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Living In Argentina: Catcalls and Piropos

In light of the sexual harassment scandals, I am weighing in with my dos centavos.  I don't think that there is a woman who has not suffered sexual harassment.  It comes in many forms; from the co-worker or boss propositioning you, the date who makes it easier to say yes than no, and sexual innuendos that are not welcome.

The first time someone catcalled me I was 17 years old and walking home from school.  I had to walk by a construction site to get home.  It had been raining and the area was muddy.  I remember one of the men calling out to me "Hey, do you want to come play in the mud with me?"  I was speechless.  I put my head down and continued walking.  I felt embarrassed and maybe a little scared.

7 years later on a trip to New York with a boyfriend it happened again.  Another construction worker.  I was walking to get to the Guggenheim.  In those days I was a super fashionista.  I remember I was wearing my red Fiorucci jeans and cowboy boots.  Funny the things we remember. When I walked by the construction site a guy yelled "Hey!  You got a great ass."  I remembered looking around.  He could not be possibly talking to me.  I have had body dysmorphia since I was born.  "Yeah, you!" he called.  I remember smiling and waving.  Obviously it made such an impact that I still remember it 40 years later.

Flash forward.  The first time I went to Argentina, I was overwhelmed.  Men had no problems telling me that I was "hermosa" or that I had beautiful eyes, coming from politically correct California, I was tongue tied.  This did not happen.  Men did not dare do this.  

Then on my third trip, I experienced my first of many "piropos."  I was walking out of the apartment building where I was staying.  A man stopped in front of me and clutched his chest. "I'm dying." he said. I was alarmed. I asked him if he was OK.  "I'm dying, I know that I am dying because an angel with golden hair just dropped out of the sky." he chanted, then laughed, and continued walking, leaving me perplexed.  

The piropo has its beginning in Spain, 17th, 18th century Spain. (Some say Italy too, but I am not going to write the eternal history in this blog post.) It started with the aristocracy.  In those days a man could not go up to a woman and say "Hey, you're hot, let's go get a drink."  People needed to be introduced. When a man wanted to show his interest in a woman, he would give her a piropo which was a piece of poetry, with the intention of capturing her interest.  Along with that came the laying down of the cloak for a lady to cross the street so as not to muddy her dainty little feet, and the serenading with music.  After all this gallantry, he might be able to find out her name, in order to speak with her father.  These customs carried themselves to Latin America where the Spanish were settling (and trying to conquer).  The custom eventually spread to all the classes.

When I first moved to Argentina, I was unnerved by men constantly telling me that I was beautiful.   It is kind of a lift to your day to hear "rubia hermosa" (beautiful blond ) "lindos ojos", (pretty eyes) and even the ones by the older gents who spun poetry.  Seriously at my age, it feels good. Most of the time I don't even notice, I have gotten so used to it.

Then in 2010 I went back to the Bay Area for a visit.  That was when I realized I had been Argentinizied.  For many reasons.  I had been so used to the men in our milongas here commenting on my hair, or my dress or my perfume, that it seemed weird not to have someone say anything to me.  Very boring and safe small talk. I mentioned it to a few of my women friends, and the reaction was very strong. "Why do you need to be validated by a man?" was the most common response.  Validation had absolutely nothing to do with it.  Anyone who knows me, knows that I am very independent and do not need anyone or anything to validate me.  It is nice to hear that you look good, smell good, and are attractive.  Funny thing, those are the same women who literally throw themselves at the Argentine men in our milongas when they are here in Buenos Aires.

However, not all piropos are nice.  There are the ones where they talk about your body parts and what they want to do them.  Those are gross.  Disgusting. Sick.  Those are catcalls. One day when I was walking to the subte, I passed a group of construction workers.  They began to say disgusting things .  I had a Relato Salvaje moment.  I stomped over to them and got in their faces, "Do you have a sister?  Do you have a mother?  Do you have a daughter?"  I demanded.  "How would you like some guy to talk to them, like you just talked to me?"  Not a word.  They said nothing.  The next day when I walked by, none of them said anything.  I scared the hell out of them, I suppose.

 An Argentine woman who received one of the disgusting catcalls about her body, went to the police station and made a complaint.  There is now a law about sexual harassment by catcalls.  (Acoso Callejero)  This, is a good thing.   No one should be subjected to the disgusting comments by men  who have no concept of what is offensive.  Machismo is alive and well in Argentina.

I often see in the expat forums in Facebook how many of the foreign women are chagrined by the piropos on the street.  They hate them.  It doesn't matter if they are the spun poetry, or the random compliment, they hate them.  

There is a difference between an ugly cat call, and the poetry of a piropo.  The sad thing is the poetica piropo is disappearing.  The milonga is the exception, where men still practice this art, but on the street, it is unusual to hear this form of poetry in motion.



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