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. Lori

    People who migrate to the US should learn English and understand it. If you can't, GO BACK TO WHERE EVER you came from!!! We don't need more illiterates here. This is America!! The only People native to this Country are The American Indian. They had to learn English and understand why couldn't she?? Send her back to mexico with the other "no habla espanol" people. BTW Ivy League men are the Best!!

    January 26, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cristina

      She is a US citizen isn't she??? Did you change your English to a indigenous dialect??? No so why the hate?

      January 26, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Matt

      Are you really that ignorant to say that if you don't know English, that you must be illiterate?

      I'd advise you to check on the definition of literacy.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • Duane

      Cristina- You are right, she is a citizen and does belong here. However I wonder why as a citizen does she have a poor grasp of the very language of the country she is a citizen of?
      She may be capable and smart, but the fact is she needs to be able to communicate to civil and government officials across the nation and that simple fact alone ensures she cannot serve in a leadership capacity.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cyrus

      Observing your grasp of English, I am not sure what to recommend for you. Deportation is not going to work in your case. You will just vulgarize another country. Perhaps 5th grade education would help elevate your IQ a bit. Then again, I am always unjustifiably hopeful.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ron J

      Lori – Learn English. Learn proper punctuations and capitalization moron.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Hildith

      English is not the official language of the US, we have no official language at the federal level. That is a legal reality.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • The Voice of Reason

      Where in this article does it say she's from Mexico? And where does it say she's a naturalized citizen and had to take a test to become a citizen? She's an American citizen and the article does not specifiy the national origin of her family or hwere she was born. Spanish is the official language of at least 21 different nations and is spoken as a native language by more people in this world than ANY OTHER language other than Mandarin. I agree that her life would be easier if she spoke English more fluently. But your response clearly shows your racism, intolerance and ignorance.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Report abuse |
  2. David

    A sad day for democracy. Why don't we just trust the people of San Luis to vote for the best person for them?

    January 26, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Marguerite

      yes and that would be a person who speaks English and is not only cappable of communicating with the spanish population but those in other offices who can help them. if she really cared about her people she would learn better english.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • KevinC

      Proficiency in English is necessary because county contracts, laws, regulations and legal issues are all in English, not Spanish. It is not enough to pander to the community, but a person needs a certain level of competency to run for a government position. Moreover, if she was born here in the U.S. and attended a U.S. school, why is her English so poor?

      January 26, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Kim S

    You need to speak Spanish to attend school, Chinese to get agood job, English if you get arrested, Indian if you need customer assistance on the phone,and Ebonics if you listen to Hip Hop music.

    January 26, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ron J

      You are an idiot. There is no such language called "Indian". People in India speak well over 500 languages including English.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Report abuse |
  4. PR

    If she can't speak English, how in the hell can she represent people who do? Learn to speak the language and then you can run for office. I hate immignrants who do not want to learn our language and continue to speak their native toungue with thier friends. Did the ever wonder why immigrants are so hated? Learn the culture and assimliate other wise get the hell out of here and go home.

    January 26, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Report abuse |
  5. purplerose

    I have been out of High School since 1977 where to Graduate you HAD TO HAVE 4 years of English, 4 years of Math, 2 years of History, 3 years of Science (ROTC counted as science), 1 year of P.E., then the last 2 year points where your choice (Typing, Short-hand, Home-Management, Shop, Study Hall, Sports, or French / Spanish). We had a smoking area on campus. In general, WE SPOKE ENGLISH and there was NO language issuses between Teacher and Student. It has just been in the last 6 years (or so) that I have noticed people having a language issue where I live. Therefor, I strongly believe there should be a constiutional amendment requiring English as our official language. After all, the Constiution of the United States of America was Written in ENGLISH.

    January 26, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Chirs

    It should be up to the voters to decide whether her English is good enough for her to be on the city council. Last time I checked America didn't have an official national language.

    January 26, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • sbast18

      Perhaps she could pursue a political life in Mexico, then. We have enough trouble on our own soil without allowing politics to become mired in language barriers, as well.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Gemini1971

      And that is the problem we have no official language! What you are doing is you are limiting these folks on their own comfort zone. How can you expect an individual to be successful if his or her capability is limited.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • AustinIsFull

      So how will the English speaking citizens know what she is talking about? Just because the majority of that area speaks Spanish only means they are not interested in assimilating to the US customs. If I was to run for office in Mexico...be ya they require I speak spanish very well.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:27 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Cristina

    English is not my first language. All I can say is that I have better writing and grammar skills than many native speakers......I know several native speakers that make horrible spelling errors and confuse you're with your etc..... The use of was instead of were... you get my meaning don't you???

