Piropos Cubanos: Sí or No?

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Cubans are famous for many things: cigars, salsa, and rum jump to mind, with world class athletes not far behind. But that’s amateur hour; after a little more experience and exposure, outsiders (and all non-Cubans are considered so at some time, to some degree) will appreciate less commercial, but equally celebrated traits like Cubans’ sense of humor and solidarity and their art for artifice.

Those who walk the walk and talk the talk know there’s another especially Cuban art and craft – that of come-on lines, known in local lingo as piropos. Whispered your way as you walk by or shouted from a bustling corner, every pretty, average, and ‘butter face’ Cubana has received her share of flowers from the mouths of appreciative men.

If you cook like you walk, I’ll scrape the bottom of your pan,” (note 1) is probably the country’s most popular piropo and anyone with a little swing to their hips has heard it. And while the sentiment sets the imagination awhirl, not a few foreign women have complained to me about how this and other come-on lines tossed their way. In short, they find them offensive.

My friend Juan Carlos argued famously on this precise point with a US feminist poet of note while she was living in Cuba. At that time, she was (and probably still is) vehement in her position that piropos are an affront to women. She’s not alone: similar views were shared here when I mentioned the piropos I receive as I ride this city’s streets on my beloved new bike (see note 2).

To be clear, I’m not talking about groseros – rude, crude lines reinforcing a patriarchal power structure. These are something else entirely and should be rebuked as so. Nor am I referring to the ubiquitous tssssss, tssssss, tssssss that’s used to catch the attention of women countrywide (and which I’m terrified I’ll let slip while beckoning a New York City waitress resulting in bodily harm). No, what I’m concerned with here are those delightfully cunning lines which show appreciation for the female form; I, like my friend Juan Carlos, don’t see the problem.

By way of disclaimer: I was raised by a feminist (by nature, not indoctrination) and I pride myself on being a non-biased, all-inclusive kind of gal who doesn’t give a damn about the color of your skin, to what gender you ascribe, before which god you kneel, or who you choose to screw. Everyone is equal in my heart and mind (until they prove otherwise through moral/ethical digressions). But since so many foreign women have complained to me about piropos, I have to wonder: am I missing something?

And further: what of my impulse to toss out my own piropos to some delicious specimen – a mangón of such magnitude I can’t let him pass without voicing appreciation? Does that make me a failed feminist or a femachista – a term coined by my friend Rigo for those women who talk a good feminist game but reinforce the machismo that is so rampant and damaging here?

After ten years living and working in this wild, incomparable place, I think not. In fact, I’m increasingly convinced that the well-crafted come-on line does no harm. In essence, good piropos are funny, imaginative fare designed to make the recipient pause long enough to laugh; and laughter, along with a sharp mind, is the best aphrodisiac I’ve found – two characteristics which the best piropos embody. This struck me squarely the other day when a guy said to me: “your name must be Alice because looking at you sends me to Wonderland.” I laughed out loud and responded: “good one, brother!” And he laughed too.

I have to ask, then: two strangers laughing out loud at a line cleverly crafted. What’s so wrong with that?

Many foreigners don’t always get this. Furthermore, their attempts at piropos usually pale in comparison. To wit, my old friend Mountain was infamous for cooing “oh to be a bicycle seat” to any pretty girl who rode by.

But to every rule, there’s an exception, like the handsome Swiss stranger who leaned in to tell me: “you must be from heaven, because you have the scapula of an angel.”

Personally, I say ¡! to piropos cubanos.

Notes

1. “Si cocinas como caminas, me comiera hasta la raspa’ sounds a lot better in Spanish.

2. Curiously, the quantity and quality of piropos I get while on two wheels differ considerably from those I get on two feet.

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46 Comments

Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, Expat life, Living Abroad, Relationships

46 responses to “Piropos Cubanos: Sí or No?

  1. Luna

    Piropos-No! In general, its sexist, misogynistic, demeaning, and it makes me feel horrible walking down the street. Plus, most of them are lame.

    Confession- I’m a butterface. But hey, we are people too! Just cause I ain’t pretty don’t mean I don’t have any value. I’m a nice person, smart, interesting, funny, talented. But the piropos remind me how I’m basically valued for my looks–which means I don’t have much value. In other words, piropos are demeaning.

    Sure.some piropos make you laugh, but what about when you are walking with a friend, and she gets all the piropos. I’m reminded that I’m the ugly one, and my friend, if she is a nice person, probably feels bad that her friend is being “dissed,” and made to feel like shit. And if she is not so nice, she feels she won the beauty contest–she is the pretty one.

