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. wallyw0rld

    Let the voters decide.

    January 26, 2012 at 1:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ross

      How did she graduate a US High School while being unable to answer in English which one?

      January 26, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • HILO, HI

      That won't work anymore. Some groups are distorting democracy by over-breeding, in a time of crisis level overpopulation and orphans no less, simply to sheer up their demographics.

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

      I NEVER understood a word Arnold Schwarzenegger said in any speech!!!!
      Then again he was a moviestar and maried to a Kennedy. Obviously proficiency in the english language
      is not a requirement for governorship in California.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • dancingjellyfish

      @Ali...an accent is a completely different issue than not being able to speak English.

      January 26, 2012 at 8:00 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Pam

    It is hard to believe that there is a whole town of people that can barely speak English that is even a part of the U.S. That in itself is ridiculous.

    January 26, 2012 at 1:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Observer

      We just had a president with little idea of English grammar.

      January 26, 2012 at 1:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tal Greywolf

      Why is it ridiculous? There are places in Louisiana where French is the primary language, and is promoted by the state. And I'm sure there's other communities where English is a secondary language. As long as this country as a whole does not have a clearly defined official language, then every language is still fair game, and proficiency should never be a cause for disqualification. Otherwise there would be a lot of politicians in the Deep South who should be disqualified for failing to be able to speak English... not American, there is no language by that name, English.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Andrew

      Immigrant towns where nobody spoke English have been a staple of American history. From German towns in the hill country of Texas to Swedish-speaking villages in Minnesota. From French-speaking hamlets in Maine to Spanish-speaking burgs in California. Many of these villages stayed monolingual for generations before English really took root.

      Not to mention the hundreds of towns and communities that never spoke English, but one of the hundreds of Native American languages.

      The idea that Americans always spoke English is a myth- it was never true, and it never will be.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Eric the actor

      There are placed in Michigan where Farsi is the majority language, in California where Vietnamese is spoken the most. Open your ignorant eyes.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ali

      You would be surprised how many black, white, and hispanic americans that are not proficient in the english language.
      Its sad to see the magnatude of illiteracy in our country. If teachers were paid more then we would not have this problem. If we had good teachers we wouldn't have a high rate of high school drop outs.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bubba

      Please go down to Louisiana and say that to a bunch of Creoles in a pool hall.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Randy

      It shouldn't be hard to believe, considering Arizona became a state in 1912. Before it was a territory, it was part of Mexico. They've been speaking Spanish there longer than they've been speaking English.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Pam

    Why are we the only country in the world that has this problem with what language is the national language? Anywhere else in the world you travel, you must have some grasp of the language spoken. I think it is a travesty that we have to fight for the right to speak our native language in our own country. If these people don't want to learn the language, they should go back to their mother country. Why is this the only group of people who claim to want to be citizens, but then parade the mexican flag around at their rallies and refuse to learn the language and become American? And better yet, why do we let them get away with it???

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

      Actually, in most of the world you only need to know English, since anyone working in tourism will have learned enough to deal with foreign tourists.

      And even if you did have to learn the local language in other countries, that's other countries. I thought America was exceptional. That's what people keep saying... guess you think it really isn't.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • Observer

      lol. Go to Canada and ask people around the country what the national language is. Do some research.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • Russell

      @Pam: India has more than 50 different languages. While Hindi is the national language not everyone speaks it. Not everyone speaks Mandarin in China either. I do agree as Americans everyone should speak English. However the reality is not always as easy or simple for everyone as it is for you. A lot of the Spanish speaking people are extremely hard working and doing menial jobs beyond your imagination all day long. It is not always easy for them to take the time to learn English (a luxury to some). Just because you were born lucky do not try to exert crappy your logic upon them. If you are really that concerned perhaps you can voluntarily help them learn English.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Eric the actor

      The "Native" language of the USA has never been Engliish. And you sound like a redneck Pam.

      I'm a white guy and could care less what language people speak. We are a multi cultural society and the more intollerant you are to other cultures the more ignorant you come off. Get an education, get out of the house, visit other cultures and people and open your eyes.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Pierre-Paul Legault

      Do you really think the USA is the only country with this problem? Here in Canada we have a whole province where less than half the people speak English. In Mexico there are a number of American ex-pat towns where everyone speaks English and few speak Spanish. Spain has a number of regions where standard Castillian is not widely spoken. In the hills of Bavaria there still are towns and villages where the dominant language is Bavarian dialect and few speak standard German. Russia has scores of towns and villages where few speak Russian.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • misands

      Wow Pam, you really have never traveled out of the U.S., have you? Let's see, Canada has English and French speakers. Some in Quebec don't speak English at all. India has dozens and dozens of different languages and not all know English. Numerous Latin American nations have native people that don't speak Spanish.
      Perhaps you should Google multilingual nations and learn something before you go online and spew mindless drivel about a world you clearly know little about.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rick in SD

      Are you kidding? You obviously haven't traveled much. Many countries have more than one official language. In Switzerland, for instance, it's Italian, French, German and Romansh.

