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. AJ Smith

    It's sad that it got to this point. Only in America would a person who clearly doesn't speak English run for office. If I ran for city council in Mexico after going to high school in Mexico you better believe that I would know Spanish and how to say the name of my school in Spanish – even if they spoke mainly English in my neighborhood.

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

      Also, the fact that the city's population is 99% Hispanic should not cause for an exception to the State's law to be applied. The town is still located in the USA.

      January 26, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • Paige

      Only in America would a person who clearly doesn't speak English run for office.

      What are you talking about? People all over the world run for office. Many of them don't speak English clearly.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Duni

    Its one thing to SPEAK to your fellow hispanic voters in Spanish but then if you have to write legislation on their behalf... all of that has to be in English. Debates... in English... any and all speaking engagements outside of your little city of if you were called to represent your state in some way... English.

    In order to become a citizen of this country you have to be able to pass your test, that is written in English. All persons who are to hold office on behalf of the US and its citizen, be it by city or state, have to be able to Read Speak and Write the English language Proficiently. Give the test to all who want to hold office and you might even weed out the American's that do not read or write English also.

    January 26, 2012 at 12:51 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Joe from CT, not Lieberman

      And by your statement you assume this woman is not born in the United States. I guess you have never been to parts of northern Maine where French is more common, or to Little Havana (in Miami) where Spanish is the dominant language even of those born here.

      January 26, 2012 at 12:58 pm | Report abuse |
  3. longtooth

    How can an elected official hold office, read laws, write laws, and interpret laws if she can't speak English? How could anyone graduate from a high school and not recall the name of the school?

    January 26, 2012 at 12:51 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Joe from CT, not Lieberman

      I guess you haven't listened to some of the Congressmen who come from States that formerly comprised the Confederacy. I have spent a large amount of time south of the Mason-Dixon line, and I have problems understanding some of these folks. They also need to remember that not all of their speeches are at the annual Pork BBQ at the local Baptist Church, but in the Halls of Congress where those in attendance would prefer not to have someone from Tennessee acting as an interpreter for them.

      January 26, 2012 at 1:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • AJ Smith

      Joe from CT, not Lieberman – You are confusing the issue. Regional English accents are not comparable to a foreign language. It's one thing to have a thick Southern drawl and its another thing to not even be able to recite the Pledge of Allegiance (I'm assuming she can't). A legislator from Alabama can give a speech and you would most likely understand 85% of the speech. Alejandra Cabrera could say the same speech and you wouldn't understand a thing – and it would take 5 times as long.

      January 26, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Report abuse |
  4. nagrad

    I have no problem with her being removed from the ballet. What she (and the rest of the people in this discussion) need to understand is that being able to govern effectively means being able to communicate effectively. If her English does not allow for clear and effective communication, this is a problem. I think that while the US is open to people from all places and walks of life, it would behoove us to have English as our official language. Nothing says they can't put Spanish on things as well; I just think that setting the standard as English clarifies what basic language skills are necessary for the whole country to communicate clearly.

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

      Ballot.

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

      "ballet"? Are you speaking French here? The more I think about it, the more I believe we need to have a requirement that posters know how to spell in the English language.

      January 26, 2012 at 1:42 pm | Report abuse |
  5. English

    You have to be able to speak English in this Country if you want/need to be heard, that's not even meant to be mean. I work with some folks who I'm told can speak English, but they have such a heavy accent that no one can understand them, and it's not just Spanish...I can't understand what they're saying, and neither can others. We just look at each other, shrug our shoulders, and move on, if someone translates, great, if they don't...whatever was said gets ignored, sadly. If I see a Doc I can't understand, I don't see them again, if I can't understand the person, they are not heard, it's that simple. For a Government position especially, I would think English would be a priority, speak it, understand it, write it.

    January 26, 2012 at 12:52 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Mary A.

    One thing I find especially disturbing is that she is a US Citizen and graduated from a high school in America and yet can barely communicate in the language of the land – English! Frankly, if you cannot effectively and compitently speak and read English how can you expect to adequately and reasonable represent the people, especially when most laws, ordinances and regulations are in English? And I am not just talking about the ones in San Juan, AZ – certainly it is reasonable to expect that the laws, etc. of the state and even the nation affect San Juan to a degree where a reasonable command of English isn't just a requirement, but a necessity!