    Why, as women, do we have to be subjected to this value system?

    And the piropos are not always so funny. For example, a woman with some “junk in the trunk” doesn’t need to be reminded of this whenever she walks down the street.

    Men don’t have to be subjected to such comments about their physical appearance. Men are not valued mostly for their looks. Its their character that counts; who they are as people. I wish the same standard applied to women.

    Piropos no!

    • Hey Luna. Thanks for shedding light on the subject. I hear you, but men? character? If men were valued for their character we’d have better leaders/lovers/fathers/brothers.

      If you don’t buy into the value system you feel is reinforced by piropos (and Im not sure I disagree with you, its just that it’s VERY early here in HAvana and I haven’t had enough coffee) – why do they upset you so?

      And the experiences you share: are you referring specifically to experiences in Cuba? There is a completely different standard of beauty here. I know bc it doesn’t really matter what you look like here: you get piropos.

      Gracias for sharing!

      • Luna

        Connor,

        I live in New York, and have traveled many times to Cuba.

        It doesn’t matter what you look like, you still get piorpos because the piropos are not really about the women– its about the men doing the piropos. They feel more “manly” when they throw out the piropos. It’s a form of machismo. That is also why you were not able to find piropos that work either. Its irrelevent whether the piropos work. Thats not the point. The piropos are self-affirming for the men– and objectifying for the women.

      • But what about us women who throw piropos at men (or other women, as the case may be)?

        About objectification: I didn’t feel that way at all with the Alice in Wonderland comment….

    • Quepasa

      I would go so far as to say that if you, as a woman, do not find most piropos funny or gracious, ..then Cuba is not a place for you.

      Claro que si !!

      • I agree. And it’s true: this place isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. You might be surprised how many travelers hate it here and say they’ll never come back….

  2. Interesting. I’m a down-to-earth Dutch person and certainly didn’t grow up with anything like piropos in my home country. However, having lived in a number of countries around the world, I’ve learned it’s best – and more fun – to accept these types of “innocent” cultural differences with humor and not take yourself and your feminitiy too seriously. An insult is only an insult if it is intended as such. Clearly, piropos are not.

    • good point about the intentions of the piropo-giver. And here, it’s usually just that: a little fun and games to pass the time waiting for the bus, your paycheck, a dream to come true. I don’t even think guys toss out piropos with any hope of scoring w the woman in question

      As I was “researching” this post, a friend I asked about piropos said: are you looking for the most famous, recent, or what? And I said: Im interested in piropos that WORK. None of his made it into this post, which goes to show….

      thanks for chiming in!

    • Luna

      I don’t find that machismo is an “innocent cultural difference.” There is something ugly underlying the “innocent” light banter.

      • Agreed: you’ll note in the post, I say machismo is: “rampant and damaging

        Where did you get the innocent cultural difference reference? certainly not from me who has worked many years with folks at CENESEX, the Martin Luther King Center and published on machismo and its ill effects.

      • Luna

        Connor,

        I was responding to Miss Footloose statement, “More fun to accept these innocent cultural differences.”

  3. I vote Sí. If you’re having a down day in Cuba take a walk – soak up the piropos for what they are – a way to flirt and engage you with laughter. Before long you’ll find yourself wiggling your butt even more to encourage it. I know I’ve done it. Sharp observation as always Conner, though I suspect this may lead to a heated debate!

    • Which brings up another good point (already Im loving this eye-opening discussion): when a woman who has spent lengths of time here – and this is particularly true for cubanas who emigrate – they start to feel the lack of piropos. Some even feel it affects their self-esteem, which is somehow tied into to what commenter Luna was saying (but it’s still too early/pre coffee for me to do any worthy analysis!)

  4. Words of all kind enliven this house, against the silence. I let (I “let”) my kids–who are in the midst of being the developing good citizens and unique contributing individuals they universally and particularly are–say whatever’s on their minds (naturally they learn words may provoke a response; but they are “only words”–even though the absence of words is a power that kills). Is our rap more offensive than the legal stricture of court decreed life-sentencing verse? Are the rhythms and melodies of our non-violent improvs (although writ with a fist it is not a fist) more hurtful than unequal pay, discrimination, wars? Maybe a feminist poet we love would say the inequality is linked to communal and cultural “call and response.” I wonder where “human being” and “being hurtful” meet. What bothers me is insincerity, a rhetoric we (“We”) sometimes too often accept from politicians, poorly witted mouthy morning radio djs pranking listeners, corporate ads that *mean* to suck you in & spit you out, ardent unbending fundamentalist moralistic dogma–narrowing conversation to only their point of view. (Are you leading us on or do you mean it from the bottom of your mortal pan?) I want more words, not fewer. But I will embrace those who use words to liberate themselves from demons or hang-ups that otherwise keep them down, disenfranchised. There’s too much we live to see to deny our mouths the music that makes us want to dance. Viva, brothers and sisters, both and all. Dance.

