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© 2016 by Katelena Hernandez Cowles. Proudly created with Wix.com

 
 
 
 

PIROPO

Piropo is an itinerant performer who works in the age-old art of Mexican street compliments. Piropo’s exaggerated sausage-roll pompadour, long purple jacket, and pegged pants are a gender-fluid mashup of the female and male Pachucos, or zoot suiters, who built a proud, irreverent Latino sub-culture in Hispanic dance clubs in the 1930s and 40s. Pockets lined with ready-made compliments that Piropo will trade for a dollar, he/she will also, for a larger donation, offer a more personalized array of lascivious assessments.

When I lived in Mexico for a few months as a student, the few American girls I studied with were suckers for the extravagant, poetic, often incredibly specific come-ons we received from the men of our town. Many of my classmates had no defenses against that kind of seduction; even those who rolled their eyes at the attention still bragged about the best metaphors Lotharios had used to describe them. When I asked my male buddies about it in a bar one night, they told me, we study this from the time we are children. To illustrate, a half-dozen men encircled me and began a barrage of piropos that started at the top my head and ended at my feet. By the end I was breathless. I had never seem myself as this creature they described, with glossy hair that begged audibly to be stroked, tapered fingers that played their heartstrings like a guitar, hips that bobbed and swayed like an inviting cool lake on a hot day. Sure, they were trying to get into my pants. But their compliments were doing something very different from the gross, repulsive American catcalls I'd endured in my college years. The net change it had on me was positive, to my surprise, though I didn’t have any trouble turning down their advances.

 

My work as an artist and performer returns again and again to the concept of comfort: who gives it, how is it received, how--and by whom--is it monetized, how it connects to gender and socioeconomics. It was perhaps inevitable that I would turn from studying lullabies and day spas and turn to more intimate, sexual forms of comfort, which it was clear to me piropos could be. One feminist argument says that all piropos, like American and European cat calls and pick-up lines, are unwelcome social correctives that aggressively assert a level of patriarchal superiority and female exclusion; anthropologists make a distinction between the Latin American form as far more complicated, which I would agree with from personal experience.  To me, that event was a moment of self-bolstering, a re-framing of my imperfect, disappointing body in glowing, reverent terms I could take with me as a treasure to cull from when I needed to; while as a feminist I recognized that the objectification I was experiencing also had repercussions in the way those same men could view me as an equal in work, life and politics (or rather, could not), I couldn’t deny the positive effect the moment had on me as an individual. 

 

For me, this is catnip: I cannot resist trying to crystallize and encapsulate a complicated interaction, in the same way the Cubists were driven to capture all sides of an object, and its structure, on one plane.

 

I asked my friends on Facebook to tell me the sexiest compliment  or most memorable catcall they had ever received and I was a little dismayed by the responses. So generic, so miserable. The difference from American catcalls and bar come-ons was that the piropos were not tied to actual demands for or offers for sex; and that the ones I received were so intensely specific to me. How could I capture that spirit? The first work I did in this regard was a piropo poem for a woman celebrating her 70th birthday, someone I had always seen as incredibly alluring, but who didn’t see herself in those terms. With Piropo, I am pulling in the complications of ethnicity, economics, and interpersonal interaction into the mix One element I hope to dissolve somewhat is gender: I cannot be a man, or convincingly portray one, so the macho element of the interaction is neutralized. By making this character more fluid, I hope to project these compliments from place that is vivid visually but more undefined gender-wise. There’s an element of rasquachismo, the Chicano (and EAST tour artist) art of making do with what has to survive, too: what do I have to sell when I don’t have anything? (The irony of that is that the process of giving something that is nothing away has taken months of work and preparation to make possible.)

 

As in all my performances, Piropo is a social experiment: will my advances be wanted? Will people want or be willing to pay for the experience of being objectified in a sexual way? Will people be complimented or insulted? How will men react? Women? How will I react to the process itself? Will it become easier or harder as I create these compliments for more people? In this selfie-obsessed age when self-image is eroding, is there space for choosing to be objectified--by someone in front of you--as a way to increase, rather than decrease, one’s own self-worth?

Piropo is an itinerant performance that is available to be performed in crowded situations, including art openings, festivals, and other forms of gathering. Public or group performances can be arranged by contacting the artist through the contact tag below.

The most extravagant service Piropo offers is a "Ducha de Piropo, or Bath of Compliments. The cost is $200 and up (the extensiveness of the performance is determined by the amount) for a head-to-toe public assessment, which can be arranged as a public or private performance for the recipient.