It really started to sink in with the boy, appearing to be all of 11 or 12 years old.
As I approached him on the street in Gracias, Honduras, he made a show of eyeing me. He pursed his lips together as I walked past and made the exaggerated kissing noises I had become so accustomed to hearing.
“Mami,” he called, sneering and looking to his young friend for reaction.
It was my 17th such incident that day — hearing “pssts” and “wows” as I walked to the bank; absorbing “I love yous” as I searched for a place to eat lunch; receiving the hard stares and persistent chatter of professional predators as I walked around, taking photos.
But it was this preteen, years from sprouting his first chin hairs, that really drove home the point.
Here in Honduras, there is no Me Too movement. Feminism is not trendy nor visible. And the piropos (cat calling)? It’s systemic. It’s so engrained in the culture that the habit is picked up by kids who haven’t even learned what it really means.
Already, I was a few months into my education. After experiencing almost no problems in Mexico and especially Guatemala (there are very strict laws protecting women from this type of behavior), things changed in Belize.
Even in places I adored, like Corozal, a simple errand to drop off laundry or procure more cell data became nine straight minutes of almost continuous harassment. I started timing my walks. I started counting the incidents.
I marveled at the pervasiveness and apparent lack of consequence; I was cat-called by police officers, by men in armored trucks, by guards welding machine guns, by men holding their children.
Still, I didn’t want to react or to address it publicly.
I was, especially early on, incredibly hesitant to criticizing anything in Central America. I didn’t want to contribute to the stereotypes about this part of the world; for my critiques somehow, to be received out of proportion to the good I was trying to portray. And I didn’t want to cast the problem as singular this this region, either — as most women know all too well, cat calling is a problem in the U.S. and most parts of the world, too.
(Recently I met a Spanish couple; the boyfriend, not understanding the deep-seeded harm in such solicitations, actually goaded his girlfriend to say ‘thank you’ when she received cat calls, telling her there would be “a problem” when they stopped calling to her on the street.)
But here, I quickly discovered, things were different. Quite different. And, well, I was different here, too.
While the cat calling built, I still clung to the same persona I had long tried to carry through my travels — an excessively friendly attitude I definitely don’t adopt in the States. I smiled warmly and said hello to each person I passed, over-compensating for my whiteness and my foreignness; eager to show everyone I wasn’t the kind of bratty American I was certain they were expecting to encounter.
I acted like this because I was hyper aware of the obvious: that I was a privileged gringa bumbling through their cities and countries. I wanted to be as respectful as possible, as friendly as possible, as eager as possible — and I didn’t really think about how that might be perceived in the cultural context.
I first began to understand that this was the wrong approach when I started to notice that my wide smile and open demeanor were being accepted as invitations.
Once, I was biking past a father picnicking with his kids and he smiled as I approached, so I did too, and shouted “buenos dias!” Suddenly, with a toddler on his lap, the man began gyrating and making sexual noises in my direction.
My stomach sank. It was one of those moments while traveling in which I could feel a little of my innocence start to unravel. Still, it took a few more of those occasions — my enthusiastic greetings met with verbal violations and humiliation — before I realized I needed to change.
So I did.
I put on a stone-cold expression when I walked. I avoided eye contact at all costs. I wore sunglasses like they were a weapon.
Did it affect my other interactions? Absolutely. Suddenly, I didn’t want to respond to anyone who said hello on the street. To fish for intentions was to leave myself vulnerable. I knew it was closing me off to potential goodness, too, but suddenly that didn’t feel like the most important thing.
I didn’t think it could get much worse in Honduras, but it did — mostly because the distance I had previously observed in such interactions was eliminated, with face-to-face conversations suddenly becoming infected. And some of the language got really wild; one night, I heard a group of men orally dissecting me, deciding who would take the right leg and the left.
Even as I wrote this, three men walked by me in the cafe where I was sitting and declared “estas tan sola,” you’re so alone. As often as the cat calls sounded like bad pick up lines, they sounded like threats.
Distressed, I started rolling through new strategies.
They started out simple and pretty generous really — I would lower my sunglasses to let my harasser see my livid glare, later graduating to defiantly announcing “I’m not a dog,” or “I am a human” or just growling “por favor no” (to which I often received “por favor SI” in response).
Eventually, though, I went nuclear. My middle finger was always on call as I walked; I started using both fingers at once; I started exercising all my new Spanish curse words.
The affable white American afraid to be offensive or ruffle any feathers was gone. This felt like war.
To my continued astonishment, both reactions to the anger I showed caught me off guard. In some cases, the men looked stunned, confused even. But almost equally as common was the opposite. The moment I rebuffed them, that I expressed my fury, their assaults escalated. Their performances became more agitated; their words, more violent.
So I started changing my routines. I stopped wearing shorts, though the temperatures soared into the ‘90s during the day. I started going out of my way to different stores if I knew the trek to the closest ones contained mine fields. I peeked both ways out the door before daring to step out into the jungle.
And when someone said hello? I was rigid. Immediately angry, almost. I felt like I had PTSD.
One afternoon, a group of men outside my hotel were offensive enough that the experience compelled me to lie on my bed with white noise piping through my earbuds for hours. When I got up, I started researching organizations in Honduras that provide education about the harm of such machismo culture and work to protect and empower women. In the process, I fell down a wormhole, diving into the evidence that the piropos are just a side effect of a much larger problem: a society that statistically doesn’t value women.
Anecdotes told of women killed for dismissing men, for teasing men, for wearing too few clothes, being out too late at night and having too many drinks.
I recalled a conversation I had in Puerto Cortes, in which my host gave me the local and national emergency numbers to call if I needed them, and informed me “They’ll come quickly. Quicker than if you were Honduran.”
I realized, anew, that my Americanism protected me from the worst of it. But I also realized that despite my intentions, a warm smile, a wave, a ‘buenos dias’ could actually be dangerous. To be too friendly was to be ignorant. It ignored the cultural realities; it set everyone up for confusion; it set me up for onslaught.
There is a passage in a book I’m reading — Suzy Hansen’s Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American world — in which the author understood that her early extreme friendliness confused Turks in Istanbul, disrupted the social and cultural order of things, leaving her vulnerable to harassment.
“These were not,” she wrote, “my rules to break.”
I couldn’t approach the piropos like an American abroad — desperate to engage.
But I couldn’t approach the situation like an American in America either — flipping the bird, confronting. That, too, had proven dangerous if only verbally.
I had to approach it like a Honduran.
I had to wear more clothes. I had to adopt a hardness. I had to ignore. Knowing the balance of power, the lack of accountability for men, I had to censor my own desires to be out, alone, at certain hours.
It should go without saying that this unfortunate reality does not define the country or the region — I hope by now you’ve read, too, about the beauty and the kindness and the astounding culture I’ve experienced here, too.
But this is real. It’s here. It’s a problem. And I’m here now, too. To try to conform the ground rules to my own understanding, to my own inclinations, to refuse to bend with the culture, to adapt, to submit, is ignorant.
These aren’t my rules to break.