Piropos: Where They Come From and Why, Despite Knowing This, They Still Make My Skin Crawl

A piropo is a catcall. When most Americans think of catcalls, they picture the stereotypical construction worker whistling and explaining to passing women what they’d like to do to them.  This doesn’t always happen and isn’t the norm.  I spent three weeks walking the streets in the States, from Framingham, to Boston, to Brookline, to DC, and to various college campuses, and I didn’t receive one catcall.  Not one.  However, in Nicaragua, I spend five minutes walking from my house to the market in the center of town, and I’m lucky if I only receive one piropo.   It’s kind of a joke.  Every year, Peace Corps has volunteers report on the number of “verbal harassments” we receive in an average month.  Every woman I’ve talked to has confidently marked the box that has the maximum amount, which is set at “60 or more.”  That’s at least two a day!

So where do piropos come from?  Sure—Nicaragua has a “machista” culture, in which men are generally valued more than women.  Sometimes, men view women as nothing more than sexual objects.  I’ve met more single women raising families here than I’ve ever met before.  The explanation is always the same: “he left me for another woman.”  While machismo has its grip on most aspects of Nica family life, and is certainly the catalyst for piropos, there’s another layer that perpetuates the culture of piropos: peer pressure.  And in this case, men are victims too.

Donald, a staff member at Peace Corps Nicaragua, who doesn’t have a machista bone in his body, has thrown piropos.  He explained it to us once during training: if you’re sitting around with your friends, and a woman walks by and you don’t say something to her, your friends will make fun of you, question your sexuality, and say that you’re not a man.  Even if you don’t believe in what you are saying, you say it, because if you don’t, you lose face with friends.

On a similar note, my friends here have advised me that the absolute best comeback to a piropo isn’t to curse him, it isn’t to give him the middle finger, nor is it to tell him that sorry, I don’t talk to ugly people.  In reality, the worst comeback is to ask him a simple question:  “what, have you never seen a woman before?”  It embarrasses him in front of his friends.

Peer pressure to throw piropos has become so ingrained in these men that even when they’re alone, and there’s no one but me to hear it, they’ll mutter some obscenity under their breath.  Piropos to men are like a bodily reflex, much like when the doctor taps your knee and you can’t help but kick out your leg, or when you drink soda and you can’t help but burp.  In the same way, when a woman walks by, men can’t help but say something to her.  It’s quite seemingly out of their control.

Despite my acknowledgment that men are as much the victim as women in a machista culture, piropos still make my insides churn, and my thoughts tend to get violent pretty quickly.  If someone tells me “oi chelita, guapa, regalame tu número” (“hey pretty little white girl, give me your phone number”) I take a quick look around me, find the nearest sharp object and envision myself throwing it at my offender, hitting him squarely in the face—or squarely in the balls, depending on my mood.  One time, I actually threw an orange peel at some guy.  I think he got the point.

deadly weapon.

It’s easy to physically ignore most piropos.  Generally, you know it’s going to happen when you see a group of guys hanging out on the street corner.  I know it’s going to come, so I brace myself for it.  They know it’s going to come, so they think of something clever and original like, “mi preciosa guapa linda babyyyyy.”  Or if it’s not a big group, sometimes I’ll just get a guy that tries to get my  attention by literally hissing at me: “tssss, tssss, tssss,” he’ll say, until I’m out of range.

But sometimes, it’s not so blatant.  The worst is when someone beeps, or says hi, or Lorena, and at first, I think it must be someone I know, so I turn towards them.  But when I do, I meet a pair of ugly, puckered lips sticking out of a car window, sucking in air to make the most grotesque noise possible; or worse yet, when it turns out to be someone that I do know, such as the 12-year-old that lives on my street, that is making lewd noises at me since, at the moment, he is in front of his friends.  And when I do accidentally acknowledge these sneaky piropos, I kick myself for letting them win.  Blast their cleverness.

My favorite explanation of the absurdity of piropos comes from Jerry Seinfeld.  He has this bit in which he talks about the men that honk their horns at women as they drive by.  It goes like this:

Honking the car horn amazes me! This is gotta be just the last living brain cell in this guy’s skull that comes up with this idea. She’s on the street, he’s in the car. Beep-beep. “I think I made my point.” What is she supposed to do? Kick off her heels, start running after the car? Grab on to the bumper? The car comes to a stop…”It’s a good thing you honked–I had no idea how you fellllllllt!” -Seinfeld, I’m Telling you for the Last Time

It’s funny.  I think about Seinfeld’s scenario often.  With all these men yelling things at me, what do they think I’m going to do? Turn around, say yes, I just met you, but please, have my number.  I’ll be waiting for you to call.  Do you mind if next time we meet I show up naked?  Also, while we’re at it, keep calling me precious—women really like that.

I think they wouldn’t know how to respond.  Maybe for once, instead of a cacophony of filth thrown my way, there would actually be silence.  Thick, beautiful, crisp, clean, silence.

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