I’m standing with a friend on a street in Old Havana that’s supposed to be two-laned, but feels like half of one. Dogs bark nearby. I catch the sound of their paws and nails sliding over smooth tiles. The sour aroma of degrading trash catches my nose, but the feeling of being here, stuffed in between towering buildings of disappearing facades and criss-crossing wires makes up for it.
We’re talking to three men, each pushing seventy years old. They called us over while we were taking pictures of street art and turquoise shutters. Now, two sit on a bench, another stands near us, and I’ve just confessed I want to be a writer. I made the mistake of saying in Spanish escritora, which doesn’t quite convey I want to be a journalist. That explains why they proclaim “I’ll be the next Hemingway.”
In Cuba, it feels like everyone, including seventy-year-old men I just met, is my friend. The soft smiles and welcoming embraces make me feel like I belong.
Then, they say something like this:
One of the elderly men says I’m like a wild cat, because my eyes are scary. I have bright blue eyes, something that’s routinely noticed in non-Western countries.
He says this not as an insult, but as a comment carrying sexual undertones. I don’t know if I can call it a catcall, because I’m already talking to him when he says it, but that’s what it is.
It’s a catcall. A piropo. A compliment.
That’s something that women, including women tourists, can’t escape.
It’s like some men have a sixth sense for knowing when a woman is around. Lifting their heads from a plate of rice and beans, or turning around between unloading boxes from a truck, they sniff out a woman, and always find a way to compliment her.
Age difference between catcaller and recipient is no factor. Nor is how the recipient thinks she looks that day.
When I lived in Buenos Aires, I would get catcalls, even on my worst days. Once, I walked out of the house in an oversized sweatshirt and greasy hair, and soon heard “Ay, mi reina,” “Oh, my queen,” and I thought out loud “Have you ever even seen a woman?” Trust me, there are better slaves to the patriarchy than me. Compliment them!
As far as I can tell, Cuba isn’t any different.
I’m here on a dance exchange and also celebrating a friend’s birthday. There’s nearly fifteen of us women here. If not our looks, than at least the number of us are why we hear so many proclamations of love and promises of marriage.
At first, it’s funny. I find it’s an easy icebreaker and I use it as a way to ask locals questions and learn more about Cuba.
We hire a driver for the week named Franger. He squeezes us in his antique chevy that reeks so much of gasoline I got a headache. He teaches us important things, like a common piropo where a man explains a girl is so hot, you’d even eat the burnt pieces of the rice at the bottom of the pan (“me como hasta las raspas”).
It sounds better and makes more sense in Spanish.
I ask a neighbor to say ‘la Habana, Cuba’ and he can’t help but also insert a piropo. I will note, he is nearly seventy-five years old.
It’s an accepted part of life that men catcall. One day, I ask a woman, “Do people achieve anything by catcalling? Why do they do it?” She tells me I should be grateful that someone is appreciating me. At least someone thinks I’m beautiful. She also mentions that a lot of relationships, including some in her past, began with a catcall.
It’s like Tinder, but you swipe left or right by walking away or approaching the perpetrator.
For as funny as I think it is, it’s important to remember there is a dark side.
Catcalling is a debate in Latin America. Some shrug it off. They say “it’s just how we are.” Others actively fight against it with creative social media campaigns and protests.
As an outsider, being catcalled is bearable, because this is vacation. It’s temporary, not real life.
But for many women, it is a real threat. In a lot of places, it’s not lighthearted, like I experience in Cuba. It’s called “acoso callejero,” street harassment, and women are tired of being told by some man that he would like to impregnate them. The attention is unwanted, yet some refuse to take women’s requests seriously. The majority of women in Latin America reported experiencing street harassment. Most of those women reported being traumatized by it.
Some countries, like Peru and Chile have moved towards regulations prohibiting it.
But in Cuba, there are no laws against calling, and even worse, less recognition of other offenses against women, such as domestic violence and femicide. In an Univision report, Mónica Baró Sánchez reported that “it’s the existence of a culture tolerant towards violence against women that provokes, to a large extent, each femicide.” Understanding catcalling as the gateway to heinous crimes, then accepting it is permitting those more serious crimes to later occur.
Knowing this, part of me feels guilty for not minding being catcalled.
But, I soon grow tired of catcalling.
Like anything, the novelty wears off and annoyance sets in.
I walk past the Capitolio (capitol) building and blue, green and pink buildings. A man propped next to his vintage car asks me if I need a taxi. I say ‘no, thank you’ but apparently in an Argentine accent. Thinking I was Argentine, he practically drools and in a sexual tone, mentions something about loving Argentine women. I gag.
Later, a man approaches me as I take photos, and gives me an almost three-minute piropo.
If that wasn’t enough, a man tells me a joke about white girls – which I thought was funny – and then kisses me on the lips.
Then, my friends and I visit a market in Vedado searching for souvenirs. The maze of street vendors sell secret boxes, presumably for drugs or other illicit items, shoes, jewelry, and a perplexing collection of goods decorated with U.S. Flag.
Maybe I’m tired, sweaty or hungry, but regardless I’m irritated. Why? Because I can’t scan the vendor’s products without feeling his invasive eyes assessing the curve of my hips and the roundness of my breasts. As I glance at a stall of trinkets, I hear a piropo.
I roll my eyes and walk until I find my friends.
Traveling in Cuba, I never experience one tenth of the harassment I received living in Argentina, or that most women receive on a daily basis. When I did, the catcalls were mostly friendly, welcoming, and often with an air of genuine curiosity.
Standing in Old Havana with the three men, including the one who tells me I’m like a “gata salvaje,” they are already coming up with titles for the hypothetical book I should be writing. Remember, I told them I wanted to be a writer.
After they give me a pep talk, encouraging me to follow my dreams, they come up with the title “Yo estuve en Cuba.” “I was in Cuba.” Then they shake their heads. No, no, no, they say. It should be “Quince dias en Cuba,” “Two weeks in Cuba.”
Most of the time, catcalling is an impermissible microaggression against women, and harassment is a violation of rights. But sometimes, it’s just a group of elderly men sitting on a bench, passing time, and telling you to never give up on your aspirations.
Allison is a devout Latin America enthusiast, who loves a lot of things, but mostly a good cup a tea and loud personalities. You can find her on Twitter: @AllisonBYates and Instagram: @allisonyateswrites