    • The Poet Peter Money opines. Eloquently. Not surprising.

      Dancing, indeed. More words? WORD!! More actions doing justice to words (not rhetoric).

      As genius musician Jenny Scheinman says: “don’t let the ‘ism’ get in the way of the ‘is.'”

  5. Montreal

    Hi Conner,

    While I personally don’t engage in the practice, I don’t find anything wrong or reprehensible at it’s core. As a rule of thumb, I go with it’s fair game if it ain’t lame, and I would think that most people who get the essence of the piropos cubanos would agree.

    P.S. I think that “the ubiquitous tssssss, tssssss, tssssss” you mentioned in this post definitely could have gotten some screen time a couple posts ago in that ‘top 6 annoying habits‘ write up.. keep up the good work!

  6. viajerauk

    I vote sí, sí, a thousand times sííííííííííííí….
    because piropos can be directed at either gender
    because they demonstrate the inventor’s wit and brain as well as complimenting the recipient’s body/face/gait
    because they break the ice between strangers
    because they’re often hysterically funny
    because they lie in that beautiful cuban sweet spot between choruses, catchphrases, jokes, poetry and conversation
    because they’re a lot less threatening than many (most?) other forms of street interaction between men and women
    because they can turn into brilliant repartee if the receiver has the quick mind and tongue to respond in kind
    because, while they’re often stereotypical and second-hand, they are leagues ahead of anglo-style ‘pickup lines’ in inventiveness and range of mood

    There are ground rules though, in my opinion:
    – it’s a one-on-one exercise. A massive group of guys pitching a tsunami of piropos at one single passing woman are NOT making her feel comfortable.
    – direct reference to genitalia are RIGHT OUT.
    – it’s verbal, not physical (and accepting the piropo is NOT an invitation to take things to the next level right there).
    – it is NEVER EVER EVER acceptable to follow up an ignored piropo by verbally abusing the ‘stuck up’ woman who doesn’t want to acknowledge it.

    I don’t dispute either that there’s a hell of a lot of brutish machismo out there (see CafeFuerte today for an absolutely horrific tale of domestic violence and inadequate official response), but I honestly don’t see piropos as a building block in gender oppression. i just don’t.

    • Thoughtful, informed opinion (as always) by ViajeraUK; thanks for stopping by and commenting.

      Can you provide link for the CafeFuerte piece and I’ll post? Too slow internet over here as you know!

    • Thoughtful, informed opinion (as always) by ViajeraUK. I agree wholeheartedly with the piropo “dos and don’ts.” Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

      Can you provide link for the CafeFuerte piece and I’ll post? Too slow internet over here as you know!

  7. Gabriel Grenot

    good morning Connergo: Buen comienzo para mi jornada laboral in San Francisco . Read something so good about Cuba , something i miss so much and I don’t see as a malicious intention at all . I read the comment of Luna too and i agree and disagree with something she say .Yes it’s not fun at all when you walking with your friend and she is the one getting all the piropos but i will not blame the the Cultural of piropo for that or the girl who receiving it . in fact there is no one to be blame, your friend is just the inspiration for a good poetic complement and tomorrow could be you . or you are the one who really thinks she should feel bad because some body is attracted to her .Another thing, in Cuba men gets piropos too for their appearance , walk even when they give a good piropos or a funny ones . Like if a beautiful nurse pass by and man say
    quisiera tener un dolor para que me atendieras
    and the girl respond
    tiene que ser uno bien fuerte por que soy comadrona .
    A good appreciation for the beauty of a human body it’s healthy .
    piropos yes

    • hahaha! yes, that’s not bad! For those who don’t read spanish, it goes like this:

      him (to beautiful nurse): Im wishing for pain so you can treat me

      beautiful nurse: You better be pretty strong then, because Im a midwife….

      Also note (as I do in the post): piropos cut both ways – women throw them to men too.

      Any gay or bi folks out there have opinions on piropos? Im wondering if sexual orientation plays into this scheme at all.

