I arrived in Santiago de los Caballeros on Jan. 2 along with twenty-four other students from universities all over the U.S.. We were taken to each of our host families. The next day we made our way to the university for the orientation for our program through the Council of International Educational Exchange (CIEE).
I began the program with the vague goal of learning about the culture of the Dominican Republic. Being immersed in the culture has allowed me to learn about it in more nuanced ways than I could have imagined, but the process can be difficult and uncomfortable. As challenging as it has been for me, being cis-male has freed me from significant burdens that my peers on the program have to deal with.
Female-identifying students endure piropos, or catcalling, regularly while studying abroad in the DR. Piropos force students to rethink how they dress and move about in their new home, and consider their racial and ethnic identities in new ways.
Piropos can be translated as “compliments” or “pick-up lines,” and are found in many different forms around Latin America. Johanna Izoteco ’20 from Denison University is a student on the program who came to the Dominican Republic with a curiosity about piropos.
“I kind of looked forward to it because I wanted to see what it is all about,” Izoteco said. “My dad, who is from Mexico, has told me about piropos and their version of piropos. I was looking forward to hearing the different types of piropos. I know it is more of a compliment thing, or it is supposed to be, but I think it has gone too far.”
Mibra Díaz, the Student Life Coordinator of CIEE, tries to warn students about piropos during orientation each semester.
“We explain that a piropo can go from very calm things to very harsh things that are very infuriating,” Díaz said. “What we tell (students) is that, of course, we can not help prevent (piropos), that (students) won’t hear that being said to them. But in case they do, (we tell the students) to ignore them or to not confront them. It happens because of how present the machismo is in the country.”
While it is one thing to be warned about piropos, it is an entirely different thing to experience them. I have seen men lean out of car windows to call to women. I have heard stories of men passing on motorcycles and then turning around to deliver a piropo. I have heard piropos in supermarkets, city taxis and especially while walking down the street.
“When you have to change the way that you are looking because you are trying to avoid a certain reaction is where it is not okay anymore,” Izoteco said. “I want to wear shorts outside. It’s hot, but I can’t because you’re asking for it. If anything happens, ‘oh, because you wore those shorts, you were asking for it. You knew you were going to get that reaction, so why wear the shorts.’”
Izoteco then brought up something that I have heard many times now: wearing certain clothes will elicit more piropos, but there are no clothes that will get rid of piropos entirely.
The prevalence of piropos has also made students less willing to leave the house. Cristina Colón ’22 from Indiana University, another student on the program, believes that piropos have gotten in the way of some learning opportunities.
“I wanted to do Speaking English club but I was like ‘That means I have to leave my house again? No, I don’t want to,’” Colón said. “I cut off that whole experience because it was not worth the stress of going out.”
Izoteco was also frustrated about missing out on experiences in the country more broadly.
“It has held me back a lot from getting to know a beautiful country and learning what is out here,” Izoteco said.
All women receive piropos, but Dominican men often discriminate based on race and nationality. Students on the program are forced to consider their own racial and ethnic identities in different ways.
“It also depends on what ethnicity you are most phenotypically associated with,” Colón said. “Some of us look American, but some of us blend in.”
Colón identifies as Puerto Rican and is often picked out as latina. While talking about a blonde peer on the program, Colón said, “she always gets attacked way heavier and they always focus on her. They don’t pick me out of the group.”
Katrina Clayton ’21 from Hope College has also struggled with the amount of piropos, but she has also found different comforts as a biracial person in the Dominican Republic.
“In the U.S. I am invisible because many of the people who hold power are white, and so my voice doesn’t get heard as much,” Clayton said. “But here, I am invisible because I am like everyone else … It’s so comforting. It’s wonderful. I don’t have to feel like, ‘Oh, is everyone looking at me because my hair is different.’ No. My hair is just like everyone else’s.”
There is no one on the program who feels like they are used to life here. Although we have learned and experienced an immense amount in the month that we have been here, we are nowhere near understanding the nuances of the culture.
“I want you to ask me at the end of the trip to see how I have gotten used to it or my progress because right now, we have been here for a month,” Izateco said. “I have not been going out that much. I want to see if it is because of them (piropos), or because I am so used to the American culture that I realize that it is just a cultural change or something more than that.”