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. you be so silly

    Just wondering if the candidate that initiated the lawsuit will be re-elected? He may have won the battle and loss the war.... maybe they should give a test on intellect as well... then neither would be on the ballot.

    January 26, 2012 at 12:42 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  2. English Now

    I agree with Frank- how did she graduate from high school without speaking English? This country was based on English as a primary language. Until relatively recently parents who did not speak English required their children to learn it. If I moved to France, Germany, Italy, etc. to live, I would be expected to become competent in the language of the country. I think that is reasonable. If you want to live in the United States, learn to speak English in public. The language you speak in your home is up to you. A large number of European and Asian countries require their students to learn English- it seems a little strange that the U.S. doesn't.

    January 26, 2012 at 12:42 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • jay

      No, no. English and the instruction thereof is required in public schools in Arizona. I teach Spanish in Phoenix, and even so, there's a law that states that ALL instruction must be delivered in the English language. It was passed sometime around 2006.

      January 26, 2012 at 12:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ivy League White Guy

      ENGLISH NOW – HOW ABOUT WE ONLY TEACH ENGLISH TO DUMB, LAZY MORONS LIKE YOU? EVERYBODY ELSE WHO WANTS TO EXPAND THEIR HORIZONS GETS TO LEARN AS MANY LANGUAGES AND CULTURES AS THEY CAN.
      AND WHILE WE'RE AT IT, HOW ABOUT WE TEACH YOU TO CARE ABOUT OTHER HUMAN BEINGS? HOW ABOUT WE TRY TO TEACH YOU TO HAVE A MORAL COMPASS? HOW ABOUT YOU STOP MAKING US SOUND LIKE A COUNTRY FULL ON INBRED MORONS?

      January 26, 2012 at 4:04 pm | Report abuse |
  3. WHAT?

    if she can't speak the language ,maybe she don't understand it.that would be an automatic appeal for the white guys because didn't understand the proceedings.

    January 26, 2012 at 12:43 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Hence21

      do you speak english? because what you wrote makes absolutely no sense

      January 26, 2012 at 12:49 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Dennis Hubbs

    Right decision! If you live in this country, learn to speak the language. Period. In fact, English is used and often spoken/understood well in many other coutries the world over...How well do you think you'd be catered to if
    you tried to get by with only English in Germany or France? If you become a citizen of another country, you
    have an OBLIGATION to learn their customs...and their language!

    January 26, 2012 at 12:44 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Mickey

      Actually Dennis you are contradicting yourself. You would do quite well in most European countries speaking only English because many Europeans are fluent in several languages including English.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ivy League White Guy

      TRUE THAT MY INTELLECTUALLY LIMITED BROTHER, BUT......THAT DOESN"T MEAN THAT THE CIVIL-LIBERTIES OF MEXICAN AMERICANS AND OTHER MINORITIES IN ARIZONA HAVE TO BE TRAMPLED. SHE WANTS TO RUN FOR OFFICE? SHE'S A US CITIZEN? YES? SO WHAT IS THE PROBLEM. THE PEOPLE (AS IN WE THE PEOPLE) OF HER COMMUNITY SPEAK SPANISH. IF THEY ELECT HER TO OFFICE, THEN GOOD FOR THEM. HOW IS IT THAT YOU DO NOT GET THE OBVIOUS PROBLEM HERE? YOU LIMIT THE MEXICANS FROM HAVING A VOICE, YOU LET RIGHT WING RADICALS TAKE AWAY THE RIGHTS OF THE MINORITIES, SOONER OR LATER YOU AND I WLL BE NEXT AND THERE GOES OUR GREAT DEMOCRACY. I DO NOT CARE IF SHE SPEAKS CHINESE, IF SHE IS A US CITIZEN, LET HER RUN FOR OFFICE.

      January 26, 2012 at 4:10 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Mike

    Why should we as a english speaking country "accomdate" hispanics? I travel all over the world and I don't expect nor demand that when I am in foreign country that I am "accomdated" and demand that they speak english to me. I am also tired of being caterogized as a non-hispanic caucasian.

    January 26, 2012 at 12:45 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Michael

    The writer of this article has a poor grasp of English: "they'll speak the way their most comfortable." The word is "they're." Why can't CNN proofread their articles? Almost every article posted contains errors.

    Anyway, the federal law requires English. If she can't even answer a question about what school she went to, then she is not functional in English and should not be a judge.

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

      I'm sorry, which law, exactly, requires English in the United States?

      January 26, 2012 at 12:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • blindbear

      A judge? The article clearly states she was running for a city council position. Maybe Arizona needs to enact a law demanding a certain level of reading comprehension.

