Judge: Candidate's grasp of English is too poor for her to run for office
Alejandrina Cabrera answers questions about her ability to speak English in Yuma County Court.
January 26th, 2012
12:05 PM ET

Judge: Candidate's grasp of English is too poor for her to run for office

When Alejandrina Cabrera speaks English, it doesn't quite roll off of her tongue the way it does when she speaks in her native Spanish.

Instead of the confident, strong way she speaks in Spanish to the residents of San Luis, Arizona, she speaks a bit more slowly, and perhaps with a bit less conviction, when she switches to English. That's something she admits, but she says that she can communicate at the level she needs to in English, given where she lives.

In San Luis, 87% of residents speak a language other than English in their home and 98.7% are of Hispanic origin, according to 2010 U.S. Census data. After all, most of the people there, by all accounts, will speak in English and in Spanish. In the comfort of communal settings, they'll speak the way they're most comfortable.

“You go to a market, it’s Spanish,” Cabrera told The New York Times. “You go to a doctor, it’s Spanish. When you pay the bills for the lights or water, it’s Spanish.”

So why the focus on Cabrera and her language skills? Because when it comes to politics, it's a whole separate ballgame.

And that's why a major debate about English proficiency has taken the town by storm.

That's because when Cabrera threw her name in the hat to run for city council, Juan Carlos Escamilla, the mayor of San Luis, said he was concerned that she might not have the proper grasp of the language for the job. Escamilla filed a lawsuit in December that asked a court to determine if Cabrera's skills qualified her under state law to run for the council seat.

The fight began as a purely political one, with opponents seeking to block her from running for office after she tried to recall Escamilla from office twice, according to The New York Times. But it has turned into a firestorm in a town where many constituents have the same grasp of English as Cabrera.

The issues at the center of this debate: Just how much English must you understand to run for a political office? And what does it mean to be proficient?

Those questions, and the political fight they stirred, led to a court hearing to determine whether Cabrera had enough of a grasp of English to be able to run for office.

“I speak little English,” she told The New York Times in an interview, in a tone the newspaper described as a "hesitant and heavily accented."

"But my English is fine for San Luis," she said.

On Wednesday, a judge ruled that she didn't qualify to run for office based on her language skills, saying that Cabrera had "only a minimal survival range" in English.

Yuma County Superior Court Judge John Nelson made the ruling after testimony from linguistics experts and Cabrera's own testimony, where she answered questions and read a few documents. Cabrera, a U.S. citizen who graduated from Kofa High School in Yuma, Arizona, was questioned on the stand about where she graduated, where she was born and what her name was. She was able to tell her lawyer her name and where she was born, but struggled with what school she had graduated from, according to the Yuma Sun. After being asked the question three times, without being able to answer in English, the judge allowed Cabrera to leave the witness stand and issued his ruling, the paper reported. Nelson said in his ruling that he wanted to make it clear that he wasn't saying that she had an "intelligence" issue, but it was because of her proficiency that he felt she should be removed from the ballot.

CNN has reached out to Cabrera's attorney and city officials for comment.

In 2006, Arizona passed a law that made English the official language of the state. Earlier, in 1910, Congress passed the Enabling Act, which allowed Arizona to become a state with certain requirements. Among them was one that addressed the English language.

"The ability to read, write, speak, and understand the English language sufficiently well to conduct the duties of the office without aid of an interpreter shall be a necessary qualification for all state officers and members of the state legislature," a section of the act reads.

But Cabrera's lawyers argued in court that her disqualification was truly unfair and may be unconstitutional, seeing as there is not an actual standard for a specific level of proficiency for a council candidate.

It also leaves open many questions about the democratic process, among them: How far can you take the issue of proficiency? Would there be a problem if someone just had too thick of an accent for people to understand? Does it matter if a candidate can speak expertly with most of her constituents, who also may share a similar grasp of a language? And should it be a decision made by the courts, or should the voters be able to choose an elected official who appeals to them most, or choose to vote against her if they feel she can't grasp the language well enough? Should there be a test to determine English language proficiency? Does it matter if most documents and laws in the area are also provided in Spanish for residents to be able to understand?

