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. Robert

    Although I will not or cannot argue with your opinions on AZ. I have to agree with the Judge. ALthough she will need to be able to communicate with her constituency, she will also need to communicate with other city, county and state officials. Not to mention the 13% of the city who do not speak Spanish. The real argument here would be that the city officials who speak only English need to either get more proficient in Spanish.

    January 26, 2012 at 9:28 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  2. snookers

    Do not confuse an accent with no command of the English language. Many folks that speak with an foreign might accent have a better command of the English language than the average American HS graduate nowadays. Many public HS just suck.
    You can always ask for a written answer when trouble understanding an accent. English is very irregular in pronunciation with no aid as to emphasis lies on a specific word. Spanish is so much easier in that regard.

    January 26, 2012 at 9:31 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • koza

      Snookers - NIce try...but no.
      Somebody who has an accent is not a native speaker and therefore does not have a native's ear for grammar and also might not be familiar with idioms.

      January 26, 2012 at 10:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • HK

      To Koza.

      I disagree with you. I learned English in less than a year (from scratch). Yes, I have a little accent, it's natural for someone who speaks 3 languages! However, I can guarantee you that my grammar is well enough and I can read and write as well as speak English just as good as you or many people who were born here and learned English as their native language.

      January 26, 2012 at 10:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • koza

      HK – I speak 3 languages, so who are you trying to kid?

      I will now educate you – pay attention. You wrote "well enough". That is not correct, even though any native speaker listening to you knows exactly what you are trying to say. It should be "good enough" or "close enough"...Now I cannot actually tell you the name of the rule of grammar that you have violated ...only that it just does not 'sound correct'... One does not use the word "well" in the fashion that you did....So the point is, one learns what is correct by growing up in the language..the grammar is only an approximation.

      Your claim that you speak English as well as a native is naive...

      January 26, 2012 at 11:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Gene

      HK, you might want to go back to you grammar books. Well is an adverb. Adverbs modify verbs. Wrote is a verb. The grammatically correct expression is "well enough". Good is an adjective. Adjectives modify nouns. The word english is a noun. You could say that you speak good english, except that you don't.

      January 27, 2012 at 10:38 am | Report abuse |
  3. jim

    So what happens if a constituent speaks only English, and wishes to communicate with Cabrera? Will there be an interpreter?

    January 26, 2012 at 9:36 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  4. jim

    What happens if I only speak English and I want to speak with Cabrera?

    January 26, 2012 at 9:37 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • koza

      @Andy Smith - Wrong. The point was her command of the language was so poor, that even writing would not work.
      Computer programs do not correctly translate, that is not an option.

      So she would have to get somebody else to translate, in which case, why do we even need her? She cannot do the job. Hire somebody who can.

      Anything else you do not understand?

      January 26, 2012 at 10:33 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Ned Racine

    If George W. Bush could be elected with his terrible grasp of the English language, why can't Alejandrina Cabrera?

    January 26, 2012 at 9:38 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  6. jim

    So I guess if you only know English, you will be unable to converse with your own elected representative. Wouldn't that impact the democratic process?

    January 26, 2012 at 9:45 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • koza

      Of course.
      This story is kind of sad. English is the language of the US.
      Hispanics would like to change that. Sorry, it is not going to happen.

      January 26, 2012 at 10:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • me

      No. Read the story. She does speak some English. If someone has a problem, they can speak slowly or write it down. Since 99% of the town is fluent in Spanish, it would be very easy to find someone to translate for you.

      January 27, 2012 at 12:56 am | Report abuse |
  7. jim

    If representatives no longer need to know English, what about police officers? Could a police officer give me a lawful command in Spanish? What if I don't understand the lawful command?

    January 26, 2012 at 9:48 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Katy

      Amen!

      January 26, 2012 at 11:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • me

      City Council is different from the police. She presumably has better reading and writing ability and could ask someone to translate if she ran into something she couldn't figure out. I've had to talk to police in countries where I spoke almost none of the language and its not that big of a deal.