      January 26, 2012 at 5:36 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Kittyg

    Everyone should join and support http://www.englishfirst.org!

    January 26, 2012 at 1:56 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Bubba

    I don't think you should try to administrate if there's a chance you could be fooled or fast-talked because of your own poor language skills. I'd be afraid to go into banking or accounting with my own cruddy math skills. It's why we haven't elected old Mert from down at the Bait Shop mayor either; the guy can't read or write.

    January 26, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Serious Person

    So let me get this straight, everyone wants to come to the US and get citizenship. However, they don't like our laws that outline how to do it legally and they don't like our language? So, they just want to take part of the US and part of their old country because neither one is good enough for them? Do I have that right?

    January 26, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • OQ

      Did you miss the part of that person being a U.S. citizen, and the name of the town being San Luis? Your assumptions about our country and our democracy are bland, fearful, limited and flawed. Welcome to the real world Dorothy, good luck making it.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bubba

      "So let me get this straight" Please do. You should have done that before you embarrassed yourself by posting.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Report abuse |
  7. prince

    what does our road signs say?anyone who opose the judge decition to think twice

    January 26, 2012 at 2:01 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Kim

    Have her take the TOEFL, they make students coming to study here from oversea's take it. I feel bad for her but if you're going to run for an office you need to have a firm grasp on the English language, especially since chances are pretty good you're going to have to interact with people who only speak English.

    January 26, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bubba

      Interacting with unscrupulous people who talk a mile a minute is what I'd be worried about.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Report abuse |
  9. KClayton

    I know the language at issue here is Spanish, and I agree there is nothing wrong with everyone learning to speak Spanish, but there is equally nothing wrong with Spanish speakers learning English. The problem isn't necessarily with Spanish, but as so many people point out we are a land of many languages and cultures. How is it right to change the rules for Spanish and not for any other language? What if someone who speaks predominantly Vietnamese wants to run for office? Does that mean everyone else should have to learn Vietnamese or that an interpreter must be provided? We need a unifying language for goverment or things could get really confusing. Most people speak English and that's the language our government is conducted in. Yes, people in Mexico are willing to learn English, but what language is official government work done in? Spanish. Many Germans speak English fluently, but what language is official government business done in? German.Nothing wrong with being bil-lingual or tri-lingual, but we have to have a unifying language for the country.

    January 26, 2012 at 2:03 pm | Report abuse |
  10. American

    How good should a candidate for political office english be? Well, good enough to spell potatoe. Just ask former Vice Presidential candidate Dan Quayle! And why should Ms. Cabrera have to worry about how she speaks the english language? How many english speaking Americans living in confiscated Mexican land in the Southwest actually speak the native language? You go girl!

    January 26, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • daveez

      potatoe?? Nah!

      January 26, 2012 at 2:25 pm | Report abuse |
  11. DUH

    One cannot end a sentence with a preposition...so, um, duh...how good must one's English be to write headlines for CNN's mainpage?

    January 26, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Cat

      "Be" is a verb, not a preposition. There is nothing wrong with the headline.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Jo Jo

    How did she graduate high school then? Did teachers just flunk her? The job is an elected position and everyone has their right to say No or Yes..period.

    January 26, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Report abuse |
  13. TomGI

    I'd wager she isn't running to folks whose #1 language is English. She should just speak Spanish and campaign to Hispanic voters. Personally, I would never vote for someone whose English skills were weak or non-existent.

    January 26, 2012 at 2:05 pm | Report abuse |
  14. G. W. Bush

    Would this be an issue if an English speaking candidate ran for a position in a Mexican town? She lives in America... speak the language of the country you are in and expect no special treatment.

    January 26, 2012 at 2:05 pm | Report abuse |
  15. nemini

    Being Latino and not being able to speak English in this wonderful country of ours is absolutely not defensible. Latinos at the very least MUST me able to speak fluent English, and fluent Spanish, but should at least read French, Italian, and Portuguese. Latinos should set the standard much higher for themselves. Forget about San Luis. Go for the White House! (but you got to be ready... no excuses)

    January 26, 2012 at 2:05 pm | Report abuse |
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