      January 26, 2012 at 1:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ivy League White Guy

      There should be a federal law against obvious racial discrimination. Oh, wait! There are such laws, it's called my GOD@#@!#&@*#& CIVIL LIBERTIES! If George W. Bush got elected; if Arnold got elected, if the funny old Libertarian doctor who looks like a muppet wants to be elected, and I can't undertand half of what comes out of their mouth because it sounds like they are drunk or invading Poland (sorry Arnold, no offense, your English has gotten a lot better, but your taste in women hasn't, and I'm trying to use your poor linguistic skills and your political success to defend civil liberties of minorities) THEN WHY CAN"T THIS LADY RUN FOR OFFICE? GIVE ME A BREAK. THIS STINKS OF HARD BALL POLITICAL MANUEVERS TO BLOCK AN OPPONENT AND IT ADDS TO THE BAD RACIST VIBE IN ARIZONA. DID JANET "THE MONSTER" BREWER OR JOHN "I USED TO BE A GOOD MAN WHO RESPECTED MINORITIES" MACAIN PUT THIS SAD EXCUSE FOR A LATINO UP TO THIS?

      January 26, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Hence21

    I think this is a fine example of the difference between immigrants from our grandparents, and great grandparents era, and immigrants today. I want people to be able to express their culture and teach it to their children and preserve it, but it is just ridiculous to not teach you kids how to speak the language of the country you moved to. It is completely disrespectful to not make the effort to learn how to speak to other people in this country. In my opinion, it is more raciest to not learn English, and not understand American culture, than to say that you have to learn english to be a citizen. Why would you want to alienate your children and not teach them what they need to know to succeed in this country? I hope this is a wake up call to the latinino community,

    January 26, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Leonardo

    "...they'll speak the way their most comfortable..."

    And I guess they'll write the way they're most comfortable too!

    January 26, 2012 at 12:47 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  9. lmc645

    If 87% of the town speaks Spanish, what is the problem? Sounds as if she has the ability to represent a majority of residents. If the council meetings are handled in English only, it sounds like she need to hire a tutor to coach her a little bit. But basically, it sounds like a dirty litttle political trick to keep certain people in power in that town. So, what's new?

    January 26, 2012 at 12:47 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Hence21

      because 13% of the town would have no clue what she is talking about. I do not what people who I do not understand making my laws. Also, how would she be able to work with other people in the government to get laws and ordinances passed?

      January 26, 2012 at 12:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • dancingjellyfish

      it seems for most people the problem that 87% of the town speaks ONLY Spanish.

      January 26, 2012 at 8:33 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Olaf Big

    I find it quite annoying that the author of this article blatantly distorts the facts for the sake of political correctness: "she speaks a bit more slowly, and perhaps with a bit less conviction"? Sounds almost like a French professor at a British Univeristy. This is nonsense, and if you kept reading you will find out that this woman was unable to understand or answer basic questions in English, like what school she went to. Unless we really want apartheid in the border regions, the local community leaders must be fluent in English, and be able to conduct offiical business in English.

    January 26, 2012 at 12:48 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Lisa

    "It's part of a growing discussion of the use of English in a land where people are from a variety of places. " Yes, we are a nation of immigrants, but we are a "melting pot".... Chinese, Germans, Indians, Nigerians.. whoever comes here learns English and that helps their assimilations to this country.

    Many of the recent hispanic immigrants don't want to learn Englisth, don't want to be part of the country, and that is the reason for some (not all but some) of the anger against immigrants.

    January 26, 2012 at 12:48 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  12. crabman

    if she went to a U S school why such a hard time speaking english?????

    January 26, 2012 at 12:49 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Hence21

      Have you listened to a recent high school graduate talk lately? Apparently they stopped teaching English in general at school....

      January 26, 2012 at 12:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • MsT

      My son is in English I Honors. He came home the other night with his homework, which was to read a poem and answer a list of quetions. I told him that he needed to answer the questions in complete sentences, because this is an English class and his teacher would not let him get away with just writing the answer next to the question like he did in his other classes. He told me that his teacher said that they didn't have to answer the question in complete sentences. I was so confused. I mean, it is an English class! I made him answer the questions in complete sentences anyway. It just blew me away that an English teacher would tell students that she wasn't concerned with thme writing in complete sentences.

      January 27, 2012 at 8:45 am | Report abuse |
  13. watchbobos

    It is this rule good for Ebonics and Texas dialect?

    January 26, 2012 at 12:50 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  14. donna

    If she really graudated from an American High School how can sne not know English? Does she know anything about the policies of America or anything about the office she is running for or what it means. She should not be allowed to run if she can't speak or understand English.

    January 26, 2012 at 12:50 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  15. RobCM

    Arizona, that says it all

    January 26, 2012 at 12:51 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • jay

      No, FRONTIER or BORDERTOWN Arizona. There's a difference.

      January 26, 2012 at 1:01 pm | Report abuse |
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