Many women – both Latina and not – whose street harassment stories I’ve read have commented on the volume of harassment they receive from Hispanic men due to the culture of machismo. I know men of all races harass women of all races, but this viewpoint is common enough that it is one I am exploring.
A few months ago, a woman in Colombia who, as part of her PhD work, is examining how people justify violence against women in Colombia, contacted me because she was interested in my research. One of her case studies focused on a woman’s experience being groped in public by a stranger. We exchanged a few e-mails and she shared the following with me when I asked her about street harassment in Colombia.
“One more thing you might be interested in…in Hispanic countries there is a cultural history of a sort of courtship in the streets. “Piropos” (http://www.piroposkc.com/whatis.html) are probably the best way to name this historical-cultural act. If you use the word ‘piropo,’ many people will tell you how beautiful and wonderful they are. However, if one looks closely, there are definitions of piropo which also include unpleasant piropos, such as ‘you look like a nice f*ck’, and ‘I want to suck your …’. There are those who would say that any piropo too directly related to sex is vulgar and uncalled for. Also, piropos don’t have to only be verbal. Some articles mention that they might be accompanied by a ‘touch.’ I know that many women will say they don’t mind or even like the nice piropos, but no one likes a quick stranger grope nor a vulgar comment.”
I recently read an article by Joan Fayer entitled “Changes in Gender Use of Public Space in Puerto Rico” which further educated me about “piropos,” which seems to be a tradition adopted by many (most? all?) Hispanic cultures from the Spanish. I found the article to be very useful, so I’m including highlights from it below.
Fayer says that piropos are “compliments or flattering comments traditionally given by men to women” which are “more than ever restricting equal access of women to public space. The hostile environment piropos create by making women ‘open’ to all and any other comments by men” (Fayer, 214).
Piropos were originally compliments given by aristocratic Spanish men to women as a way to admire their beauty and grace. Over time, piropos spread to other social classes and to Hispanic areas. Apparently, piropos used to be fairly prim and proper but gradually vulgar piropos creeped in so that today there’s a good mixture of both being given by men (Fayer, 216). In fact, in Spain a law passed in 1931 prohibiting piropos and related gestures that were impolite and vulgar and violation of said law resulted in a fine or a jail sentence of 5 to 20 days (can you imagine if the US had a similar law!?!).
She says, “Machismo, as a public act, is evident in street culture in Puerto Rico and other Hispanic countries in which men control public space not only by looking at women, but also verbally by giving women piropos – compliments that can range from the polite and poetic to the vulgar” (Fayer, 216).
“Piropos are typically given on streets by a man or a group of men as they pass by a woman or women they do not know or as the women pass them…Today piropos are usually given when walking, but it also possible for males to shout from cars to women who are walking or who are themselves in cars. Although they are more common from young men to young women, there are no age restrictions. Some men give piropos all their adult lives; however, there are some men who never give piropos. Although class distinctions may be a factor, there are men of all social classes who would never make comments about women in public” (Fayer, 217-218).
“The conventional female response is to ignore piropos, both verbally and nonverbally. The woman may be flattered, offended, or feel sexually harassed, but to respond in any way is ‘to ask for trouble.’ Women who are offended by piropos may, if possible, avoid areas in which piropos are common. Avoiding piropos ‘areas’ thus limits the access women have to public space. Recently, there has been a change in the response women make to piropos. Some female teenagers who receive vulgar piropos now turn to the males and say, ‘Would you say that to your mother/sister?’ ‘Go to hell,’ and so on. These young women are claiming more equal access to public streets; they do not just avoid piropos ‘areas'” (Fayer, 218).
“Piropos given by women on the streets can also be vulgar…however there are differences in the way women give men piropos in public space. Women almost always give piropos when they are in groups on the street or when they are in cars. For a woman to say something when she is alone would be too dangerous. The group or the car insures protection and prevents the male from interpreting the remark as an invitation” (Fayer, 219).
“Public space can also become a hostile environment when women become targets of both piropos and other types of verbal and nonverbal harassment” (Fayer, 220).
Fayer’s conclusion for the article as related to piropos is that they are largely male to female and thus permit “men to intrude and sexually harass women in their personal space in public areas. This hostile environment serves to restrict the access women have to public space…The gendered use of public space in Puerto Rico indicates that although there have been recent changes, social organization and public space continues to be male dominated” (Fayer, 223).
Does anyone know more about piropos and the way it impacts the way Hispanic men treat women in public spaces? Also, the article focused on heterosexual piropos, but are same-sex piropos ever given?