I remember on my first day in Buenos Aires venturing out of my hostel to buy empanadas in the afternoon. The street was hot, muggy, and packed with cars and trucks. Walking by the roadside I started to hear kissing noises. I heard greetings. I heard men call out from their vehicles: mami! and Hola buena moza (good looking). I was experiencing my first Latin American piropos.
Literally, piropo means a compliment or flirtatious comment. But in reality it usually means making remarks about, and wolf whistling at random females in public places.
In the subsequent months I spent walking around the city running errands, I came to realise that cat-calling was something that crossed class boundaries. Strolling into Puerto Madero early in the morning, I heard dozens of kissing noises and greetings: hermosa, divina, preciosa, not only coming from the hundreds of immigrants who work fervently in the zone’s construction, but also from the engineers and IT managers who earn their crust in the barrios’ multinationals.
To get the low down on the whole piropo phenomenon, I went to a trusted source: my Argentine partner.
Who do men give piropos to?
Well, according to my other half, who doesn’t mince words, young women or those who have ‘a lot of cleavage, a big arse, or a miniskirt’.
In the old days piropo was considered something of a clever art form. There were cheesy but presumably effective quips about things appearing to be astray in heaven because all the angels were on earth, while others, such as ‘I would love to be a tear in your eye so that I could live on your cheeks and die on your lips’, took taste to their limits.
Being on the receiving end of modern day piropos provoked various reactions from my friends.
Veronica, my 33-year-old Spanish teacher, generally isn’t fazed. “If it’s not rude it’s okay, I’ll be like OK, thanks, but if they say something really crude then, no it’s not okay,” adding that some of what she heard was ‘unrepeatable’.
Age was a factor in being a recipient, she said, confessing that now that she was a bit older men didn’t say as much as they used to.
Another friend working in the capital, a 25-year-old statuesque North American blonde, was less complimentary. “I hate it. I just feel like this country is kind of a sexist country at times, and at that point in time they’re being sexist. When someone whistles, well, you whistle at a dog!”
But a 30-something German pal felt more positive and better appreciated for her femininity. “In Germany men treat you like furniture. Here in South America it’s different.”
Evading piropos in Buenos Aires means staring at the pavement, which makes sense at least in terms of avoiding the city’s ubiquitous dog poop, but isn’t much fun for sightseeing around town.
However, the alternative is making eye contact with the random men looking you up and down, which ‘shows that you’re interested’ according to my partner. It’s part of the seduction, the game between men and women.
For me, piropos are welcome on days when my hair is moppish in texture, when I’m tired and my mascara has transferred itself onto bags under my eyes, when my stockings have runs or I’m cranky after too much time spent on a colectivo.
If, at that moment, someone rounds a corner and whispers hermosa in my ear as I pass on the street, while I might suspect they are seriously visually impaired, I’m grateful. Suddenly, I feel like the diosa hot Cosmopolitan always promises (but never delivers) to turn me into. They won’t be saying these things forever.