Human tower-building teams Colla Joves and Colla Vella from Valls, Tarragona, perform in front of the city hall. Castells were first documented as a Catalan cultural form in 1801. (Pere Toda/Ajuntament de Valls/Smithsonian Institution)

If you spot a very tall tower made of humans on the Mall, do not worry! They are human-tower builders from Catalonia, and they know what they’re doing. (Don’t try this at home — or anywhere.)

These towers are called castells, a centuries-old Catalan tradition, and they will be featured at this year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival. The festival is celebrating the Spanish region of Catalonia with food, masquerades, fireworks and competitive tower building. (This year’s festival also celebrates the western Asian nation of Armenia.)

Catalonia is a region in northeastern Spain unlike any other in the country. The Catalan language was preserved by communities for hundreds of years. Today, more than 9 million people across Europe speak the language. Catalan people are passionate about educating and sharing their traditions. Convivència — which means to live in the company of others — is an important part of Catalan society.


Diables (devils) process at the Ball de Diables de Vilafranca del Penedés, a tradition that dates back to the early 19th century. Folklife Festival visitors can witness parades of devils and giants on the Mall. (Servicios Editoriales Georama/Smithsonian Institution)

Castells, towers made up of humans, are a way to bring people together and build trust. There are hundreds of teams that compete regularly in the region. Women and children, as young as 3, are also part of these teams. In the past several decades, teams began including women because they were strong and light.

“It celebrates certain values that they hold dear. Like strength and courage,” says Michael Atwood Mason, the director of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. “They talk about these values as part of human-tower building. People love it because it is incredibly moving. It is positively thrilling to see people do it.”


Catalan doughnuts, or bunyols, are a popular snack that will be available at Folklife Festival concessions stands. (Jackie Flanagan Pangelinan/Smithsonian Institution)

Pilars are single towers of one person per level, and they will be formed at the festival every day. Large castells will be built twice on the second weekend of the festival (on July 7 and 8). More than 300 people from Catalonia will help build the large human structures in Washington.

Musicians, chefs and artists from Catalonia also will be at the festival showcasing their culture. Miquel Grima, a puppetmaker, will show how to make ­papier-mâché “big heads,” or capgrossos, large street puppets that go over performers’ heads. Professional dancers will teach festivalgoers how to dance the sardana, a popular circle dance.

You might want to sample Catalan food, especially the sweet specialties. Bunyols are doughnuts topped with cinnamon sugar and are a favorite Catalan snack. Crema Catalana, sweet custard with lemon and cinnamon, is a staple dessert that will also be served at the event.

And there’s another treat in store for visitors on Saturday, on July 5 and on July 7. After a parade of giants and devils, there will be a fireworks display. The fireworks are also called diables, which means ­devils, in Catalan.

“The devils represent disruptive forces in everyday life and beasts who have a mythological role,” Mason said. “The Catalans like to play with fire. Partly because it’s a way of incorporating the surprising and the disruptive in these festivals.”


Tower builders form a castell during a semiannual competition in Tarragona, Spain, on October 5, 2014. (Albert Gea/Reuters)

IF YOU GO

What: Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

Where: In the center of the Mall, in front of the National Museum of American History.

When: Wednesday-July 1 and July 4-8. Festival hours are 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., with evening concerts most nights at 6:30 p.m.

How much: Free.

For more information: A parent can visit festival.si.edu/visit.