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. Rob

    '...given where she lives..." That would be the United States of America and she is asking to be a representative for a population, including the ones that speak english. She would have to represent them in the legislative and municipal processes with other representative that speak english. Does she think that language and communication is a game? Obviously she's not fit.

    January 26, 2012 at 12:31 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • WHAT?

      English is the language of this country,would she require a interppreter in some cases in elected.

      January 26, 2012 at 12:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Buddy

      @WHAT? – Do you need an interpreter? You wrote "a interppreter" which has 2 things wrong with it. 1) You use "an" before a word starting with a vowel in most cases. 2) You spelled interpreter wrong.

      Let's kick you out of the country too for not having proper English proficiency.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:27 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Bruce Eder

    I'm sorry for her, but this is the United States of America, and the reality is, if you want to be taken seriously in your work or your professionalism in almost any capacity, then a fully working command of English is basic. It's that simple, and it shouldn't even be a matter up for discussion. Frame it another way - would (or could) any legislative body in Mexico or Central or South America take seriously a candidate or member who, for WHATEVER reason, communicated primarily in English?

    January 26, 2012 at 12:31 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Katie

      I take it you would apply this to people like Sarah Palin as well?

      January 26, 2012 at 12:44 pm | Report abuse |
  3. nathan

    it's the US..speaking English as a representative is required so people understand you. this is difficult to comprehend???

    January 26, 2012 at 12:31 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Buddy

      Starting a sentence with a capital letter is part of demonstrating proper English proficiency. Looks like you failed!

      January 26, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Arthur Hamlin

    So if this is allowed to stand what is going to happen when someone with a disability that impairs their speech function decides to run for office? Are we saying someone with Down Syndrome or Stephen Hawking can't hold public office??

    January 26, 2012 at 12:32 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Yep

      That's exactly what they are saying. And you are comparing speaking Spanish-only to having Down syndrome? Woah....

      January 26, 2012 at 12:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rob

      Yep is right, one can learn to speak english fluently. Speaking spanish is not a disability.

      January 26, 2012 at 12:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • trixibelle

      My son has Down's syndrome and he speaks perfect English.

      January 26, 2012 at 12:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Carolyn

      You're referring to one's ability to *speak* English clearly. The bigger point here is that Ms. Cabrera cannot *understand* English, except at a very, very minimal level. I don't think anyone would have a problem if she could understand English better–but not being able to understand someone asking you where you went to high school? That's a problem, particularly if the business of the local government is conducted in English.

      January 26, 2012 at 12:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • MARYT

      Stephen Hawking has 100% comprehension.

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

      Some blind people can paint. Some can ride bikes. Some people who can see can't paint, and can't ride bikes. Some people are smart. Others are dumb. Which one are you?

      January 26, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Ridiculous

    Why don't you ask the genius who directed "Waiting For Superman"? It's just one of the hundreds of pieces of bull public school teachers have to handle in their daily workload. Students that don't speak English are catered to in order to get money from the state and federal governments. Check out the standardized testing for states (especially in the Southwest like CA, TX, and AZ) to see what non-English speakers are responsible for.

    January 26, 2012 at 12:32 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Katie

      Don't believe everything you see in sensational movies. It's a sad truth that many teachers have several students in their classes who do not speak much English – and such a situation could very well involve several very different languages – and the teachers just are trained for that, and neither do they have time to deal with it. EVERYONE in the USA should know at least one other language fluently, and only teachers with TESOL certificates or similar training should be in classrooms where students don't understand or speak very little English.

      January 26, 2012 at 12:36 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Katie

    So many Americans can barely speak – let alone write – in English well enough to communicate well, it's amazing to think people whose first language is not English can do it at all. Look at Sarah Palin. She has a lot of trouble speaking in complete sentences. It's not right that this particular woman is barred from a ballot. Her lack of English skills isn't to blame for that – the GOP and its covert white supremacy standards are. Her lack of English skills would probably keep her from being elected, though, and for that only she can take responsibility.

    January 26, 2012 at 12:32 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • AWaB

      Katie, please read the article. The state of Arizona passed a law requiring people running for office to speak English. They are abiding by their law. If you don't like it, move there and try and have it changed.

      You should see a doctor because your bleeding heart condition could become fatal! Operating heavy machinery could be a detrimental to your health and others!