The issue is part of a growing discussion about the use of English in a land where people are from a variety of places. During a debate this week, GOP presidential candidates said that English should be the official U.S. language and should be the only language taught in schools. That's the stance of Bob Vandevoort, from the advocacy group ProEnglish, who said that if English were a standard in government, it would make the country more cohesive.

"We are concerned as far as government goes, we don't want to see us become a multi-language nation, we want to see a nation that has one language as far as government is concerned," he said, adding that the language people speak at home is a different issue.

But the climate is different in a variety of areas in the U.S., as multiple language and immersion programs pop up all over.

Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, said there should be more opportunities to ensure everyone has the right resources to learn English. He said that in several cities, so many people are trying to learn English, there are extremely long lines to get into classes.

But Vargas says you don't necessarily need to have  full English proficiency to run for office.

"I think it should be up to the voters to decide what kind of representative they want," he said. "I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to not be able, to not allow someone to present themselves to the voters as a candidate because of their language abilities."

"I think it doesn’t serve our democracy well when people are not given all the options that they have."

So what do you think? Was the decision to not allow Cabrera on the ballot the right one? Or should citizens have the final say on who they think is qualified to represent them? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.

soundoff (1,160 Responses)
  1. Dude

    If Arizona wants to continue to be a state, then its elected officials should be able to speak English. Of course, due to the administrative costs of removing the 50th star from the flag, we'll probably have to make Puerto Rico, D.C., or Guam a state.

    January 26, 2012 at 2:06 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Daniel

      My votes for puerto rico. Nice beaches you know?

      January 26, 2012 at 2:17 pm | Report abuse |
  2. art

    This ruling is ridiculous and sets a bad precedent. Only people who quote Shakespeare can run for office or what? America is diverse. Deal with it. Not everybody is linguistically gifted, much like the situation where not everybody is mathematically gifted.

    January 26, 2012 at 2:06 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • BethTX

      This is not a matter of diversity, which is a word used to justify unacceptable behavior of all sorts. It's a matter of an elected official, and presumed professional, being unable to understand a case or get her point across.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Buck

      Quoting Shakespeare? Did you not read the article? She couldn't even clearly say in English where she graduated from which is a very simple thing to do in ANY given language.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • DT

      Not shakespeare, but I hope your mayor can answer the question of which high school he / she graduated from in English.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:17 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Gloria

    I agree with Pam 100%!! This issue makes me fighting mad. If you are going to live in this country then learn to speak the language, and learn to speak it correctly! These people should just pack up their town and move it south of the border if they don't want to speak English!

    January 26, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • basketcase

      There is no such thing as "the language" in the US.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • shootmyownfood

      If you attend an American high school, and graduate, then the problem may be with the school. Are they graduating students with poor English language skills? Are they telling these graduates it's okay to have poor English language skills? If someone attends a school like this, how do you suppose they will develop their language skills? It's apparent that there was no way to improve skills at that high school.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • DT

      FACT: The U.S. has no official language.

      So what is "the language" of which you speak of?

      January 26, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Patricia Gulledge

      Shootmyownfood stated that the problem is probably with the schools if she can't speak or comprehend English proficiently.I am a retired school teacher and our country requires that if English is a second language, then the schools have to have teachers teach the student in their language. This requires the hiring of many specialist teachers to deal with the problems. A student could probably graduate from a high school in the US not having a good background in English because of all the rules and regulations the federal government has put into effect on how to teach these students. It is not the school's fault.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:23 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Cherries

    On one hand, good language skills show education. On the other hand, you have to be able to communicate with your biggest audience.

    January 26, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  5. BethTX

    Then again, this woman can just wait and run in a few more years when the English language has degenerated so completely it doesn't matter who actually speaks or understands it. All she'll have to know is "lol ino rite".

