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. Rags

    I agree with what John Wayne allegedly said: "Why do I have to press '1' for English?

    January 26, 2012 at 2:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mike

      Because if you don't you will have to listen to elevator music until you do.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • Guest

      When the hell has it ever said to press one for english?
      Ive heard 8 for spanish,but not once have I ever heard one for english.
      No one is forcing us to learn spanish.As long as Ideas are efficiently communicated,which if one group is the majority then it would be better if their political representative speaks the same language.As long as they speak enough english to translate,thats all that matters.
      Heck,Ive never heard the pope speak english,and a lot of people listen to him for some reason.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • MC

      Well, John W. also said people without land should use force to take land from those who have too much...

      January 26, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Shane

      @Guest – Either you havn't called that many customer service numbers, or you have just been really lucky with the ones you do call. Also, the judge ruled on his belief of her not having a good enough understanding of English to hold the office. As far as not being forced to learn Spanish, I live in CA and knowing Spanish is a requirement at the majority of jobs here. So actually people are being 'forced' to learn Spanish if they want a job.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • Buddy

      So, you are against capitalism? A company can't decide what is best for their company, and if it is allowing people to be able to access customer service in a language they are more proficient in, in order to make more money (the capitalist, American way!), then why shouldn't they be able to? You're a socialist trying to make all of the companies operate in a way that you want them to... Protect America by destroying it's basic capitalist principles. Let me know how that works for you!

      January 26, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Buddy

      @Shane ... The hospital won't let me get a job there. THey say I have to have a nursing degree, or having gone to medical school. They are taking jobs away from me!

      If a company, in capitalist America, determines that the best candidate for a job has to know Spanish and English, then they have a right to hire the best qualified person. It cracks me up that you want affirmative action for yourself and you want the job, even though you don't know Spanish and therefore are not the most qualified applicant as determined by the company.

      Go to a socialist country if you want the government to tell the businesses who they can and can't hire.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Shane

      @Buddy – I know Spanish, not extremely well, but I know some. Also, comparing not getting a nursing job because you haven't gone through the educational process to actually know anything about what you would be doing to not getting a job because you don't know Spanish (which many times is never used) is completely ridiculous. I never said the government should force jobs to use one language only, that was something you dreamt up. I'm wondering how you came to the conclusion that I wanted affirmative action? I never said anything more than people are being forced to learn Spanish, its actually part of the requirements to graduate high school in CA. Don't be an ignoramus.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • Buddy

      @Shane – You sure were whining about it! Good for California that they recognize that having some Spanish exposure beyond the drive-thru at Taco Bell will be helpful for California businesses. By using the word "force" when it comes to being forced to learn Spanish in order to get a job, just get a job in another sector, or learn the necessary skills as determined by the employer in order to get the job. There is zero force in this situation. You can chose to enhance your job skills and learn Spanish or just not get the job. By using the word "force" you are whining about the situation.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Report abuse |
  2. LG

    My biggest concern is high school graduates not having a proficient grasp of the English language no matter the student's primary language.

    January 26, 2012 at 2:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Buddy

      No kidding! Especially those who have English as their first language. How the hell do they not know how to spell "ridiculous" by the time they graduate from high school, like the moron a few posts up.

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


    January 26, 2012 at 2:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Shane

      not really...

      January 26, 2012 at 2:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • GRTR

      II didn't understand you.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Shane

      Even if I had understood what you were trying to convey here, it is completely different trying to convey something in a language you don't fully understand. You don't know the right words to say what you are thinking, and you don't know the correct way in which to phrase the words that you don't know. So, as you can see, it gets a little more complicated than the last bit you were trying to proclaim in the last sentence.

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

      It's O.K. I speak jive

      January 26, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Shane

      @leebo – situationally perfect Airplane reference for the win!

      January 26, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Report abuse |
  4. John Asian American

    She needs to be able to speak and write English...if she wants to serve in the US government... She can use Spainish anytime she wants but what if other co-workers speak and mix Spainish and English together and she cannot understand... She and her lawyer needs re examine their rational thinking...

    God, what has the USA has coming to...

    I am couldnt careless about grammar issues as long as she can read, write and speak...

    January 26, 2012 at 2:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sam

      What is 'Spainish'?

      January 26, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Buddy

      Isn't proper grammar part of being able to write English proficiently? Of course you don't care about grammar, your post is littered with ignorant grammar usage and demonstrates a lack of proficiency when it comes to writing the English language.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Vanitha

    I come from a country with multiple languages. I gets very messy. We definitely need one official language.

    January 26, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Bob

    The racists in Arizona are at it again. When will this state come to its senses and stop attacking the Hispanics?

    January 26, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nicole

      They will never stop until the economy gets better. They are afraid and need someone to blame. So instead of looking inward they blame the easy target. The Nazi's did it to the Jews.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • Somratni

      So I guess nobody who doesn't speak Spanish will be able to work in her office if she is elected. This is rediculous! It's already bad enough in the sanctuary state where I live. You can't get a job unless you are bilingual.

