom. Then the gralles, a cross between a clarinet and what looked like my sixth-grade recorder, filled in the beat, slow at first. My jaw dropped. This was looking more serious than a frat-boy stunt.

The green-shirted team, or colla, hailed from Vilafranca del Penedès, a Barcelona suburb bordered by vineyards. Though not the hometown favorite, the team had reputation for assembling towers that defied gravity. In the crowd, those in the know knew a 4-of-9 tower—a tower nine-people high with a circumference four-people wide—was a tower that demanded attention, and respect.

The next tier of castellers—teenagers, this time—was on the move. Gracefully, effortlessly, hands and feet synchronized in alternating pulley patterns. Right feet bent into the small of the backs of those already standing, just above black cummerbunds. Left knees found standing team members’ shoulders. Hands tugged at the pants. The teens grabbed each other’s arms, simultaneously getting their bearings.

There was no time to breathe. More climbers were right behind them. Boys and girls, barely past puberty, sprinted to the top.

I can’t watch. I can’t help but watch. I fidget. My heart races as the timbal, a small drum, thumps louder, faster. The gralles quicken to a Bolero-like crescendo.

The crowd stands still. The little girl on her dad’s shoulders stops licking her ice cream cone. Behind me, a camera clicks.

Children, no more than ten, scurry like mice. A tug at the pants above. A clasp of a shirt collar. A mighty heave up the next person’s back. Higher into the clouds. Level six. Legs quiver. Weary arms try not to sag. I’m afraid to exhale. Afraid that my breath may cause the human tower of Pisa to lean too far in one direction.

Two kids dash upwards. They hurriedly create a two-person circle. The clock, a few feet above their heads, chimes the hour. City officials on balconies tilt back their heads. A five-year-old, sporting a floppy page-boy haircut, makes his way upwards and squats into fetal position on top of the two kids’ shoulders. The aixecador is suspended over a 20-foot high shaft of bodies. I gasp. I wonder if his mother has already fainted.

All eyes lock on another child – the anxaneta, the only person for the ninth tier. The last to climb.

The captain bellows from the perimeter, encouraging the team, in those final moments, to find even more strength. Those in the inner circle grunt. I can’t see their faces. I know, though, they are flushed and beaded with sweat, made worse by the 80-degree temperature warming the square. I calculate the base must be holding nearly a ton on their shoulders. Probably more.

The 10-year-old anxaneta shimmies up the tower. An air of confidence replaces a brief trace of uneasiness in his soft features.

“I’m not afraid of climbing. I’m afraid of falling,” the anxaneta, whose name is Marc, says afterwards through a translator. He’s been climbing for five years, and has had his share of falls. They’re not fun.

“But, when the captain says it’s okay to go, I go.”

A cautious, but quick, combination of tugs and pulls propels him past each level. He gently shifts his weight to compensate for the trembling below. He’s so high he becomes a blur.

The gralles and the drum escalate to a feverish pitch. I cover my eyes. I peek through my fingers.

The success of the tower—the hope of a people reaching for greatness—rests in this fifth-grader.

The anxaneta straddles the five-year-old at the apex. He places one hand on the back of the child. He throws up the other. Victory! He touches the sky.

At that moment, Catalonia shakes off Madrid’s economic and political weight. At that moment, Catalonia stands firm, unwavering in a cultural test of persistence, tenacity and courage. At that moment, Catalonia is free.

Applause fills the urban canyons. Marc descends like a fireman sliding down a pole. Each layer peels off in the same way. The captain wipes his brow and grins a toothy smile. Men hug like brothers. Bystanders cheer in disbelief.

Without thinking, I raise my hands, too, and try to touch the Catalan sky.



Jennifer Baljko is a writer who lives in Barcelona. This story won the Bronze Award for Best Travel Story of the Year in theFirst Annual Solas Awards.
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