    January 26, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  6. MARYT

    You do absolutely no good to anyone when you don't require proficiency in English. Every other group has had to learn English. And when you don't learn the language, you limit your interactions to the people who speak your particular language. This makes it very difficult to acculturate and be a part of the greater society. To be a full citizen, you need to understand and communicate in a common language. (If you think it's tough to learn English, try coming from an Asian country.) Bilingual education also does a terrible disservice to young, malleable, smart kids who can learn English much more quickly than we give them credit for.

    January 26, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  7. amazed

    How did this woman graduate from an American high school without learning to speak English? How has this been allowed to happen? What is behind the obsession of the left to allow Hispanics to ignore the laws and culture of the land THEY chose to come to? This is just so wrong.

    January 26, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • shootmyownfood

      I would bet all the students at that school have the same problem. Not just the one student.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:16 pm | Report abuse |
  8. American

    So are you people saying that unless an American with a foreign heritage is not fluent in english, he or she should be barred from public office? I just couldn't imagine the scrolls on Lady Liberty saying... give me your weary, give me your tired, give me your huddled masses yearning to be free, except those of you Europeans who don't speak fluent english. People get a f-ing life would you!

    January 26, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • DT

      You don't have to be fluent to be satisfactorily proficient.

      Unfortunately, this candidate is not satisfactorily proficient at the English language. Maybe someone else from that town who's English is proficient enough to answer simple questions should be running for Mayor.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Bubba Gump

    I just knew before reading this story that this was Arizona! Those Klan members out there will do whatever they can to deny the rights of the Hispanics. Half of those inbreds out there can barely read or write English! I say do a test and if you cannot read the English language or cannot spell then you should be deported! How about that?

    January 26, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • glyder

      secession would be a better idea i think.we could break this country into many parts.food for thought.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Report abuse |
  10. AngieR

    I am Hispanic, and a native Arizonian myself, I am proud to say that I speak excellent English. I know very little Spanish because I am NOT MEXICAN. I am an American with hispanic roots. I am an AMERICAN citizen that has served my country and spoke English when I enlisted. I don't fly the Mexican flag, I fly the American flag. What more do I need to say? If you want to speak another language and/or fly another country's flag, then BY ALL MEANS, go and LIVE IN THAT COUNTRY. As a matter of fact, I believe our government provides transportation for you from our tax dollars. It's called DEPORTATION, and it's a one way, paid ticket to your destination country. Call 1-800-LAMIGRA to get your ticket today!

    January 26, 2012 at 2:14 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Pleth

      Angie, you are the perfect example of diversity in this country. The USA welcomes all but English is the native language and the fact that you speak it, embrace it it just awesome. Every ethnic background has a right to carry on its heritage but when it come to matters of the court, then you MUST speak fluent English.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • mpls007

      Many thanks for your service!

      January 26, 2012 at 9:57 pm | Report abuse |
  11. starbright

    This doesn't seem unreasonable at all. Even for the most liberal/progressive minds that want cultures intermingled in this country, it seems ridiculous if she can't communicate in the nation's primary language without an interpreter. That SHOULD disqualify her from political office. I support that law and I support that judge's holding.

    January 26, 2012 at 2:16 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  12. jerry

    Gone is melting pot and assimilate – Now here is take the pot and accommadte?

    January 26, 2012 at 2:17 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  13. CC

    IMO it's common sense to learn English if you live in the US-but the issue isn't whether or not they *should* learn English, it's whether or not they should be *required* to learn English. One thing is about common sense, the other is about freedom to live as you wish, which is what the US is all about. If you don't like freedom then maybe *you* should leave.

    January 26, 2012 at 2:17 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  14. robert

    This is yet another reason why George W. Bush should not have been president.

    January 26, 2012 at 2:17 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Mrs. S

    Ha, don't you feel that your generalization of Southerners is rather presumptuous? After all, if all Southerners were incomprehensible then Nancy Grace would not have a show on HLN; and to my knowledge she is understood by many Americans, or else she would fail to pull in the ratings to keep her show on the air. If you have never been to the South, I invite you to tour our lovely region. Otherwise I will pray for God to bless your poor little heart.

    January 26, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Saturn

      I love the south!!!! I wish we could get Nancy Grace deported though!

      January 26, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Report abuse |
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