Integration and diversity in Catalan popular culture heritage

Author: Marta Rovira – Universitat Pompeu Fabra – Spain

Can a cultural tradition be a process of acquisition of cultural literacy for new migrants? It is sometimes difficult to incorporate new migrants into the most traditional part of our local culture. However, any culture is a product of diverse cultural processes through history. And local tradition could be understood as not so local. Neither so traditional. And perhaps it could become an opening invitation for integration and sharing cultural practices with people from other countries.

© Marta Rovira Martínez

Catalan society has significantly increased its population in the last decades thanks to the migration process. During the first years of the XXI century, the migrant residents in Catalonia passed from 3% (200) to 17% (2005). Actually Catalan society can be described as a multicultural and superdiverse society. At the same time, the emergence of a new wave in the field of cultural associations has coexisted with a new cultural reality: multiculturalism. How have cultural associations reacted to this change?

We give an example. One of the most popular cultural expressions of cultural heritage and popular culture in Catalonia nowadays is the “Castellers” (the human towers). Castellers’ tradition used to be a particular activity during local festivities in some places of Catalonia, but they became popular during the last decade of the last century. The local ‘colles’1 (groups) became teams that competed against each other to construct higher and more complex human castles. And, thanks to TV broadcasting, this competition started to be a spectacle for the mass public. This process converted the “Castellers” in a very appreciated activity all over the cities of Catalonia and beyond (for instance, China, Chile, England…). On November the 16th 2010, in Nairobi (Kenya), UNESCO approved the inscription of the human towers on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, giving them a universal recognition to this tradition.

Which are the type of values represented in this popular tradition in Catalonia? One of the most appreciable factors, from the point of view of social integration, is the associative basis. To participate in a ‘colla’ means to be a member of large intergenerational and mixed gender group. Each person has a role inside the castle. The children go to the top of the castle while older people participate in the base (the ‘pinya’2 ). Women are often in the middle level. There are different roles for people who take part of the organisation, who are always volunteers.

A study published by Rovira and Saurí in 20153 showed that the entrance into a cultural association has positive consequences and increases in social and relational capital. The climate of friendship and trust created in the association can be a balsam for an immigrant, who is doing his/her best to face the difficulties of becoming a member of the society. The social network that exists thanks to this activity and the association devoted to it, can be a place to find support and help, that is a friendly place of understanding for the problems that migrant people have to face in everyday life: work, health, housing, school for children, etc. The involvement in these kinds of associations also offers an opportunity to improve local language learning, as Catalan is usually the main language spoken. Often, these groups are the only place where newcomers can listen and practice Catalan language, as their daily interactions are in Spanish or in their own language of origin.

Some associations have developed strategies to involve migrant people into their activities. The conception underlying this strategy is the idea of participation as a way to integration. In the end, this integration is conceived as a way to become Catalan, that is to say, a member of the community, sharing the same national identity, without forgetting the culture and identity of origin. Of course, we can question the legitimacy of this aim and the implicit conception from the point of view of multiculturalism and the need for recognition of cultural diversity. Nevertheless, we have to understand this goal on the way to creating a social context for integration.

© Creative Commons by Palau Robert. Generalitat de Catalunya, used under CC BY-ND 2.0

The most prominent project linked to the incorporation of immigrants was the programme developed by the Human Towers coordinating body, named “Tots som colla” (“We all are a Colla”) focused on the integration of newcomers. The project had the support of the ministries of Social Action (through the Secretariat for Immigration and the Ministry of Youth) and Culture and Media communication (through the Centre for the Promotion of Catalan Popular and Traditional Culture) of the Catalan Government. Thirty castells have participated in the project since 2010. The project involves the organisation of workshops geared specifically to the castles of introduction for newcomers.

This represents a very proactive attitude to incorporate newcomers. The main reason, according to the discourse of the human towers associations, is to give a social dimension to their cultural activity. They do that by strengthening the relationship with NGOs and immigrant associations in the local framework. Their activity is not limited to one-off projects, but their strategy of hosting is structured and longitudinal. They work in specific programmes, enhancing co-operation with organisations devoted to help migrant people. They organise workshops at schools, participate in the district board of associations and, moreover, have developed some specific campaigns and agreements, apart from “Tots som colla”.

One of the main agreements is with the Language Learning Board (CNL) and Adult Schools. The language learning courses are complemented with cultural activities. The human towers associations offer students of these courses an opportunity to observe a training session. Also, the students are invited to participate and become members of the group if they want. There are many roles to develop in a group of human towers, and some of them need very little commitment.

This invitation sometimes has results, but most of the time requires a more proactive strategy. We have to take into account that these associations are based on volunteering. Hence, it is difficult for them to be involved in tasks other than their own activities. The dependence on volunteers and general lack of a clear and consistent proactive strategy limits the number of positive results. In the case of human towers associations, they have a large number of members, and can appoint someone to this task. In the case of the devil associations, this is more difficult due to their characteristics: fewer members, a more informal structure, and a mixture of children and young people.

Poster “Tots som una colla”

Another question is whether this strategy works in favour of a multicultural conception of culture. Linked to the language courses are different agreements between the Catalan learning office and some of the choirs. But the most effective activity in this sense has been the creation of specific intercultural choirs, such as the Asian Choir (that mixed Asian and European people) or the Akan Choir (mostly with African people). Those cases are rooted to the local networks and their strategies are different to those of human towers teams.

The challenge now is about how to make the associations of different cultural background (mostly of immigrant people) work together in the local framework. Some activities had been developed in this sense in Catalonia, like the Chinese New Year in Barcelona, promoted by the Barcelona City Council. Every year a parade through the streets of downtown includes participants from Chinese cultural associations with other cultural background associations. This parade of dancers, giants and local devils, human towers teams, dragons, masks and other elements of Chinese folklore represent one of the intercultural events recently created in Catalonia.


1.Colla’ means “group of friends” and it is also the name for the human tower’s groups.

2.Pinya’ means “peanaple”.

3. See: Saurí, Enric i Rovira, Marta (2015). Diversitat i integració en l’associacionisme cultural català. Barcelona: Revista Canemàs.


About the author

Dr. Marta Rovira researcher and public policy consultant, associate Professor at the UAB (Spain), She has also won the Jaume Camp 2012 Sociolinguistics Prize for a study on language trajectories in Catalonia. She has co-directed the documentary Forjadors de la Diada (2008) and directed the documentary Imaginar un país. El Congrés de Cultura Catalana (2017).