“Vaig aprendre que fins i tot en les situacions més terribles s’ha de celebrar, compartir el goig d’estar vius amb els altres.” — Najat El Hachmi(“I learned that even in the most terrible situations we must celebrate, to share the wonder of being alive with others.”)
The Catalan author Najat El Hachmi commenced Barcelona’s annual festival of La Mercè from the city hall’s Saló de Cent room, with words of resilience and compassion through tough times that needn’t apply to only Catalans. The three-day September festival of La Mercè, named after the city’s 17th-century patron saint, the Virgin of Mercy, has officially been celebrated since 1871 and trumpets the proud Catalan community’s cultural creativity, diversity and history. Returning for the first time since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, La Mercè 2023 resurfaced with a new wave of uncertainty as war continues in Eastern Europe, natural disasters prove catastrophic in Northern Africa and the memories of Catalonia’s unsuccessful 2017 independence referendum linger in the zeitgeist of Barcelona. Looking these turbulent situations straight in the face, 1 million people poured into the streets to parade their culture for the world to see.
Having the good fortune to walk in step with the Catalans as a student reporter studying political science here abroad in Barcelona, I share with you a firsthand account of the wonders of La Mercè!
The Devils take the stage during the opening ceremony in the Plaça Sant Jaume. Brandishing their phosphorous candles high in the air, the Devils freeze in formation as red smoke billows above a celebrating assembly outside the Palau de la Generalitat.
The Sprite Nébula of La Trinitat Vella, sculptor Dolors Sans’ depiction of a forest spirit of the Collserola mountain range, parades down the avenue El Passeig de Gràcia during the festival’s correfoc, or fire run. Casa Batlló — a building designed by Antoni Gaudi, Barcelona’s most treasured architect — is visible in the upper left-hand corner of the image.
An adult devil of the Devils and Drummers of Ithaca kneels to prepare this gang of children’s devils for the children’s correfoc on El Passeig de Gràcia. Wrapped in fire-protective gear, these children will spark everything but themselves as they run through the street.
Watch the sparks fly as the children’s correfoc gets underway!
Usually performed for the Chinese New Year, this Chinese dragon dance proves the exception as a team of sparkling women raise their dragon and sweep along the Passeig del Born during the Beasts Parade. Chinese Catalans make up the city’s second-largest immigrant community.
The flags of Catalonia, Spain and Barcelona fly against a night sky made milky blue by the explosive, white light of the opening ceremony’s firework show. Below the flags sits a griffin, Barcelona’s coat of arms and a knight’s helmet, all shaped in stone.
A woman runs with the Beasts carrying a Chinese dragon above her head. Creative teams from each of Barcelona’s districts represent their distinct identity by fabricating a life-sized model of a creature special to their culture.
In a sympathetic gesture to Ukraine, the festival hosted the old monarchs of the Kyivan Rus, Saint Olga and Saint Volodymyr — resurrected from history in the form of giants. The old Kyivan regent and grand prince dance together here during the People’s Parade in the Plaça de Sant Jaume.
Watching the People’s Parade, a woman lays her hands around someone’s shoulders. The festivals of La Mercè inspire closeness within the Catalan community as hundreds of thousands come together to celebrate the occasion.
A large crowd watches a pyromusical, or a synced firework and music show, in the Plaça d’Espanya (temporarily renamed the Plaça Un d’Octubre in reference to the 2017 independence referendum). This burst of sounds and colors marks the conclusion La Mercè 2023.