Who doesn’t like a sincere compliment? “You’re a good cook,” “I like the way you decorated this room,” “Your children are well behaved,” “You are a talented musician,” or any such positive comment have always been a pleasure to hear.

                Piropos are not quite the same and never did sit well with me. One definition of the term says that it is a flattering comment or compliment. Well, yes, it could be. But in Spanish-speaking countries piropos quite often are “unsolicited flirtatious or sexually oriented comments made by a male to a passing female of reproductive age whom he does not know.”

                My first experience with this type of flirting was innocent enough. Upon arriving at the University of Puerto Rico at the age of eighteen to begin my studies, I didn’t know a soul.  One of my sweet female cousins had advised me that if I wanted to make new friends I should be friendly to everyone. So during one of my first ventures out of the boarding house with one of my roommates, I looked up, waved, and said, “Hola,” in response to a greeting that came from a guy on second story balcony. I was admonished in a hushed voice by my walking companion that I should ignore anything that a guy called out to me. I was surprised, and asked why. “Just pretend that you can’t hear him,” was all that she said. That didn’t make any sense to me.

                Over time, however, when I started hearing more elaborate piropos, I understood the advice better, but I never truly accepted it. I wrote about this in my second historical novel, Sebastián. In Chapter 10, Teresa is walking around the plaza with a couple of other young ladies, when a young man on the sidelines let out a whistle and a lazily drawled out, “Hola belleza en el traje azul.” (Hello, beauty in the blue dress.) Teresa lifted her chin and walked resolutely past the offending catcaller, but later on she expressed her frustration about it to Sebastián. “I don’t like that,” she said. “It bothers me that a man can say whatever he wants to me, and I have to pretend that I don’t hear him. He knows that I can hear him. I’m not deaf.”

                Not all piropos are that nice, either. While some gals might not mind them, as a young woman I would have found the following comments unacceptable:

  • ¡Si ser sexy fuese un delito, te pasarías la vida en la carcel! (If being sexy was a crime, you would spend your life in jail!)
  • Si besarse es contagiar gérmenes, ¿qué te parece si empezamos la epidemia? (If kissing serves to spread germs, how would you like it if we start an epidemic?

                Some piropos could get downright raunchy and offensive. I remember when as a third year university student I had to walk to the Río Piedras campus from my apartment in the adjacent town of Hato Rey. The shortest route took me through a side street that had very little foot traffic. There was a young man who was running a cabinetry-making business out of his garage. With the garage door always open every time I passed, I was subjected to his daily comments that progressed from innocent to more daring to inappropriate. My blood would boil as I played hard of hearing time after time.

                Finally, one day, I had had it!

                I made a ninety-degree turn and marched right into his garage. He was so shocked that he nearly dropped the tool that he had in his hand.

                “Do you have a sister?” I demanded.

                “Ye-e-s,” was his stammered reply.

                “Do you have a mother?” I then asked.

                “Yes,” he said.

                “Would you like it if someone made such inappropriate comments to your sister?”


                “How about to your mother?”

                He blanched. “No, I wouldn’t.”

                “Well, I am someone’s sister, and someday I will be someone’s mother, and someday you may have a daughter, and you have to learn to respect other women in the same way that you would like the women in your family to be respected!”

                He apologized and I stormed off. That was the end of the catcalling from this particular young man, although one time some months later he started to say something when I was walking past, and had to bite his tongue halfway through the first word when he realized it was me. Ha ha ha!