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. meagain

    go ahed let her run for office – but make it known to those voting for her
    that her limited English may limit her abality to represent and speak for them
    sure she will be elected to serve the people in her area
    but in doing that she will need to work with others at the state and federal level
    these people may not speak spanish – so how will she fight for what her city needs

    January 26, 2012 at 4:18 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Sam

      I think you need to learn to write English first.

      January 26, 2012 at 4:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Alaskan

      So she is being elected to a city government position where her job would be to represent the people of the community. If 97% of the population are hispanic and speak limited English, then she will be able to represent 97% of the populace. Also, who determines what is enough English? If you make it pure fluency, then you will only have 3% of the populace able to run for office. Hardly a representative republic. I do feel everyone should speak English, but if the majority of the community she is wanting to work in and with doesn't, she shouldn't be excluded.

      January 26, 2012 at 5:52 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Plexie

    Why is every story about latinos the same, failure to integrate like everyone else.

    January 26, 2012 at 4:22 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • dogamus

      I'm in oil and gas in Houston. There is a very large percentage of Latin American workers in the USGOM hailing from Mexico all the way to Chile and they all speak very good English.

      January 26, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • NYLawyer

      Because they are special and we are not. You didn't know?

      January 26, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Report abuse |
  3. jake

    High school graduates who don't speak English. Welcome to Reconquista. This is how it is in much of California as well. Spanish speaking towns have Spanish speaking teachers. Teachers who will pass kids who speak very little English because they know a high school diploma will help families when the Dream Act is finally passed.

    January 26, 2012 at 4:22 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Burbank

      They all need to be sent back across the border and the anchor baby law repealed!

      January 26, 2012 at 4:36 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Califas

    After the Mexican – American War the U.S. purchased a large portion of the Southwest at...one penny an acre. Thus the USA got Malibu and Mexico got the Sonoran Desert.

    January 26, 2012 at 4:23 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  5. dogamus

    Regardless of all the rules, if one is going to represent a group of people one must have all the tools to do an effective job. In this case, a good understanding of English is of paramount importance.

    January 26, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Cody

    DREAM Act requires college experience, generally it's rather tough to get admitted to a college without being reasonably fluent in English.

    January 26, 2012 at 4:28 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  7. LaHuerita

    Sounds like the school district failed to provide the proper education in English. Where I went to school English was a required subject. You couldn't graduation without passing English. All subjects were taught in English and Spanish was an elected subject. Seems to me that school district along with many others need a makeover in that state.

    January 26, 2012 at 4:28 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  8. YO

    I dont understand why it is such a big deal all of a sudden in San Luis, AZ. Many people in this country cant speak english and its not just Hispanics. If you have never been to San Luis, AZ then you have no room to talk about this matter. Most people in that small town dont speak any or limited English including goverment employees! All of San Luis, AZ elected officials have a horrible accent and mainly speak Spanish soooo why is this lady being singled out and not the rest of the council?? As long as she can do her job and communicate with the community I see no problem with it. What I do know about this city( because I have been there many times) is that if you dont speak Spanish then you wont be able to relate or communicate with the community of San Luis, AZ

    January 26, 2012 at 4:28 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Joe

      Having a common language and requiring citizens to learn helps to keep the nation from separating along ethic and cultural lines. ....All nations who lose this common language fight, also lose the culture of the nation..this leads to the eventual downfall or overtaking of the original culture...I am all for inclusion of cultures..but not the separation of towns and cities from the rest of us..i have enough trouble right now in Miami..where even US born citizens have a Spanish accent...It is a shame.

      January 26, 2012 at 5:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • YO

      Joe I agree with what your saying but I believe our country is already so divided by languages, cultures, and races. Canada has two official languages and they seem way better off than the United States. Unfortunately even if we all did speak English, I dont think we'd get along better than we do now.

      January 26, 2012 at 5:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • dancingjellyfish

      and that's really unacceptable. As an English speaking, law abiding American I find that unacceptable. I should be able to travel anywhere in my own Country and be able to communicate with the people living there and not feel as though I am in a foreign Country. I used to love studying and being around other cultures. After living in South Florida for the past 116 years being treated badly by people who by law aren't even supposed to be here, I am less interested in anything Hispanic or Latino. Anyone who doesn't believe that they want to take over this Country and turn it into their former Countries is truly out of touch.

      January 26, 2012 at 7:25 pm | Report abuse |
  9. NyLawyer

    God help us! I think that if I decided to move to Germany that I would consider it paramount that I lean to speak German rather fluidly. It would never occur to me to move to a foreign country and expect them to speak English for me. All these people come here and expect us to cater to them in our own country. After we do mass deportations of all illegals in this country and build massive guarded walls, we must them add minimium requirements in order to come here legally, i.e. you must speak and write English fluently, I mean really, this is so ridiculous.

    January 26, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • CosmicC

      Where would that leave all of the bloggers who were born here and can't string together a coherent sentence in their native language?

      January 26, 2012 at 4:32 pm | Report abuse |
  10. CosmicC

    Historical trivia: At one point in the 19th century the most common language in the US was German.

    January 26, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Tim

      This is one of those historical urban legends. Everyone thinks it was true, even thinking there a vote to make it the official language of the U.S., but it is not true. At one time during the 19th century people of German decent were the largest minority in the U.S. and many of them spoke German (and not English) but two generations later that population had mostly assimilated and people were starting to fear the Irish immigrants instead (who assimilated in about two generations).

      January 26, 2012 at 4:34 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Mexican

    Mexicans are carrying on their tradition from mexico, failures in mexico, failures in the US.

    January 26, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  12. rmsbl4

    Az is turning into another province of Quebec that if you speak English you might get reported to the Language Police..
    In San Luis the population is 98.7% Hispanic, could it be that Englidh people got out in time.
    Mexico will be adding a few new states to theie country.

    January 26, 2012 at 4:32 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • YO

      This is a bordertown with Mexico. That is why 98.7% are Hispanics

      January 26, 2012 at 4:35 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Anj

    Given the Arizona laws described in the article, yes the decision was correct.

    Perhaps those laws need to be reviewed for their consitutionality... but as long as they're on the books, they need to be followed.

    January 26, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  14. snowdogg

    “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."

    Why not invest in some further English language training so you could speak to somebody outside your barrio?

    January 26, 2012 at 4:34 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • YO

      Everyone in her "barrio" speaks Spanish. Most people in that small bodertown do not speak English

      January 26, 2012 at 4:37 pm | Report abuse |
  15. MannyHM

    Interesting that nobody even mentioned about the heavy accent of "The Terminator" from Austria.
    I'm more concerned about the honesty in her English compared with the opposing candidates, not the grammar, not the vocabulary. Words a lot of times are used to hide the true message and the true feelings of the speaker. Give her a chance. She can always ask for the definition of important words or phrases.

    January 26, 2012 at 4:35 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Mexican

      If after being asked three times what school she graduated from and she could not answer I do not think that accent or grammar is the issue.

      January 26, 2012 at 4:52 pm | Report abuse |
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