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.
Having learned the Queens English I can assure you most americans do not know how to speak english. I would rather hear a foreigner stumble, but try, than to endure the local eubonics who believe they speak "gooder."
Got Milk! no, you have milk.
How cool are you?
In the Queen's English, do you not capitalize nationalities or languages? If so, good luck on your continuing acquisition of our beautiful shared language, English. As an American, I'm both proud and humbled to impart to you the value of correct writing when condescending to others about their locutionary habits.
EFL teacher in Europe > Well said!
As a student of the Kings English, I am hesitant, yet duty bound to point out your failure to capitalize the word English.
I believe during several points in England history, you might have well been sent to the gallows for such an oversight.
Para Mi, la clima es comfortable. Gracias por la pregunta Bob. Usted es muy amable pero me creas que no estoy agradecido a conocerte.
Y su español es peor que su inglés. Es "el clima" y no "la clima" desde hace algunos siéglos.
Do you speak fluent spanish? I hope you know that Texas in a Mexican colony and you're the foreigner.
This might be the most ridiculous thing I have ever read. Wow.
Mexico lost the right to call it that over 170 years ago after the Texas resolvution, and then its subsequent annexation and Mexico's loss to the United States in the Mexican-American war. The gave up the territory officailly at that time, they have no claim.
*revolution, excuse me
Really? I seem to remember a war about...oh...176 years ago that granted independence from Mexico. I'm certainly glad that happened...as I have clean water, electricity, and don't worry about getting murdered on my way to work.
Changing the name of the land claimant did not win the war for the hearts and minds of the descendants.
Oh? Who did Spaniards steal it from first?
Here's a novel idea. Why not put her name on the ballot and let the people locally decide if they want her or not? This is clearly a case of others deciding to not even give her a chance. If the people elect her, so be it.
Politicians only say "leave it up to the voters" when they think the voters will agree with them.
ALL BALLOTS PRINTED IN ONLY ENGLISH PLEASE
Sambo...to correct you once again..
The CORRECT way to form the sentence would have been "ALL BALLOTS TO BE PRINTED IN ENGLISH ONLY, PLEASE".
Two sides of a coin:
1. If she's running for local office, and 98% of people there are Hispanic, then even if she didn't speak any English whatsoever she would be qualified.
2. It's in her best interest to get better English skills. She'll be communicating with state departments and state officials in English as part of her duties. Which takes more time – the legal battle she's fighting or learning better English skills?
NOT SO...IF SHE'S RUNNING FOR CITY COUNCIL IN THIS COUNTRY SHE NEEDS TO SPEAK ENGLISH
San Luis, AZ is still in the US and all US citizens need to sperak English!
Let this IMMIGRANT say something::::
Like I said, I'm an Immigrant, my mother was an English Teacher. No, she didn't teach English in the classroom; she taught teachers how to teach English to kids who didn't speak it as a first language. For the last two years, I have worked with Asyless and refugees from Haiti, to Cuba, and Iraq to Darfur; I can assure you that if an immigrant can GRADUATE HIGH SCHOOL and can't even answer that question in ENGLISH that state's school system should be SCRAPPED.
The question is not whether she should be able to speak English, the question should be, HOW IN THE WORLD DID SHE PASS THE STANDARDIZE TEST in order to graduate? As you should be profficient enough to read the direction from the questions and answer them correctly in order to PASS the test.
If the state can answer that question, then her profficiency level will be in that answer.
TAKE IT FROM THE IMMIGRANT.
Standardized testing or not it is on the individual to make the effort to properly learn a language. I have taken several foreign language classes and never was it even close to the experience of being around the native speakers in their country. I have lived and worked for several years overseas. I both love and appreciate other cultures and wish very much that the US would sometimes take certain ways from others. That being said, blaming a high school or a test is a cop out. You want to learn the language? Take it upon yourself to get better at it, dont wait for someone else to do it for you. If you are old enough to run for public office in a primarily english speaking country than you are old enough to realize its your fault for not learning it better.
She represents the majority of people in her area. As such, she is probably one of the better choices to rerpesent them.
The United States has no national language and nearly 30% of Arizona's citizens are of hispanic origin, so it would be wise for the GOP to get over their recent spurt of xenophobia if they wish to retain their power in the state.
I would agree that she knows the people in her area better and can converse with them at that level... However English is a primary language and if she can't grasp it during council meetings, how can she truly represent her district???
If she truly wanted to represent her district she would take steps to learn English a bit better and try to get better programs in her area to help people learn BOTH languages instead of this "Spanish Only" crap.
