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. b in fl

    if you are in america learn to speak the language , this catering to the spanish is stupid

    January 26, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • dumb americans (spanish speakers too)

      to "the spanish"?? The truth is there aren't many Spanish people here. People who speak Spanish, yes. People from Spain, no. Speaking Spanish doesn't mean you're Spanish, just like I'm sure you're not from England.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • JECD

      Who cares? Her Spanish is great and 98.7 % are Hispanic. Her English is ok – just "slower".
      I know plenty of people born and raised here who don't do too much better with their english.
      I heat them on radio and TV news constantly. THEY should know better.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • JECD

      Who cares? Her Spanish is great and 98.7 % are Hispanic. Her English is ok – just "slower".
      I know plenty of people born and raised here who don't do too much better with their english.
      I hear them on radio and TV news constantly. THEY should know better.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Q

      JECD, her English is not 'just slower'. I don't know where you came up with that assertion.

      What the article did state, is that she could not answer when asked what school she graduated from. Three times.

      It sounds to be that she is unable to hold the most basic conversation in English. Sorry.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Alva Puddin

    Candidates grasp of English too poor? Did anyone tell George W. Bush that? "Nuk-u-lar?" How about Sarah Palin and her 'made up' vocabulary? One could successfully argue that she made up her own language that had little to do with the Queen's English! LOL The GOP needs to look in the mirror before criticizing someone else's grammar.

    January 26, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Pedro

      There's a HUGE difference between Bush's English speaking ability and this woman's. As a Latino voter, I agree with the court's ruling. (Bush and Palin can both suck it though.)

      January 26, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Report abuse |
  3. the Internet Comic

    Hey, what's the problem. If the judge gives his decision in English, she won't understand it anyway. BDUMP-BUMP.

    Hey, thank you. I'm here all week. Try the veal.

    January 26, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Henry

    Pretty sure that judge's ruling was illegal since there is actually no official language in the U.S.

    January 26, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mikey

      All the statutes in this country are written in english. Someone with only a rudimentary grasp of this language shouldn't be interpreting and drafting laws.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Report abuse |
  5. My name is Jose Jimenez

    Supreme Court here we come.

    newt = a low life form frequenting cold, damp, dark places surrounded by rocks while avoiding sunlight.

    January 26, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Report abuse |
  6. b in fl

    if you don't want to speak english, go back to where you came from

    January 26, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • hawkechik


      January 26, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Report abuse |
  7. EFL teacher in Europe

    I'm an American living abroad and teaching English as a Foreign Language. Here in Europe, the issue of language proficiency is well defined in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages.

    This is a highly specific assessment tool for pinpointing the degree of someone's language proficiency in terms of Reading Comprehension, Listening Comprehension, Written Expression, Uninterrupted Speaking (giving a speech), and Oral Interaction. Language policymakers in the US should consider using such a tool. It's not a standard test, like the TOEFL, but a long list of compentecies that a person either possesses or doesn't possess.
    For anyone interested, just go to wikipedia and look up Common European Framework of References for Languages.

    January 26, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Sadie Boyd

    Then Sarah Palin and Rick Perry don't qualify for office either. I am also wondering about Gingrich's English skills or at least his receptive language skills. He seems delayed. You ask him a simple question and he becomes irate with the questioner and leads himself to a different subject entirely. There must be a name for that kind of disorder. I think we should have people take psychological examinations and demonstrate longevity with their ethics to qualify for office. I will vote for this woman, she probably knows more about the community than Judge panties in a wad.

    January 26, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • sambo

      you are an idiot

      January 26, 2012 at 2:37 pm | Report abuse |
  9. ann west

    That's the same thing I said about most southern candidates.

    January 26, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • reptilicus

      Sorry, did you read the article? She couldn't tell the judge what high school she graduated from after being asked 3 TIMES. Have an accent is different than not comprehending English at all!

      January 26, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • reptilicus

      Sorry, did you read the article? She couldn't tell the judge what high school she graduated from after being asked 3 TIMES. Having an accent is different than not comprehending English at all!

      January 26, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ben

      I agree with the judges ruling. You should not be aloud to hold a government office if u can't speak english. I also think there should be a national standard for proficiency of the english language. If u look up the United States on Wikipedia u will clearly see that the national language is english. I know that this will go to the sepreme court eventually, and the racist card will eventually be played again. I for one clearly think there should be a national language policy and it should be english. Like one person said on here, if u don't like it get out of the USA and go back to Mexico.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Not militant but sheesh

      The grammar and spelling on this "soundoff" comment blog is atrocious.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Proud to be an american

    First of all my parents are NOT from this country. Secondly I was born and raised in the US. Third of all I was a US soldier that helped defend this country. Enlish is the PRIMARY languge. If you do not like it, then hit the road! If you can not speak the language then you should not be holding a public office. The lies our government tells us is bad enough, but if you can't even speak the same language, then what?

    January 26, 2012 at 2:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • mpls007

      Thank you for your service!

      January 26, 2012 at 9:55 pm | Report abuse |
  11. American

    Heck, the english speaking governor of Arizona forgot how to speak english during the governor's debate a year ago and she was born speaking english. So what's the big deal here?

    January 26, 2012 at 2:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • sambo

      not the same, oh ignorant one. to forget your train of thought in the stress of a debate is different. You must be a roofer or well digger and have little knowledge of how the brain works or doesn't work under stress

      January 26, 2012 at 2:41 pm | Report abuse |
  12. miguelSLC

    Whats the issue here...? As long as she is able to fully understand and comprehend the issues she is fine, being able to communicate effectively is what should be required....If can, well, great, if she cant, then obviously she shouldnt be allowed to run. If its just a thick accent then who gives a #$#%. Most politicos from the southern states dont speak proper English either...

    January 26, 2012 at 2:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • Q

      She couldn't answer when asked what school she graduated from. She didn't understand the question.

      Perhaps she reads and writes English well, the article does not stay. But its obvious from her failure to understand the above question, that she has little to zero conversational ability with it.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Heather

    Can she attend meetings, give speeches and read forms and fill them out without the help of a translator? If she's functional in English although accented, there's no problem. The key word is "functional."

    January 26, 2012 at 2:32 pm | Report abuse |
  14. flashtrum

    You don't need to speak very well and be a successful politician in Baltimore. Ask is axe, month is monf, and so on.

    January 26, 2012 at 2:33 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Katie

    Members of public office need to be proficient in English – even if the district that they're representing has a large ESL population- because he or she will need to communicate with people other than just those that he or she is representing. Her grasp of the English language is CLEARLY quite low as she was not able to communicate which college she attended in English. Their is a big difference between someone in is not proficient in the English language and someone who is proficient but speaks with a heavy accent or makes the occasional error. I think it's a bit of a stretch to try to compare the two. Also, most policies, legislation and proposals are not written in low-level English.

    January 26, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Report abuse |
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