NYC Teacher Caught Up In Spanish Curse Debate

NEW YORK (AP) — It can be tossed off almost harmlessly like “damn” or dropped like an F-bomb.

On the streets of New York’s diverse Spanish-speaking neighborhoods, it can be heard expressing joy, frustration and outrage.

Perhaps most notoriously in pop culture, it punctuated the film dialogue of “Scarface” in 1983.

Now a public high school teacher is suing the city after he was suspended and fined $15,000 for what school officials say was misconduct for using it in his Manhattan classroom.

The word, “cono,” can be offensive. But that sometimes depends on how it’s used and which ethnic group is using it.

It’s literal translation refers to the female sexual organs, according to the Royal Spanish Academy in Spain. But the institution charged with regulating the Spanish language says the word also can express “diverse states of emotion, especially surprise or anger.”

The teacher, Carlos Garcia, declined to be interviewed. But his attorney, Sergio Villaverde, said his client didn’t use the word. He also claims the court interpreter mistranslated the term during Garcia’s disciplinary hearings.

“The interpreter didn’t understand the way that the word is used,” Villaverde said.

But Bruce Rosenbaum, a city attorney, said “the hearing officer properly found that Mr. Garcia used inappropriate language in class and that the penalty imposed was warranted.”

New York is home to tens of thousands of immigrants from across Latin America and the Caribbean. One ethnic group’s profanity can be another’s everyday slang.

Among immigrants from the Dominican Republic, where Garcia is from, the word is so widely accepted it became the focus of a popular online video clip.

The chameleonlike nature of the word is exemplified in the video clip posted by Sir Nube Negra called “Speak Fluent Dominican” where the host gives examples of “cono” to express: “Damn, girl, looking fine. Very Nice,” “Stop bothering me!” and “I heard your mother died. I am so sorry.”

In one of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods, Jackson Heights, there was disagreement over the degree to which the word could be considered profane — and whether a teacher should be punished for uttering it in the classroom.

Michael Izquierdo, a Dominican-born worker at a nutritional supplements shop, said that the word can be pronounced when you’re happy, sad or agitated.

“El cono is used for everything,” he said, adding that a teacher could use it to commend a student without it being considered offensive. “It just depends on the tone that you are using with it.”

But Augusto Ayala, a worker at a nearby coin-operated laundry, said the word is considered lewd by Ecuadoreans like him — and best avoided among strangers.

“If you don’t know the person, you can’t use it with him,” said the 42-year-old from Cuenca.

Down the street at a bakery, 85-year-old Dolores Melo said it depends on where the person who speaks it is from.

“For example, in Colombia we’re not accustomed to using it,” said the retiree, who is from Cali but has lived in New York for 40 years.

She had some sympathy for Garcia — but not much.

“For an educated person, that word isn’t right,” she said. “If you’re going to teach children, well, it’s also not good for you to say it.”

Ricardo Otheguy, a professor of linguistics at the City University of New York and founder of a language research institute there, said context, intonation, whether it was fully articulated and the extent to which its use was premeditated would need to be assessed to determine whether its use was objectionable.

Nevertheless, he said the term is an expletive. “I don’t think there is any getting out of that,” he said in an e-mail.

The city’s Department of Education accused the tenured teacher of inappropriately bandying about “cono” in class between 2008 and 2009 at the High School of International Business and Finance in a predominantly Dominican neighborhood.

Garcia’s lawsuit says a hearing officer inappropriately relied on a court interpreter as a witness, and that the regulation of acceptable language in the classroom is vague. “There are no list of words that are prohibited,” he said.

One student testified at a hearing earlier this year that Garcia would use “cono” when the classroom was unruly. Another student, identified as G.T., testified he had heard Garcia drop it at least three times a week.

During cross examination, G.T. said he didn’t “really know” what “cono” meant in English.

“You don’t know what it means?” asked Damon S. Levenstein, an attorney who represented Garcia at the hearing.

“Well, in Dominican Republic, like, people say it all the time, but for other people, like it means something,” G.T. said. “They feel bad when people call them that.”

The hearing officer wasn’t tone-deaf to the word’s mutability, calling it “a Spanish idiomatic expression.”

“As such, its meaning cannot be discerned by looking to a literal translation,” Scheinman wrote in his decision. “Rather, as with any idiom, the meaning must be determined from the context in which the word is used.”

He said there was sufficient evidence to support school officials’ argument that Garcia had “lost composure and engaged in impermissible conduct for an educator.”

“Cono” is not the first word to cause confusion or consternation in the U.S.

For instance, “Cojones,” which literally translates to “testicles,” can be a slang expression for strength or boldness. Volkswagen AG used the expression “Turbo-Cojones” on a series of billboards in 2006, but pulled the campaign in three cities, including New York, after a backlash from Spanish speakers.

Nevertheless, context is key in a multilingual, pan-Hispanic metropolis — though it’s not everything.

