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January 07, 2019 7:00 am
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A hush falls over the crowd of thousands packed into Plaza Jaume, the square of the small town of Vilafranca del Penedès in the Catalonia region of Spain. It’s late in the summer, the temperatures are pushing mid-90s, but the crowd keeps pushing closer and closer together so everyone can see what’s happening just a few hundred feet away. I’m standing right in the thick of it, and in any other circumstance, I’d be dying—I’m not the biggest fan of crowds or heat. But while I’m pretty sure that I’ve never felt this hot and humid before in my entire life, any complaints about the rising temps or how packed the crowd is around me die in my throat. My breath is taken away by the feat of pure human strength and dedication being performed right before my eyes—the construction of human towers called castells, 10 stories tall, rising and falling faster than I can even follow.

In groups of fours, then twos, then ones, men, women, and kids of all ages climb, feet on shoulders, to create these castells as the main event of the town’s Festa Major. These castells have been built for hundreds of years and are a source of pride for the Catalonians as they create a physical expression of their unity by pushing the limits of what is humanly possible. It’s truly incredible to see how high these towers grow without anything to hold them up except for human bodies in a show of balance, strength, control, and stamina. That’s why National Geographic’s Explorer has sent Phil Keoghan, host of The Amazing Race, to film a segment on the history of the tradition. Embedded with a local Catalonian family participating in the castells, Keoghan and the producers expected to learn a little about the tradition and generally just be wowed by the festival performance. But as I traveled to Spain with the host, producers, and crew, we were all surprised by just how much we had to learn from this ancient practice because of how surprisingly progressive the tradition—and culture—has become.

The word “tradition” generally describes something that’s been done the same way for a long period of time. More often than not, when dealing with cultural traditions, that means gender inequality is probably running pretty rampant. Feminism as a concept has only been for less than 200 years, and while change has been happening all around us, cultural and religious change is a lot harder to come by where gender equality is concerned. So when I saw the top three to four stories of the castells being made up entirely by women, I was so shocked that I actually dropped my phone while trying to take a photo—how often are women included equally in these kinds of physical feats? Women aren’t even always allowed to participate in the same Olympic sports as men, even when they’ve spent their lives training.

After a few minutes of watching a crowd of men and women form the base of the castell, strong men would then climb up and form the bottom few stories. And as each story rose into the air, the castellers climbing up would get younger and younger, and soon it was only girls rising. The final casteller to climb up the swaying tower was a 6-year-old girl. She quickly ascended the castell, using the back pockets of everyone’s white jeans, along with their black scarves tied as belts around their waists, as footholds to reach the top. Once there, she threw up her arm to signal the castell reaching its peak before shimmying down again like a little monkey, reaching the safety of the ground. Her size obviously made her the perfect choice to become the “crown,” or the top story of the castell, but how did a girl earn the most important position of this ancient tradition in a group that’s more than 500 people?

“We’re always looking for stories with women in them and we were thrilled to find out that there are women participating in this as much as men,” Explorer executive producer Gretchen Eisele tells me after filming part of the series’ segment at the festival. “And not only that, but we have a little girl climbing to the top of the tower. Her name is Querelt, she’s 6 years old. How impressive is that? It’s so empowering to see that.”

Keoghan had no idea how progressive the Catalonian people are when it comes to their traditions before he landed on the ground in the small town just a short drive outside of Barcelona. “I’m really intrigued by that, because I assumed this would be male-centric and it started out as a show of strength and masculinity but it seems to have evolved into something that is more inclusive over time to incorporate more women,” the Emmy-winning host tells me while sitting in the lobby of the Cava & Hotel Mastinell just a short walk from Plaza Jaume. “It’s fascinating because it doesn’t matter how much research you do before you start a story like this, you just never know where it’s going to take you until you’re there. And that’s what I want people to gain from watching this show—I want them to learn and be accepting about places, cultures, and people they may not know about and be less judgmental about differences.”

The more that Keoghan and Eisele spent time with one group of castellers, the Minyons de Terrassa, the more they learned about how deeply embedded the feminism truly is within the culture. During practice the night before the festival, 16-year-old girls took leadership of the entire group. Standing at the outskirts of the group 100-strong, one female teen barked out orders and commanded the respect of the entire group as they practiced a castell formation. I later found out this 16-year-old girl was the crown of a castell when she was younger, and it’s common for most crowns to eventually become leaders in the group. Instilling feminist leadership qualities in the kids who then grow up to become leaders in their own right helps foster the kind of inclusive and progressive attitudes the Catalonians are proud of, and using the castells to showcase—a strategy we should look to stateside.

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“Girl power starts at age 6 with climbing and just builds from there,” Eisele says. “They’re teaching these young girls empowerment at such a young age and it makes for a really strong foundation for leadership later in life. It’s incredible to see from these Catalonians who have preserved this tradition for hundreds of years.”

As a parent herself, Eisele at first thought it was “frivolously risky” to send such a young girl up hundreds of feet in the air, potentially resulting in injuries should the castells fall (and many did at the festival). But after learning more about what it means to be the crown, she realized how “admirable” it really is. “For them, it means so much,” Eisele says. “It’s a source of pride and to grow up with that strong sense of cultural identity is such a gift in this world. For those little girls, it’s an incredible gift that they can so proudly be who they are.”

Watching these little girls, including Querelt, take pride in their positions as the crowns of the castells was inspiring to see. It was also kind of terrifying, as the first two attempts at building the castells came crashing down before the crown could reach the top. People fell on other people, screams and cries could be heard, and paramedics were rushed in to treat injuries. My panic and anxiety reached almost unbearable levels as I watched the Minyons attempt a third castell in the middle of the packed square. The crowd’s silence had become eerily tense after watching the first two castells end in such disaster. But the third castell rose up, level by level, and the crown climbed up. She reached the top, threw out her arm, and shimmied back down to the ground. The rest of the stories came down safely and the volume of the crowd, castellers and observers alike, became deafening. The relief and pure happiness at the success was palpable as castellers hugged each other, tears of joy streaming down their faces.

If I weren’t there to witness it myself, this Cinderella story would have seemed too perfectly scripted to be true, but seeing it happen was a life-changing experience for me. I felt empowered in a way I never expected, as if I could accomplish anything I set my mind to despite how seemingly impossible it might look, all thanks to the young girls risking their lives to continue this gravity-defying tradition. And that’s exactly how Eisele and Keoghan hope viewers feel after watching this episode (and every episode) of Explorer. “I want girls and young women to watch our show and be inspired to get out in the world and see that there are so many unexplored places and cultures to see and learn about,” Eisele adds. “I want people to be less afraid of what they don’t know.”

While Keoghan knows the footage of human towers is what’s so attention-grabbing about this segment of Explorer, he’s proud that there’s a deeper meaning that everyone can learn from watching it.

“I’d heard about the castells and I’d seen videos of it but I have to be honest, my initial reaction was quite different than how I feel now having dug into it deeper,” Keoghan says. “I didn’t really understand what was behind it all when I first saw the videos. I saw a clip on TV of a collapse, of course, because a lot of times you don’t see something until it goes wrong. Now that I understand where this is all coming from, this particular group of people in Spain trying to unite and show their strength and unity and culture. The why behind the sensational part of seeing these amazing 10-story human pyramids being built for hundreds of years is what’s the most interesting part.”

Explorer airs Monday, January 7th at 6 p.m. on National Geographic.

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