NYC Teacher Caught Up in Spanish Curse Debate

Cristian Salazar, Houston Chronicle, November 29, 2010

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 1983’s “Scarface.”

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,” (COHN’-yoh) can be offensive. But that sometimes depends on how it’s used and which ethnic group is using it.

Its 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.

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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.

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Feliciano Gonzalez, 47, selling produce outside at a nearby farmers market, said he didn’t think that a teacher saying the word in class merited punishment. “In my country, Mexico, it’s not a bad word,” he said, adding that he might use it if he were accidentally hurt, like in the phrase, “Ay, cono me di.”

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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.

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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.

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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,” Martin F. Scheinman wrote in his decision. “Rather, as with any idiom, the meaning must be determined from the context in which the word is used.”

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

For instance, “Cojones,” (coh-HOHN’-ehs) 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.

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