The Cuban “piropo” or compliment was inherited from Spanish nobility and gallantry. Expression of some sexist codes in which in normal practice men were always supposed to take the initiative, in its origins this cultural practice sought to denote the beauty of a woman to continue insisting in case the gesture was reciprocated. There are multiple types of compliments according to tradition: poetic, culinary, humorous…some have lost their motivation; others survive, although without their past effectiveness.
The humorous ones classified among the most effective due to their articulation with the national idiosyncrasy and the ease with which they unleashed a smile that acted as a bridge and allowed taking the intersexual relationship to a higher level, beyond the casual. That’s what my grandfather did on a Casablanca boat to the woman who would later be his wife for more than 40 years, and which I won’t tell now for lack of space.
Their main guarantee was located in the domains of an elliptical sexuality, as developed by the popular vernacular songs of the first decades of the 20th century with refrains such as “Put your hand here, Macorina” or “If you ask me for the fish, I’ll give it to you”: everyone knew what they referred to, but they were not nominalized directly, a reason for their originality and functionality.
Norman Mailer once wrote that the most effective sexuality was one that was not verbalized or displayed in a stark manner. The Marilyn Monroe of the final scene of Some Like It Hot, the well-known Billi Wilder film with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis as transvestites, worked so well just because one of the secrets of his sexual symbol status was to suggest, not show.
But the Cuban crisis, which invades everything, has contaminated this practice with the most rampant rudeness, so that ellipsis and poetry have been displaced by vulgarity and coarse language.
That is why, in good faith, many women today consider catcalls as an expression of sexual assault, not only because of the verbal aggression they imply on their own, but also because they are often accompanied by a whole gesture that goes directly to the bottom part of the male body and with a level of lasciviousness that seems to exceed any civilizing contention.
That vulgarity spreads like a cat over all the social fabric, where the so-called swearwords have lost their historical (and effective) use to become simple interjections or lexicalizations of bad taste.
At the beginning of the last century, an artist of the European avant-garde had scandalized the public by placing a urinal in an exhibition, which meant, among other things, granting aesthetic value to the place of excrescence; later a French poet of Romanian origin called Tristan Tzara put a young woman dressed in white to recite obscene words in a social gathering, scandalizing the spectators.
But in Cuba this way of impressing has been widely overtaken by plain reality: in the streets adults, young people, adolescents and children, of both sexes, use the word penis and testicles. A level of everydayness that scares even the least conservative.
In Cuban culture, the first documented compliment was a song sung in front of a window in the eastern part of the country, back in the 1850s. Comparing a young woman from Bayamo with a shining sun, the tune initiated a long-standing troubadour practice in which women constituted the center, seen as beauty, perversity or fatality, but always respected as a human being:
Do you not remember, gentle woman from Bayamo
That you were my shining and bright sun
And on your languid forehead
I placed a soft kiss with ardor.
Do you not remember that on a happy day
I was ecstatic with your sheer beauty
And in your bosom I bent my head
Dying of joy and love.
The Dictionary of the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language defines “piropo” as a “red center punch used in jewelry,” which clearly refers to its pristine metaphoric-sexual value. Perhaps the exacerbation of this color is today its death sentence, burned not only by the hot sun of the Tropics, but above all by an expansive wave that is like a smelly oil spill over the sea.