Appeared in an archived Pomona College online publication on 2.14.2011
In Argentina they call it el piropo. It is when a man of any age, shape, and form calls out after a woman on the street and tells her she is pretty, beautiful, sexy, skinny, curvy, delicious, divine, a goddess, a princess, a “mammy,” a star, or a bonbon. Sometimes the description is accompanied by a more detailed account of the pain or pleasure caused by the woman’s looks, presence, or indifference, and, sometimes, with a short but vivid description of the things the man would like to do to her in a different time and place…
It came over the ocean with the hot Italian blood that flows through the first tango verses, some of the dirties and most sexually evocative pieces of writing I have ever read; but it also comes from the rich earth of this land, its vegetation, and its sweat, which collects in puddles and trickles down bodies leaving traces of desire. It is generously given and it is far from a beauty trophy: the only thing it shows is that one looks like a woman.
I have heard numerous piropos over the past two months, and have observed the different attitudes of the men that give them. I asked around. Older women don’t seem to mind; on the contrary, piropos make their day. They appreciate this public act of appreciation as a compliment to a fleeting beauty and youth they would like to savor. Younger women are mostly indifferent, accustomed. A girl who lives in Buenos Aires knows that if she wears shorts, she will be called out on it by three-fourths of the men in the street, including the ones in suits and the ones who happen to be talking on the phone at that very moment (the men walking side by side with their wives or girlfriends will probably keep their mouths shut, but their eyes will be eloquent enough). And that’s only the beginning: imagine what happens to the girl who thinks that the heat outside calls for a skirt and a tank top, or the poor creature who decides it is a lovely day to go out in a dress.
Prepared as I was by friends, soap operas, and my own experiences at home—also a country of hot-blooded people with big mouths—I have not been able to like or get used to the piropo. I don’t want to belittle whatever rejuvenating effects it might have on the Argentine woman, and I would frankly admit that sometimes it is nice to hear fourteen affirmations of my good looks before I get into a cab, but most definitely most of the time it seems too intense for my weak Bulgarian-export soul. When a whole street in San Telmo—those beautiful narrow streets of San Telmo!—stares, comments, and whistles in unison, and then stares, comments, and whistles even harder because they can see you from the back, it is too much, and it is too inclusive. It makes me feel naked.
The piropo is not private. It is very much part of the public discourse and the urban narrative. It is not a smile of fascination or approval and it is not a compliment whispered into the ear of a loved woman. It is loud, obvious, intruding, and is repeated until the woman reacts or moves out of earshot (imagine being stuck at a bus stop with a guy who insist on repeating “I like you, I like you soooo much” every few seconds until the bus arrives). It inspires conversation between men standing on different sides of the same street. And as much as it is a free and uninhibited expression of adoration of the female body, which any Argentine woman would highly recommend to the North-American male (my writing professor Liria shared, “I’ve walked on the streets of American cities asking myself, ‘How do these people procreate?’”), the piropo is a very clear proof of how machist the Argentine community is.
Two months after my first walks around Buenos Aires, on a Sunday, I heard the piropo that made my day. Or, rather, saw it. I was jogging in the direction of the park, maneuvering around the evening strollers with a quick determination and an air of distance due to the headphones in my ears, when a young man walking in the opposite direction waved momentarily to catch my attention, and blew me a kiss. I smiled in response—and what else was there to do—and ran on, my day made and my mind working hard to put it into words. It’s that simple.