Experiences with Cuban Piropo Culture

Wow, I can’t believe it’s already March; I feel like time has been slipping away since the start of the semester. I definitely feel more socially and academically acclimated than I did after my first post. The workload feels a lot more similar to Amherst, but perhaps more difficult since everything is in Spanish. A year ago, I would have never thought I would be able to read and write in Spanish like I am now! I’m excited that I can finally do most, if not all, the things I hoped I would get to do this semester: lay the groundwork for my thesis, increase my daily workouts, spend quality time with friends, and even start taking small weekend trips to different provinces.

Another one of the benefits of finding my grooves has been my ability to more easily reflect on the different cultural aspects I’ve experienced in Cuba. I’ve spent a lot of time specifically thinking about Cuba’s piropo culture, which translates to “flattery” but can be more accurately described as one-line catcalls. Typically from men directed at women, piropos can take the form of a creative pick up line— “If you cook like you walk, I’d eat the scrapings of the pan”— or something more vulgar, sexualized and objectifying. The differences are typically referred to as piropos bonitos, pretty, flattering catcalls, or piropos groseros, rude or impolite catcalls. Piropos can also occur regardless if a woman is alone or in a group, if the man is alone or with a group, and is not limited to urban spaces. Piropos usually do not occur when a woman and a man are walking together; the man who would usually holler a piropo shows restraint out of respect for the other man’s masculinity. These catcalls transcend racial, class, and age boundaries; I have seen 70 year old men holler at a group of 17 year old girls.

Perhaps due to the fact that this is my second semester in Cuba, I find myself bothered a lot less by piropos than some of the other women in my program. I’m sure this is because I’ve experienced a wider range of piropos, from a man reciting the lyrics of Adele’s “Hello” in my ear, to a group of men yelling and describing sexually explicit acts as I walked by. I’ve found that sometimes I can even reverse the power dynamics usually found in piropos, from the man having the power in the exchange, to regaining power as the woman. Perhaps surprisingly, I’ve even gained a few friends from these daily exchanges. On my walk from my apartment to the CASA gallery where we all take classes, I run into two men everyday who initially gave me a piropo, but now greet me and ask me about my studies and my day. Although this is not the norm, these small interactions actually have facilitated unique forms of friendships.

It’s also worth saying that, unlike most catcalls I’ve experienced in the U.S., I rarely feel that Cuban piropos will escalate to the point of street violence. When men catcall me in the U.S., I never respond and often fear that any response, or lack thereof, will prompt a violent response from the man or group of men. In Cuba, however, I feel as though these piropos are often less about showing dominance over women, but more about displaying a form of masculinity in front of other men. In other words, the piropos almost use women as a medium for men to interact with each other; they sometimes seem like a game between men. One can argue, and indeed many have, that using women as an object to facilitate interactions between men is a form of sexism; I would have to agree with that. However, as I mentioned before, within this structure there are opportunities for women to engage in this piropo game and become active agents, mostly without fear of backlash.

Although I’ve cast Cuban piropos in a better light than catcalling in the U.S., I am fully aware that piropos come from a form of sexism. Noticing how men treat each other when giving piropos serves as the most striking way to identify sexism within these cultural exchanges. I have noticed that when I walk around Havana with my boyfriend, most men refrain from saying anything to me, not out of respect for me, but rather for my boyfriend. In the rare instances where his presence does not initially stop the piropo, the piropo uttered might be a statement of respect that my boyfriend has managed to “catch” a woman. In even rarer cases, cases I have been fortunate enough not to experience but have seen, men will holler piropos groseros in the presence of a woman’s boyfriend to directly challenge the masculinity of the man in the relationship. These exchanges can escalate to a physical or verbal altercation in the street until either other men intervene, or one of the two men backs down, often the initial man. In all of these instances, women serve as objects to validate and prove masculinity between men.

Processing and absorbing this new cultural element can sometimes be overwhelming, especially since piropos happen several times a day. I’ve been fortunate enough to have facilitated a conversation for the women in my program about piropo culture. Having an all-woman space to talk about our varying experiences and responses, share advice, and generally vent has made us feel empowered within a sometimes objectifying system. I hope to engage in further conversations about piropo culture, particularly how piropos intersect with race and elements of foreignness.

Sunset over water in Cuba

Sunset in Cuba