      January 26, 2012 at 12:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Joe

      @AWaB – Maybe you should read the article! It states that the law is for state and federal representatives. She is running for local office, so the application of that law is not required. That being said, I have mixed feelings about this. People have the right to choose from any willing candidate, so the state should not deny her the right to run. If she cannot understand the language to the point where it affects her performance, then that is an issue.

      January 27, 2012 at 12:26 pm | Report abuse |
  7. kdog

    What happens when she needs to ask for state or fereral assistance? Will we need to pay for an Interpreter?

    January 26, 2012 at 12:32 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  8. David

    This says more about Kofa High School than it does about the language debate.

    January 26, 2012 at 12:33 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Diane

    Judge Nelson made the right decision without a doubt.

    January 26, 2012 at 12:33 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Ron

    The same way American teachers has been passing American students for years without having the basic math, english or social studies knowledge.

    January 26, 2012 at 12:33 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Yep

      Speaking from experience? And just because she doesn't speak English does not mean she isn't smart. Public schools (especially in the Southwest) do not require students to have proficiency in English. They print the standardized tests - required to graduate - in multiple languages. Just like they do when you go to the DMV or DPS to get your license. Who cares if you've been in the US for ten, twenty, or thirty years. You ain't gots to know no stinkin' English!

      January 26, 2012 at 12:37 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Andy Adkins

    So does this Arizona law deny people who communicate only by sign language the right to run for public office?

    January 26, 2012 at 12:34 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • eldono

      I would think probably. However, in San Luis, how many of the "citizens" are actually American citizens?

      January 26, 2012 at 12:41 pm | Report abuse |
  12. LearnEnglish

    "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.

    She couldn't even say the name of her high school in English! That's pretty bad. Why are some of these people so against learning English?

    January 26, 2012 at 12:35 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Bob Marley

    If I lived in another country, I would expect the natives of that country to expect me to speak the language of that country. The same expectations should hold for the USA. The dominant language here is English. Learn it.

    January 26, 2012 at 12:35 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Kittyg

      Actually, it is a requirement for citizenship in most countries! We need to demand the ability to speak English be returned to our Citizenship requirements! Go to http://www.englishfirst.org!

      January 26, 2012 at 1:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • fggummere

      If you naturalize into the United States it is a requirement to learn English. The people naturalizing have to take English classes for the tests they take, which are all in English.

      January 27, 2012 at 12:36 pm | Report abuse |
  14. AWaB

    This is a state's rights question. The state of Arizona has a law that says you have to speak English to run for office. Proficiency is testable. This doesn't even seem to be an issue. To the author, if you don't like the laws of Arizona, you should move there and try and change them.

    January 26, 2012 at 12:35 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • dakota2000

      The governor, Jan Brewer, cannot put together a grammatical sentence. Yet, she was allowed to run. How do you reconcile that? What is the cut-off point for proficiency? Who decides?

      January 26, 2012 at 3:24 pm | Report abuse |
  15. real American

    Stupid people can't speak good english needta get outa here and go to someplace that speaks there stupid language. Only people who speak english good shoulda stay hear.

    January 26, 2012 at 12:35 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Jose

      That must mean you need to leave to. Your grammar is horrible. You barely speak English well. Let me correct your statement for you:

      Stupid people who can't speak English well need to get out of here and go to someplace that speaks their stupid language. Only people who speak English well should stay here.

      January 26, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Edmond

      Dude, you can't even speak English yourself. It's "people who can't speak English Well" not "good".

      January 26, 2012 at 1:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Buddy

      It is sad that too many "real Americans" have about as much comprehension and proficiency as this moron does. There would be plenty of jobs available for everyone if these ignorant, born-and-raised here Americans were kicked out for not having proper proficiency of the English language. Seriously, "outa" "needta" "good vs well"? I learned the proper usage of those phrases in 3rd grade.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ivy League White Guy

      You can't be that dumb. So I guess you are trying to sound like what you think is an ignorant immigrant trying to speak English. And what did that get you? How many JOY UNITS did you get from trying to put down another human being? You call yourself a "real American"? Our forefathers who died on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day are rolling over in their graves. They fought to rid the world of Nazi bigots like you. Don't call yourself an American. You a punk ### #$##. That being said, I forgive because I'm Chrisitan and I will pray that Jesus helps you get your head out of your ass. Peace my racist brother.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • scott

      It is to bad you did not learn proper sentence construction. some of your sentences are iragmented.

      January 27, 2012 at 6:08 am | Report abuse |
    • P.Ha

      You are a moron!!!!!

      January 27, 2012 at 9:19 am | Report abuse |
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