    January 26, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Plexie

      That would be "who make horrible spelling errors". Human beings are not inanimate objects. Please learn English before lecturing others. Oh, and English is not my native language either.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • sbast18

      True. Many of our college graduates can't pray to write a complete sentence without serious spelling and grammatical errors. However, every government requires standards in language to prevent the system from grinding to a halt (they're all slow enough as it is). If Cabrera wishes to run for office, I'm all for it – provided she excel in our language first.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ivan

      When asked three times in English what shool she graduated from she could not answer. Not quite the same as you're versus your.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:17 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Joe Six Pack

    The real question is how did she graduate high school in AZ without being fluent in English?

    January 26, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • sbast18

      Easy: because our educational system is broken. There are no longer any reliable standards and the standards that do exist tend to be very flexible. For example, my brother attended college in Florida. He used to marvel at the professors who would cave to a few whiny students who felt that his tests were unfair. So the professor would allow them to take their tests home to complete overnight. While my example may have no bearing on the quality of Cabrera's education, the fact that her college or university allowed her to complete a degree without becoming proficient in English speaks volumes in and of itself. At any rate, the degree didn't help her out a whole lot in this particular case, did it? She wouldn't be very successful in most parts of the country.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lee

      She probably was instructed in Spanish, so she never needed to learn it. They changed that law now, so only English can be used for instruction, but when she was in high school that law didn't exist so she was probably instructed in Spanish.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Plexie

    Since all legislation is proposed in English it would appear to be a no brainer, except to the mexicans in the US.

    January 26, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Report abuse |
  10. RecentImmigrant

    IMO If you’re going to run for office and work with companies and organizations. Bring in business and the interpret laws and rules in this country, you’ve got to be able to speak, read and write the dominant language of the land.

    January 26, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Thinks2010

    The judge did the right thing in this case. Since the majority of residents in her town speak Spanish, it is wonderful that she speaks Spanish, however, the laws of this land are written in English, most media is in English, most business and other activity is conducted in English. A civic leader needs to understand and be able to respond to things in a timely manner. Ms. Cabrera's inability to comprehend and respond in English effectively Ghettoizes herself and the people she serves. If she truly wants to represent and serve the people of her community well, she should start taking English immersion classes so that she can understand and respond to th greater world around her and her community. By doing this she could lead her community out of isolation.

    Those of you who advocate banning the teaching of languages other than English are as mistaken in your thinking as Ms. Cabrera is in hers. Proficiency in English should be a requirement to advance through school in the U.S. as well as to graduate, and all students should be required to study a foreign language throughout middle school and high school. The ideal would be for native English speakers to learn to speak a second language at the "educated foreigner" level and for those for whom English is a second language to become similarly proficient in English. However, reality may dictate that recent immigrants be allowed to graduate from high school with a slightly lower English proficiency based on the amount of time they have been in the U.S. provided they can pass their other subjects demonstrating they have achieved the same amount of knowledge of those subjects required of all other students to graduate. It might be worthwhile to grant those students who have not been in the U.S. long enough to learn "educated foreigner" level English a provisional diploma that acknowledges their academic achievement in subjects other than English that would expire within six years. Students who graduate with a provisional diploma would have six years in which to prove they have learned English at the "educated foreigner" level and redeem their provisional diploma for a full diploma.

    January 26, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Report abuse |
  12. ziegfeldf

    The English-speaking ability of some current and former office-holders is also somewhat dubious–you know whom I'm speaking about–and without the excuse of a second language of any sort.

    So what's the problem? Are the Arizonans worked up because she speaks Spanish (too)?

    January 26, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • Q

      No, because she can't understand basic questions in English, or reply.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Report abuse |
  13. JECD

    Most born and raised US citizens don't do very well with the language either. My mother was an english teacher. I got it hammered into me. She also is completely fluent in German, French and Italian.
    I hear mistakes constantly by those broadcasting the news!!
    So what if she's slow... at least she is bilingual, that is more than most americans can claim.

    January 26, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Q

      She couldn't understand the question 'What school did you graduate from'. I'll bet your mom could answer that question in French.
      Sorry, but this lady is not conversationally fluent, therefore not bilingual.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Thinks2010

      Learning foreign languages helped me better understand English grammar and syntax. It might do the same for U.S. students whose English is poor.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Mavis

    English need to be the official language.I also do not think public assistance forms should have a English side and a Spanish side. If people cannot learn to read and write and speak English they should not be given benefits such as food stamps, cash assistance or medical help. Whatever language people speak at home or with their peers is fine and dandy
    But having a command of the English language and our laws and the workings of the US government is required to be a citizen of this country , so to hold a public service job one should also know all this.

    January 26, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Mavis

    2 typos in above forms should NOT have English and Spanish side

    January 26, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Report abuse |
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