    January 26, 2012 at 12:52 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • AJ Smith

      You just pointed out the main problem with ESL education (English as a Second Language). You can easily go through a US public school without ever learning the English language.

      January 26, 2012 at 1:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • Saturn

      That's because we must accommodate ESL students and get no support from their home or the educational system because of “political correctness”. 9 times out of 10, they are required to speak Spanish at home. I do not let my students speak in Spanish during class. I have been “talked to” by administration several times and told that we should encourage multi cultural ideas. As much as I agree, my state expects me to provide a safe classroom. I cannot do this with students speaking a language I don't understand. And for all of you thinking "learn Spanish", remember that this country has many cultures in it, so if a Chinese student comes into my class should I learn Mandarin? What about an Italian student, now I have to learn Italian. English should be the only language in this country.....not at home and in social settings, but as far as state and federal.....English only. This is why people from foreign countries should go through the proper channels to come into this country. If you get your citizenship, it would be because you passed a test about this country in English.

      January 26, 2012 at 1:47 pm | Report abuse |
  7. GSA

    I think the other candidates will look pretty pathetic if someone who can't speak English beats them in the election, lol.
    @you be so silly – great point. Many others on the ballot may be able to speak English really well but if given a test on their intellect...who knows?

    January 26, 2012 at 12:52 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Burbank

    Considering it is Arizona and NOT Northern Mexico, good English skills most certaiinly should be required. It's exactly what people complain about, these Latinos come here but don't really want to assimilate, just try to take over and bilk the taxpayer for free social services.

    Maybe this will teach her the lessons she didn't want to learn in high school and ninspire her to get off her lazy, stubborn behind and learn English! If she doesn't like it she can just scuttle back across the border and run for office in Mexico!

    January 26, 2012 at 12:53 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • AJ Smith

      Man, that sounds racist as hell. The whole "go back to Mexico" thing is not the answer. Alejandra Cabrera went to school here, remember? The answer is to change the system that enables this to occur.

      January 26, 2012 at 1:15 pm | Report abuse |
  9. bobcat ( in a hat )

    This is truly sad. She's running for office, albeit city council, and is not able to proficiently speak our language. This is not acceptable. If we were to go to a foreign country, we would have to be proficient in their language. Why is it any different here ? And to make matters worse, she graduated high school with nothing more than a working knowledge of our language. In other words, she was able to get by.

    January 26, 2012 at 12:53 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  10. FXMCK

    I am horrified by the number of people on this page that agree that it is ok to prohibit a US CITIZEN from running for public office based on language skills. I envy any person that speaks two or more languages! It is an achievement that should be celebrated, not vilified! Just wait for the day that something YOU say or do can't be said or done anymore, and they come for YOU! Who will you turn to for help?? Who will you turn to that will fight the injustice against you?

    January 26, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Jeff

      The problem is she DOESN'T speak two languages. At least not more than absolute basics. She speaks Spanish fluently with some familiarity with English.

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

      @FXMCK– Exactly on point! I wonder if Arizona is actually part of the US after all? We'll have to add this judge to the Arizona Hall of Shame that already includes their insane governor, their senile representatives, their racist laws, and their crazy sheriff of pink panties fame. As a Texan, I'm glad that there exists a state capable of making us forget George Bush and Rick Perry. Thanks Arizona!

      January 26, 2012 at 1:52 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Scottish Mama

    I wonder if they have write ins on the ballot?

    January 26, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Mary

    The question should be can she understand Politics. Now that's a whole different English, if you can call it that. But she should know at least the basic understanding of english.

    January 26, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  13. lolotte

    I am born French, and my English is full of mistakes, but i am improving and i believe all foreigners who want to be part of this country should be speaking English in public. By not doing it, you have no respect for the country and abusing their hospitality, and let me tell you American people are very understandable when you try to speak their language

    January 26, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Ralph Henson

    Given that she is a high school graduate, why doesn't she speak good English? If English is required by the state, why doesn't this state school teach it? Teach the standard, test the standard, and if you do not pass the test, you do not graduate. How good does the man that challenged her speak English? Fair is fair. Personal dislike should not enter politics.

    January 26, 2012 at 12:56 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Kirk

    I don't go to restaurants where I can't read the menu because it isn't in English, so how or why would I vote for someone I couldn't understand?

    It’s common sense, we need a common language to communicate, if we cannot communicate – we are doomed.

    January 26, 2012 at 12:56 pm | Report abuse | Reply
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