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. Anna

    I don't understand. If she is a U.S. citizen and went to school here and graduated high school, why is she still speaking broken english? If she took a citizenship test, how did she pass without speaking solid english? And I'm not talking about accent, just clear, solid english. I come from a hispanic family, 5 generations in CA. Both english and mexican are spoken within the family and we speak distinctly in either language. I'm not saying she isn't capable of representing her town, just if she was born in the U.S. or has been here long enough to get U.S. citizenship, she should be able to speak english.

    January 26, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • dakota2000

      The Governor of the state speaks broken english. But she is white so it is ok.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Q

      She's not speaking broken English, she's speaking NO English. Not at all conversationally fluent.
      "What school did you graduate from?"
      Repeat above 3 times.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • DeDee

      You are right, she should be more proficient than she sounds. She could not answer what High School she graduated from??? I have some proficiency in Spanish and German, as well as my American English. I cannot imagine running for political office in any Spanish or German speaking country if I did not have a master of that country's language. Thisfact alone addresses her inability to make wise decisions and even if she is popular amongst her peers, they should be concerned about her decision making abilities.

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

      you speak mexican?

      January 26, 2012 at 3:21 pm | Report abuse |
  2. dye biach

    just dye biach, f off and go home.

    January 26, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nick-o

      That's just plain wrong and you know it.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Wanosd

    Umm, I wasn't born in America. My English is very good (i.e. 99.9% you can't tell English is not my second language), but I still feel English is not as fluent as my native language. Having said that, if you don't understand English, you have no business being in office. It's not like you're dealing with the people in the neighbohood only. You have to deal with people in other cities, state, etc. If math is required to be an engineer, if I'm not good in math as I could be, maybe I should file a lawsuit claiming they are discriminating me from being hired at Boeing, to build jets that you trust your lives in, because I don't know any math? How obsurd is that? It's no different if you don't know English very well and you want to run for office, or anything else that requires competent communication skills. Having an accent is NOT the same as not understanding. TWO different things, like night and day.

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


      January 26, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • dancingjellyfish

      exactly. I think what isn't addressed here and should bei sthat she graduated from HS in AZ and can't speak English!??? How the heck did that happen? This isn't a racist statement to follow but there are Countries that are Hispanic, where Spanish is the official language. People who want to live in those environs should live in those Countries. Why are so many people coming to America to escape their crappy Countries and trying to turn America (the US) into their crappy Countries? It's illogical.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ivan

      When asked three times in English what school she graduated from she could not answer. Sure, she is qualified to handle council meetings i English and understand legislation well enough to vote in an informed manner. To save money next time you have a medical problem just consult your gardener, he can mow a lawn, good enough.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Report abuse |
  4. michael

    On a side not I am not allowed to voice my oppinion in this comment section. Not because of disrespectful language or hate speach but ONLY because it is obviously not in keeping with the moderators idea of what should be allowed.....

    January 26, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Mexi

    As America sinks the excuses for non-performing people rise. Sad.

    January 26, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Report abuse |
  6. MikoM

    Where was this judge when Bush running? lol!

    January 26, 2012 at 2:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • TAK

      Doh! You beat me to it.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • dancingjellyfish


      January 26, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Report abuse |
  7. TAK

    Where was this judge when George W Bush was running for office?

    January 26, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • MikoM

      lol. great minds think alike

      January 26, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Report abuse |
  8. The Shephard

    Soon that will be the official language in the US. Everything is in Spanish. It's really a slap in the face to every American that was born and raised in this country.

    January 26, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Ivan

    I come from Russia and no speak English. I want to get elected, Russian mafia will help, OK?

    January 26, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Golden Rule

    Es ist zeit für rache. Wir müssen die ausrottung der ausländer. Ausländer raus! Amerika für die Amerikaner!

    January 26, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • dakota2000

      Sieg Heil you nazi *astard. und, was machst du hier?

      January 26, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ivan

      Ich bin einverstanden.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Jacqueline

    Would it be any different if she was deaf and used sign language? Just wondering.

    January 26, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Q

      A deaf person would be able to understand people by reading lips. Which is more than this lady can do.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Report abuse |
  12. BlackDynamite

    I thought this was about Newt

    January 26, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Report abuse |
  13. wetbackheyturd

    This heerz amurika... Yallz needs to be more asepting! lmao 🙂 jk jk..

    January 26, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Report abuse |
  14. James K.

    Another liberal racist judge, who thinks that the government and judiciary needs to decide for the people who they want to represent them. If we think she isn't qualified (which she probably isn't) we can make that decision ourselves rather than being told by a guy in a robe.

    January 26, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • dakota2000

      Exactly. This a democracy. Judges can't decide the election...

      January 26, 2012 at 3:12 pm | Report abuse |
  15. dakota2000

    All you racist: Property is cheap in Arizona after all the illegals fled the state. Come on down and form a colony of like minded people. You get to carry a gun in a bar, and you are allowed to shoot one mexican a year on Cinco de Mayo.

    January 26, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Golden Rule

      Property is cheap, Mexicans are cheaper. If I carry two guns, can I shoot two Mexicans? YEEE HAWWWW!! Pew pew! Pew pew!! There's a Mexican over there! GET 'EM!! Pew pew! YEEEE HAWWW! Round 'em up, boys!!

      January 26, 2012 at 3:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • dakota2000

      Why yes you can. You can pick them up on any street corner. The best thing is to let em go in the desert and hunt them down with your pickup truck.... You will want to join the Arizona Minutemen. They know where the best "fishing" is...

      January 26, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • dakota2000

      I should say that Sheriff Arpiao makes it to easy by dressing them up in pink prison uniforms. What is the sport in that?

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