      • Gabriel Grenot

        of course, even gay people have the way in this cultural phenomenon. My brother Antonio(tony ) he was the best complementing with piropo to men that obviously were gay. by the way i miss him too

      • I know piropos exist in all worlds, regardless of orientation. What Im curious about is: 1) does the substance vary in the queer world? and 2) how do self-identified LGBT folks feel about piropos…..

  8. Sí! Cuba wouldn’t be the same without them. I can’t see the harm. When I took my mum to Cuba she even got a few compliments along the way. It doesn’t matter what I look like, I always feel good and alive in Cuba. It’s not worth taking them so personal or so seriously. Life is short, have a good laugh and enjoy it while you can!

    • Thanks for writing in Rena. Not everyone agrees as you can see, but I do think Viajera UKs point by point ground rules are spot on (see comment below).

      Cheers!

  9. Luna

    Am I the lone no? I feel so lonely and sad in my feminism.

    • Luna: Im sure you’re not (to wit: the comment on my bike post about not liking piropos). But maybe folks just haven’t felt moved to comment….

  10. It doesn’t bother me here in Mexico. I’m a feminist but I know that I’m perfectly capable of looking a gorgeous man up and down and whispering a word or two or wolf whistling so I should expect it back.

    I find it flattering. I mean, I know that what they’re whistling at or throwing lines out at is the white Western girl walking down the street – not necessarily the most attractive woman in the world.

    But it doesn’t offend me. It does me no harm and it can make me feel good about myself on a crappy day.

    What I can’t stand … what I seriously can not tolerate to high hell … is the staring. If I can feel someone on the metro is staring at me and I look at them and they look away, that’s fine. What bothers me are those men who continue to stare straight at me, they lear and … ergh! It just really gets to me so much. It comes off as creepy and disgusting.

    • I agree that starers ARE creepy. This doesn’t seem to happen much here, I’ve found. Fierce chicks giving you the stare down? happens ALL the time. But guys? Not so much.

      Thanks for stopping in.

      • Well staring is a totally different thing. Staring the way you are talking about is about power. Men showing women with their stare that “I can do what ever I want with you”. But piropos – just a way to celebrate the difference between men and women (or between gay people) and the attraction that can happen. That has nothing to do with unequallity. Here comes an example that I still remember from Greece: me and my cousin were driving a car when a man stepped infront (we were driving very slowly) shouting to us: I wouldn’t mind being hit and killed by you. I’d go to heaven being a happy man. How could we not laugh? How could we not love him? I can still se him in front of me after all these years!!!!

  11. Very interesting topic. Piropos are everywhere in Puerto Rico as well. The most popular one here is similar: “Si cocinas como caminas, me como hasta el pegao”. My biggest issue is, coming from a place where piropos aren’t very common, I feel awkward and don’t know how to respond or react. Most of the time they just make me laugh or smile, but am I expected to say “thank you”? Is it rude to ignore it or not continue a conversation if in a public place such as a café or bar? I guess I haven’t been here long enough to understand how it works yet. I’m completamente de acuerdo with the rules by viajerauk as well. I’d like to add to the list that they loose their desired effect (whatever that may be) when they’re said to everything with two legs that’s walking by!

    • Hola Ashlee

      PR and Cuba have A LOT in common (lastima that revolution isn’t one of them)…..

      I don’t know about where you are, but over here, we’re under no obligation to respond. Rude? Now THERE’S a foreign/different concept for most Cubans. Laughter is a great response, though!

    • Quepasa

      I do not think that you/we ( foreigners) are expected to respond that much , …as long as it doesn’t comes naturally . No response, a smile, a laugh, or a “hola” is just good enough. ..That is if the piropo is a nice one, of course 😉

    • Gabriel Grenot

      Ashlee i see the thing concern you about (piropos) is when they’re said to everything with two legs that’s walking by. but Luna in the other hand is concern that it can make her feel bad if a friend gets all the (piropos). the reality is . Piropos are for everyone and everyone should feel good for the people who gets it. Human are beautiful period .

  12. viajeraUK

    Here is the link to the CafeFuerte report I mentioned earlier:
    http://cafefuerte.com/cuba/noticias-de-cuba/sociedad/1734-madre-cubana-aguarda-por-sentencia-del-hombre-que-la-mutilo-a-machetazos?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+cafefuerte+%28Caf%C3%A9+Fuerte%29&utm_content=Google+Reader

    You shouldn’t even click through to it if you are squamish or easily upset. Basically it is the story of a woman seriously attacked and left partially disabled by a jealous ex; the horrifying part is not so much what he did (though that’s bad enough) but the terribly slow official response – victim is still waiting for a verdict for the attacker and a prosthesis for herself – and the stunning lack of sympathy/backup from the victim’s employers … though maybe if you work for MININT you have to be prepared for them not being the most cuddly and supportive of bosses.