Its not xenophobe – its the fact we have umpteen different languages spoken in this country... I know districts that are heavily Ukranian and Russian.. Maybe we should all learn those languages as well.
BECAUSE THIS IS THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. IF YOU RESIDE HERE ....SPEAK THE LANGUAGE. IF YOU ARE VISITING ...NO BIG DEAL.........YOUNEED TO SPEAK THE LANGUAGE OF THE COUNTRY YOU LIVE IN, NOT HUDDLE IN LITTLE GROUPS, NEVER LEARN THE LANGUAGE AND WONDER WHY YOU HAVE SUCH A HARD TIME SURVIVING
Sambo... In English, You never start a sentence with "Because". You seem to know English or "Amglish" for that matter, but you do not know how to "WRITE" .
Common sense says that if you do not know how to WRITE, then definetely,you do not know how to SPEAK it.
So quit complaining with your broken English and learn to speak/write it the RIGHT way.!!
Might I point out that there are also standards that involve the proper use of capitalization and punctuation? Your comments might be taken somewhat more seriously if it looked like you were making an effort yourself.
Incidentally, immigrants living all their lives in ethnic enclaves and never learning English is nothing new; it's been the case as long as the US has existed. They have always had businesses, professional people, newspapers, schools, and whatnot available in their native languages. There is more assimilation nowadays (primarily due to television) than there was a hundred years go.
Do you speak Algonquin or Athabaskan ? Perhaps it's time you adapted to learning the local language instead of huddling in little groups (forts). English is not the only game in town -except for those too lazy to learn anything else.
We recently had a president that didn't know how to speak correct English but he got elected twice. Well that's a stretch; he was selected the first term and stole the election in Ohio hte second term. I used to cringe every time he spoke, which fortunately wasn't often. He knew he couldn't speak well so he had other do it for him. What a putz.
stole the election in the second term? What? Bush beat Kerry badly. I'm not arguing about the first term, but Bush won his second term in a LANDSLIDE. Also, please don't compare a former president to an illiterate lady in Arizona.
The lady in Arizona is not illiterate – she just doesn't speak fluent English. Not the same thing.
Why does it seem that the majority of people who are concerned about English grammar likely also voted for George "Is Our Children Learning" Bush?
Im a liberal and I dont believe, for one moment, that anyone coming to this country or already here in this country that wishes to work should be given the choice to learn English. English should be a requirement for every job in this country.
how did those who voted for obama vote for someone who thinks there are 57 states......this would be acceptable for an illegal alien; but not the bonehead who is now running our country. To me, this shows the ignorance of the people who voted him in
Always start a sentence in UPPER CASE or capital letters.
I am tired of correcting your English in all your posts. As said earlier, You failed the exam. So please , Go back to where you came from , which I am pretty sure is from the poor continent of Europe !!
Learn to READ, WRITE & SPEAK the same and then come back here & preach!
So this means that deaf people cannot hold office in AZ. People who had their larynx removed for a medical condition cannot hold office in AZ.
why are you picking on the tobacco industry? "larynx removed" YOU LIBERAL LIKE ME. lol
For crying out loud! Of course she should be able to speak English! Will they want to change the White House seal to God/Allah save America next. Multi cultural maybe but some things cannot change. The people who vote for her need to speak English too, speaking with a minimal accent is part of speaking a language. My advice to her : make an effort!
Thank you, Arizona, for reminding the rest of the world how racist you are.
That will be traveling up the federal court system...pretty sure it will be overturned somewhere along the way.
This is very sad of course. We are a country that is spending too much time trying to make everyone happy as opposed to actually changing things for the better.
This shouldn't even be a question or even an issue of any noteworthy means. I am an American, born in the US to two Brazillian parents. They both speak english very well. I speak English, Spanish, Portuguese and French fluently. However, with all that I just said, none of it matters. This is the United States we speak English here. Learn it, speak it, or leave it.
Barring citizens the ability to hold office based upon language capability is extremely anti-democratic. With a loose reading of the laws utilized in this situation, it could bar deaf/mute people from serving as well based upon usage of American Sign Language. Now, do they really want to challenge ADA?
You shouldnt be reading into it loosely. They should be read properly. American Sign language is based on English. I'd rather see a deaf/mute public servant that used ASL than a perfectly capable person that has no grasp on language. Not only is it unprofessional but it speaks to the individuals lack of discipline.
"...a perfectly capable person that has no grasp on language." That describes a disturbingly large percentage of the people commenting in this thread.