“In a setting where people of so many different Latin American origins come together, the norms of what constitutes acceptable language in a classroom, and what constitutes vulgarity or profanity, might perhaps be more relaxed than in the home countries,” Otheguy, the linguist, said. “But it remains true that cono is probably a word to be avoided in the classroom.”

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

  • Punctilious

    Greg… there is a cure for your malady

  • Daniel

    I believe the word is coño… If all he said was cono… then I hope he enjoyed his ice cream!

  • poet

    im so conoed

  • Embolicat

    And, actually, its Andy Garcia’s favorite curse word as he said so being interviewed at Inside the Actor’s Studio.

    He ripped his explanation from another Cuban, the great Alvarez Guedes. But hey…


  • TriQMan

    Here’s an idea, since we here in USA….how abut using English, that way, there is no vagueness in what you’re communicating.

  • Rhiannon

    My tax dollars are being wasted on this? A teacher is in trouble for a common word and yet nothing is done about the foul language spoken by the students?

  • angel

    Hey Greg, you are one of those mindless i wrote about it in my comments.

  • P R

    Greg english isn’t the native language of America ( that’s England)

    • punctilious

      I love your punctiliously well expressed clarification to that specimen’s ignorance.

    • Jose Or Joseph Pascual

      Neither is Spanish the native language of Puerto Rico (that’s Spain)

      • punctilious

        Puerto Rico is its own separate case study… yikes!… only aliens tackle it, as it seems, because no one else is talking about the whole status thing… which leaves a lot of people from the Caribbean confused about language and identity… It’s a mess!

  • angekika

    What about when the students open there mouth to the teacher or the teachers have no rights.Thats why the jails are full.Thats why i’m not a teacher i would have knock one out a long time ago.

  • David

    Is this like a Physics teacher saying “Black Hole” in a classroom with ethnic Russian students?

  • angel

    I’m from Puerto Rico and 72 yrs. old, i’m still using “coño” which i inherited from
    my mother which she inherited from her parents who came from Spain. “coño”
    is an exclamation used when feeling pain, anger, surprice, etc; it is a general word and doesn’t mean anything bad or obscene. It is only used by real Puerto Ricans; the problem is that those blind racists of our present society are pure
    neophites, fake intellectuals who claim to know but in essence are devils in disguise. “there is no intelligent life in this planet, beam me up, please”

  • Rick

    WHat about letting the government play with tax payers money allowing illegal immigrants go to public schools in NYC? Some of these students might become terrorists in the future…full of hatred towards the USA.

    • P R

      Rick what the hell cono has to do with legal or ilegal persons even terrorist
      you paranoid racist fool

    • Jack

      Rick, you’re an idiot

  • Vero

    Does anyone here know the meaning of thisword? You better find it out; it’s not as “innocent” as you claim regarless of the Hispanic country you might be from.

    • Juana

      Oh really? Well why don’t you tell us what it means? We Puerto Ricans
      use the word ALL THE TIME, To us it means “damn”, what does it mean
      to you? Stupid people saying stupid things. To fire a person who has worked
      so hard to become a teach just because he says “damn” is the height of
      stupidity. But really, I think the city should have better things to do. I wonder
      if they would fire a gringo teacher for saying “damn” in the classroom. I think

  • Jerry

    Let’s not get all ethnic. jfk69 is right. A warning would suffice.

  • jfk69

    A math quiz
    IF one damn cost 15k . How much would ten damns cost
    B…The new cost of a metro card
    C…Your job
    D…A free pass out of koo koo land

  • carlos galeano

    what they are showing is lack of LINGUISTIC because that word is even accepted by linguistics and grammarians.CHECK any dictionary.

  • jfk69

    An oral warning would have sufficed.
    Bloombergs city is so hard up for cash they fine him 15k as well. Lets ask Blumberbergs new apointee Ms. Black to give us the benifit of a true managerial decision on this case…..Wait…I’ll have to check with my ASSistant as I have no idea how this works in schools…lol

  • deb

    Do you know how many times i heard teachers in High school saying damn it. This has nothing to do with the word cono. This has everything to do with resentment of a hispanic educated teacher still being in touch with his culture. They do not want this teacher or any teacher speaking Spanish in the classroom. new york City has always been and still is one of the most racist states in the United States.

  • frank

    Cono!! we in P.R. Say it all the time, its like when you hit your head on something. you ay cono its like oh dame. so get over it. kids say much drity words that.

  • lascosasclaras

    It´s not cono, but coño.

    • Embolicat


      And its such a delicious word, coño!!!


  • BC

    If you’re going to report this, you may as well report it properly. The word is ‘coño,’ not ‘cono.’

  • El Vato Loco

    Hasta la chingada punelon!

    Los gringos no saben nada de jerga.

  • a

    cono is not in the english dictionary

    • Embolicat

      Because its a Spanish word.

  • paris400

    Aye Cono!! Carajo.

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