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

      How is it racist to point out the severe lack of qualification a person has when it comes to serving in government? If this woman has the ambition and the determination to seek elected office she should have the ambition and determination to become proficient in English.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bob

      For all the racists commenting here, ever heard of an interpreter? There is absolutely no reason why this woman should not be able to serve her community. It should be up to the voters in her city if they want to elect someone with limited English skills.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Buddy

      @Somratni – What is ridiculous is that you cannot spell "ridiculous" properly. How are you going to complain about someone else's English usage, when you can't even demonstrate proper proficiency of the English language yourself? Did you even graduate high school?

      How many more morons in these comments will bash this lady for not having proper English proficiency and illustrate to us their own lack of English proficiency.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • Penny

      Are you kidding me or yourself.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Sam

    People should be banned from making comments on how others need to know English unless they can do so without spelling mistakes.

    January 26, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Buddy

      AMEN!! These people are probably Americans who have been born and raised here and somehow got a high school diploma, despite their complete ignorance. Some donkey above spelled "ridiculous" as "rediculous".

      January 26, 2012 at 3:07 pm | Report abuse |
  8. LTF

    The voters should be able to decide. And if they elect someone who cannot speak English, then the elected person cannot effectively represent you. It'll be their loss.

    January 26, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Report abuse |
  9. jimmy jams

    I tihnk it should be pretty simple. You have to be 18 to vote so candidates should be able to pass the english/writing section of the local version of the GED or something similar. If you can't read, write and communicate as well as is required to graduate high school (a pretty low bar let's be honest) then you really have no business being an elected official. Reading and understanding the laws of the land in their original written language seems like a duty of office. Look I'm not one to discriminate nor anything close to a hard-liner on immigaration, but come on it's not racist or discriminatory. It's common sense. Just because you can get by in a community not speaking English doesn't mean you're fit to run for office.

    January 26, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Ordnry1

    I totally agree with Arizona’s law requiring all state officers and members of the state legislature the ability to read, write, speak and understand the English language sufficiently. The United States is an English speaking country and not all citizens speak Spanish, Chinese or other mother tongues. I live in California where many Asians reside. I look Chinese but I am not and I don’t speak Chinese. Whenever I go to a Chinese hair salon or Asian food store, I was immediately mistaken for Chinese and everybody started talking to me in Chinese. I was offended in the beginning but I am used to it now and just politely responded that I don’t speak Chinese. We have malls where many stores have signs written in Chinese only. I believe that when we come to this great country as immigrants, we should and must learn to read, write and speak English. It’s always good to learn a second language but remember, here in America, English is the first language. Having said that, one of these days, I’ll learn Chinese or Spanish.

    January 26, 2012 at 2:44 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Thelma Heywood

    In China there are nearly 70 dialects of Chinese that are so different in many cases, they are like different languages. Therefore, in China, they have taken the sensible step: in order to conduct classes to educate children and in order to conduct business and run government, the official dialect – Mandarin – is required. At home, you use your own dialect if desired, but otherwise, the official dialect is Mandarin.

    I speak English, Spanish and some French. When I visit countries where Spanish is spoken, I speak Spanish. When my grandparents came from Germany to the U.S., my parents had to learn English before they could be registered for school. It took 3 years, but they learned English. Eventually my father became a Federal attorney in D.C. and my mother worked as an educator for DoDDS at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. She had to pass an oral exam at American University to earn her M.S. degree. Some Hispanics I know are insulted that we offer Spanish so much in the U.S. They tell me they believe we think they aren't smart enough and motivated enough to learn English. They do have brains, you know, same as we. In Canada there are two official languages. However, it takes a lot of time to announce in two languages every time an event takes place. It would be wiser to require everyone to learn English. There will always be translaters. English is pretty much taught globally these days because of the use of computers. A global language certainly facilitates conducting business and education.

    I would never say English is the best language. In Latin languages there are more verbs and conjunctions to express exactly the meaning one desires to convey. But since English already has a foot in so many doors, we should go ahead and make it legal. Besides, as far as the U.S. is concerned, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." No other country I have visited so freely offered English for me.

    January 26, 2012 at 2:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mickey

      You had me right up to "it takes a lot of time". No not really – political speeches etc are usually split with an interpreter doing a voice over. It isn't a big deal and much of the world speaks either English or French as their second language.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Matt

    Looks like the Deaf are completely screwed out of office then too.

    January 26, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Guest

    I work in a convenience store,and most of the time those who speak only spanish can communicate their message across a lot easier than those who know english but dont know how to speak clearly,or talk in slang.

    January 26, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Me

    Hmm, it's specified as a law. Can't get around that one. My husband was born in AZ. His family has lived there for generations and like many families, Spanish is the language spoken in the home. In fact, he didn't learn English until the fourth grade. So much for AZ schools. For the town, her English skills are fine but what about when conducting business outside of San Luis? Despite the prevalance of Spanish speakers all over AZ, when it comes time to conduct business in Phoenix, it isn't prudent to not be fluent and to expand that beyond state business, what about across the country? "Mayor, the Mayor of Buffalo, NY is on line one."

    January 26, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Mark

    Being that this county's primary language is English, people should be expected to be able to operate fluently in that language. You always hear references to the dumbing down of America. When we keep making exceptions and allowances in areas of education and performance, eventually people reach a level when they're unable to perform competantly.

    January 26, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Report abuse |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37