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. Judy

    Bilingual means that a person must have the ability to communicate effectively in both languages.

    January 26, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Ejhowe

    Finally a judge that gets it!!!

    January 26, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Pika

    It had be speak gooder than most.

    January 26, 2012 at 3:07 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Bob

    Regardless of whether the requirement is appropriate or not, Arizona law states that candidates must be proficient in English. If a person cannot name the high school from which they graduated, they are clearly not proficient in English. Another reader posted a good comment as well–If her English is that poor, why was she allowed to graduate?

    January 26, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Report abuse |
  5. pamik

    I agree with Anna. IF she's a citizen and IF she's been in this country for so long then it must just be laziness or stubborness that has led her to not knowing English beyond a "survival rate". She can speak well for San Luis huh? What if I lived there and didn't understand her Spanish? Would she help me? I feel bad that she's been put thru all of this publicity but I think what they did was correct.

    January 26, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Report abuse |
  6. sprider65

    Our goverment officials use language translators to communicate with other officials from other countries, who of course do not speak our language,english.Just imagine our english speaking president needing a translator to communicate with his daily cabinet meetings and with other elected officials in the country because we are a country with divided languages.I've got it,lets ditch english and spanish and have everyone learn to speak Swahili.

    January 26, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Vivian

    If she can't even understand/answer a simple question about where she went to school, she won't be able to sufficiently interact with the council and all the people/businesses they deal with. I'm pretty stunned that even after attending school here and in the years since she hasn't learned enough simple English to be able to answer basic questions. Either she is learning-deficient or does not care one whit about integrating into society outside her own insular community.

    My family spoke (and still does) a different language at home, but my parents made sure they and we learned the language the majority of people speak in this country because it was to our advantage to be able to interact with those outside our immigrant community.

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

    This is ridiculous that this will happen in the best democracy in the world. Look at India – almost every state has it's own language and still they are able to function in a common parliament.

    January 26, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • honest abe

      that's why India is a 3rd world nation!!!! Yea, that's right! India... you're kidding right?

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

      No absolutely not kidding. This is democracy – and if people elect someone, that person should have every right to hold the office. Suppose someone from Puerto Rico came to senate representing that island, but is not very fluent in English, as you and me, what would you do?

      January 26, 2012 at 3:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Katie

      how is she meant to understand laws and policies that are written in a language that she doesn't speak? How is she meant to participate in City Council meetings when they're conducted in English? It's not practical to have government business conducted in multiple languages.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:57 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Ivan

    Could not remember what school she graduated from when asked 3 times? Aaaargh, I know that many politicians are of questionable qualifications but that sets a new standard.

    January 26, 2012 at 3:12 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Arthur Edwards

    A person's use of English has nothing to do with intelligence or the ability community. There are always staffers to help with this. If the consensus of the electorate is that she speaks well enough, then who is the court to try to prohibit her. Isn't who we vote for the corner stone of democracy? Let the people decide!

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

      So true. Case in point, we elected a mentally handicapped president for 8 years.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • AustinIsFull

      If they are going to require their staffers to do their work for them, then why not just elect the staffers?

      January 26, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Report abuse |
  11. JerseyJoe123

    I thought the only English that a politician needed to know is "YEA", "NAY", "My vote costs x dollars", and "Thank you for the generous cash contribution".

    January 26, 2012 at 3:13 pm | Report abuse |
  12. honest abe

    Hispanics are the ones pushing this bilingual stuff that's costing and causing a lot of problems. She should at least be 'BILINGUAL – BILITERATE'! Does she have a degree in anything? Did she graduate high school? I always wondered how hispanic people or any other culture for that matter manage to pass all their classes without speaking, reading, and writing fluent english.

    January 26, 2012 at 3:14 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Steve

    "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."

    Really...a guy from a group called ProEnglish believes english should be the only language...imagine that? If you arent European, you need to become one quick, the white man says o.

    January 26, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Report abuse |
  14. D. Miller

    It was ABSOLUTELY the right decision. How can she possibly interact with people out of her district if she is not proficient in the language of this country. True, it is NOT the "official language" of the USA, but most of us DO communicate in it. (I personally, think it SHOULD be the "official language" of this country, and NO I am not a rip-roaring conservative. I just think it makes sense!)

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

    I understand the purpose of requiring an English level proficiency. Especially when the need to communicate with more broad areas arises, such as during disasters or other emergencies. The law was established by a majority of the people of the state of Arizona, it is their right to make such a rule. However, that does not mean that the population can not vote to change or have the law removed. My opinion as a non-Arizona resident is that the judicial branch should require that further clarification be made to the law, such as what level on a TOEFL or similar exam is required. Are the deaf or mute restricted from public office as well since they may not be able to hear/speak at a specific proficiency level?
    I do realize though that the judge in this case did give opportunity for Ms. Cabrera to prove some proficiency and left him feeling that her level was inadequate. A standard to measure against should still be put in place.

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