    • I haven’t read the article (I will, eventually) but crimes of passion, including murder, are pretty common here.

      I would hope that MININT would be more on the ball than the rest. Sad, sad, sad. thanks for posting

  13. dany

    As a cuban woman not living in Cuba, I miss the piropos, the clean ones that is. We say that if you go out and you don’t get one piropo, then go back and change your clothes, something is wrong!
    All in all, is light banter, a match of wits for the most part.

  14. I’m a mid-20’s straight female who grew up in small town Ontario, where teenage girls usually get honked at a few times per day by teenage boys who drive by, blaring Nickelback in their parent’s pickup trucks. The girls are supposed to give the guys the finger in response, in a ‘you could never touch this, but thanks for noticing’ kind of way. When I moved to a bigger city in my early 20’s I never noticed the absence of this honking… until several years later when I was back in my small town, out for a walk… and I got HONKED at. And I loved it.

    When I visited Havana I definitely experienced some piropos, but rarely understood what was said. Usually I was on my bike, riding behind my boyfriend. I loved giving the heckler a little wink, the oblivious boyfriend riding ahead. A secret between two strangers in a moment that instantly dissolves.

    And yes, I am acutely aware of the gender/machismo issues at play here. I feel for Luna because I’ve been there. Walking alongside the busty blonde and you just know that they weren’t talking about YOUR ass. I think it doesn’t bother me because I have a unique brand of feminism (as do most feminists) that seems to shift around a lot and not have many black and white rules within it. Where I am, friends I meet, everything affects my views of what being a feminist means to me. It’s about personal comfort. If you feel degraded by the piropos, holler back and tell them to shut their immature mouths! And if you don’t mind them, play along and have fun. No right or wrong.

    So I guess what I’m wondering right now is why I actually enjoy piropos, heckles and honks. I’ve never really thought about it before. Sure, it’s a bit of a self-esteem booster… but maybe it’s about connection and community. And maybe that’s why I love Havana so much. It’s not a city full of strangers who don’t make eye contact with each other and who only write Missed Connections on Craigslist when they see an attractive person in public. Cubans see each other and notice each other and communicate. Even if that communication is bizarre and maybe controversial and has machismo implications, at least it’s there. It’s in the present and it’s real. It turns a big, lonely city into a small town where people recognize your behind from a block away.

    • thanks for joining the discussion – getting people to think about stuff they hadnt previously is a great joy for a writer and I thank you for letting me know.

  15. Sarah

    Piropos si! I just took my first trip to Cuba and definitely noticed that out of all the places I’ve been in Latin America and elsewhere in the world (except maybe NYC and anywhere men are approaching black-out drunk) this is the only place where I’ve gotten any attention on the street. So I enjoyed the novelty of it, certainly! Then again, I didn’t understand what they were saying except “linda” so I might have felt differently if their piropos translated to something like “I’d like to put a bag over your head and hump your brains out”. I can kind of understand why women would be offended, but if these piropos aren’t holding you back in the workplace or making you fear for your safety, then why not just smile, laugh, and keep walking.

    Speaking of flattery: I just love your blog. It’s as informative as it is amusing, and it’s nice to have another perspective on such an interesting place. I also enjoy reading the comments from your readers which are enlightening (and sometimes embarassing). I really wanted to return to Cuba ASAP, but your blog about snot rockets and public pimple popping (thankfully, I did not witness this firsthand) may have quelled my desire, so thanks for saving me a few thousand dollars.

    • Hey Sarah

      As you can tell: I also think (most) piropos here are harmless fun.

      And thanks for your kind words on Here is Havana – feedback like yours helps me keep plugging away. Happy to have saved you thousands of dollars; Im now accepting donations! (just kidding…sort of)

  16. Lilly

    I don’t mind piropos if they are funny or flattering,but I can’t stand those ones that are rude and offensive,our dance school goes annually to Cuba and most ,if not all the girls in the group don’t speak or understand Spanish so they put up with rude piropos,but I can’t keep my mouth shut and I always respond in kind,the “perpetrators “don’t expect me to answer back and they remain gobs-smacked when I do,like the time one of them in a group hanging around Calle 23 said to me: TE LA METERIA DONDE NO TE LA HA METIDO NADIE!! To that I answered: METEMELA EN EL BOLSO ENTONCE!

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