When I was fourteen, I went to Mexico City on a high school Spanish trip. Our teacher who was born in Mexico told us what to expect. Her advice to the boys was, no pink shirts, or people will think you’re gay and gays aren’t accepted. I sputtered in disbelief when she said that. I think she meant to protect they guys from unpleasant attention with a simple wardrobe choice. However, it sounds quite narrow minded. At that time, gays in Mexico City were forcibly in the closet. This millennia South of the Border a rainbow of men’s shirt colors is tolerated and gay Mexicans are more open about their orientation.
The Señora’s advice to the girls was to ignore the boys giving you compliments on the street, because if you encourage them, they’ll follow you home. I thought she was being dramatic. But the roles were as she reported, where men pursue and ladies feign indifference. Latin culture can be more conservative, largely because of the influence of the Catholic Church. In our Southern neighbors, society often changes more slowly in areas of gender roles and relationships.
Turns out guys toss compliments (piropos) to women on the streets of Mexico City often. I walked down the sidewalk with my Mexican host sister and boys would run after me yelling, “Rubia, rubia!” “Blonde, blonde!” I have brown hair, but it seemed golden to boys with jet-black hair. I’d start giggling and my host sister would remind me not to react. To keep a straight face, I had to bite my lip the first times it happened.
That week I practiced keeping my eyes to the front and walking on like no one was speaking at all when a man called out a piropo. The idea that I was not required to acknowledge his presence was a revolutionary one for me. A social contract exists in all the countries I have visited; only those to whom we pay attention have power over us. This came in handy traveling alone in Europe six years later.
Once, I didn’t follow the advice in Spain and it led to an unpleasant afternoon. I sat upon rocks with my suitcase near the Mediterranean shore in Málaga, watching the waves. I saw a man approach out of the corner of my eye. El Señor saw me and a light bulb turned on above his head. I believe the idea may have been $$$. He said, “Hola,” and I ignored him. El Señor asked in Spanish if I minded if he sat on a rock near me. I stared at the sea in silence. He exhaled sharply and told me I was rude. That got me. I told him I was not rude, I was simply enjoying time to myself.
“Hah! You do speak Spanish!” he said. I had the sinking feeling I’d given away the game. El Señor asked my name, told me I was beautiful and offered to be my tour guide. I said I didn’t have time to sightsee because the tour bus was about to pick me up. He took me to an artisan booth and said he’d love to buy me a pair of earrings, but he had just been laid off. Then, el Señor asked me to stay with him and stuck to me like glue. He begged for me to abandon my study abroad program and remain in Málaga with him, his voice rising and sharpening. My ride was late. I’ve never been so glad to see a bus as I was the tour coach that arrived seventy-five minutes later. I told my Chilean friend my problems with El Señor, and she said the obvious, “Why did you talk to him in the first place?”