      January 27, 2012 at 12:54 am | Report abuse |
  8. VRage13

    AZ following the rules put on it by the federal gov't as a condition to become a state. Then being called a racist state for following, enforcing federal laws. I'm confused.

    January 26, 2012 at 9:54 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • me

      No one is calling anyone racist. Her English isn't great and there is a disagreement over the standard for what is considered "proficient".

      January 27, 2012 at 12:47 am | Report abuse |
  9. Thomas

    If I decide to live in a different country, say... Mexico, and then I decide to run for office, how stupid would I look if I didn't speak the official language of that country?

    January 26, 2012 at 9:59 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Paul

      Except that the US does not actually have an official language. 98% of her constituents speak Spanish, I don't really see what the issue is here.

      January 26, 2012 at 10:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dave

      I hope everyone reads your post..... !!!! It makes all the sense in the world... thank you...

      January 26, 2012 at 10:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • me

      She does speak Engish, just not fluently.
      If you move to Mexico and live in an expat retirement community where everyone speaks English, and you run for city council of that English speaking community, I don't think you have to be perfectly fluent in Spanish. The important thing is being able to communicate effectively with her constituents and colleagues. Being on city council is not that important of a position anyway, and it will help her improve her English speaking and listening skills.

      January 27, 2012 at 12:52 am | Report abuse |
    • D Peterson Carpintero

      If 87% of your constituents spoke English at home you would be OK!
      Apparently you did NOT read the article:
      "In San Luis (Arizona USA), 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.
      Maybe you do NOT have enough English comprehension to understand the written word.
      It would not surprize me at all.

      January 27, 2012 at 1:27 am | Report abuse |
    • Really

      English is the de facto language of America, but there is no "official" language. if anyone wants to run, regardless of the language that they speak, it is up to the voters to decide whether they are fit for office. isn't that how democracy works? if not, then i was fighting for the wrong things when i was in the military.

      January 27, 2012 at 1:41 am | Report abuse |
  10. jim

    No one is saying she can't use Spanish with her constituents, but what about the non-Spanish speaking constituents? You are denying their rights to participate in the democratic process, and setting a frightening precedent. In time, non-Spanish speakers will loose their voice. Incredible.

    January 26, 2012 at 9:59 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  11. john/kc

    How was this woman able to graduate from an American high school without being able to speak and I assume write the English language?

    January 26, 2012 at 10:06 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Blame teacher unions

      You can thank the great public education system and the teacher unions that fight for keeping bad teachers around.

      January 26, 2012 at 11:42 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Billboard Proof Reader

    Most of the people commenting here would miss the point entirely!

    January 26, 2012 at 10:06 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Stella

    She's a US citizen who can't speak English; that says a lot. Her advocates say it doesn't matter because her constituents speak Spanish but her main function would be talking with other legislators; no politician spends all day talking to anyone, they spend the day working so it would be very necessary to speak English. I can't even believe anyone could think it wouldn't be a problem.

    January 26, 2012 at 10:07 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Llen

    The funny part is that English is not the "Official Language" of this country, we don't have an official language. But in reading the article a couple of things come to mind. 1) How she doesn't know what high school she went to in English, (2) How did she graduate from an accredited American high school (3)Yes she can communicate with here constituents, but all county, state or national politics is conducted in English how would she know what she is voting on? Think of the influence an interpreter would have in interpreting the political arguments which always go on.

    January 26, 2012 at 10:20 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Carolyn

    "so many people are trying to learn English, there are extremely long lines to get into classes."
    -This just sounds like an excuse to me. Buy/borrow/find a book, follow a free online class, ask a friend for help, listen to songs, listen to the radio, watch TV. I've made use of all of these methods and never took a "class" per say.

    January 26, 2012 at 10:23 pm | Report abuse | Reply
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