I walk three blocks to a bus stop. Wait. Climb onto the 59 bus. Wait. Dismount at 9 de Julio and La Avenida de Mayo. Walk three blocks straight and two to the right. Take the elevator to piso 3, and I’m at work.
This morning was different.
That is, it was the same until the “walk three blocks straight and two to the right” bit. Disembarking from the trusty 59, I heard drum beats. Loud ones. I made to cross the street and found my progress impeeded by a tide of people.
Daily construction takes place on 9 de Julio — the city government is installing new subte stations every few blocks. This morning the hundreds of workers involved in the project had abandoned their posts. Dressed in scuffed boots, navy work suits, hardhats, and neon orange vests, wave upon wave of them marched with flags and banners down the street, forming a human roadblock.
The only way forward was through, and I knew what that meant. Shoulders hunched, headphones in, I plunged into their midst, moving perpendicular to them at as fast a pace as possible.
Ingrid Michaelson’s latest album wasn’t enough to block out the shouts. “Hola chica, que bonita, que linda…” they called. “¡Un beso, rubia!” “Oh, que frío esta mujer, mira!” From the shy ones, a simple “Hola, buendía.” Some wolf whistled. Others leered as their eyes raked me over. Each one had something to say.
I threaded my way through them, fighting tears.
Catcalls in Buenos Aires aren’t a novelty. Local women are called out often, but the combination of my blonde hair and blue eyes makes me stand out. Foreign, they say. Vulnerable.
In some cases this is an advantage — trying to get a drink at a crowded bar, for example. Usually, though, it invites unwanted attention. I leaned early-on to take public transportation as often as possible. Walking down the street was apparently an indication to the male population of Buenos Aires that I was putting myself out there, asking for their opinions of me.
I wasn’t, and I’m not. Unsolicited “compliments” (if you can call them that) aren’t flattering. I do not owe these men my time, approval or conversation. I was having a lovely morning — made banana pancakes and was running ahead of schedule — until, without warning, I was reduced to a piece of meat.
Because that’s what it feels like. Being dissected by these men, drawing their attention because of my sex and my coloring, is demeaning. This morning, it reduced me to tears.
I can’t help but wonder, in a country with a female president, how street harassment can still be so deeply engrained in the culture. Without a doubt it’s seen as acceptable — a rite of passage, even. And maybe these men mean no harm. It may even be that they’re sincere in their misguided compliments. Even so, they have no idea how it feels to be on the receiving end. A lack of education is to blame, as much as any cultural norm.
On my way home from work four hours later they were still there, camped out along 9 de Julio. They beat the drum in shifts and took turns buying sandwiches and cokes.
I fought through them again, this time with Eminem. His acrid lyrics, cranked up to maximum volume, kept the worst at bay, but the occasional whistle broke through. “¡Déjame in paz!” I wanted to scream at them.
Instead I jammed the headphones further into my skull and quickened my pace. Far from a permanent solution, but it got me home.