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. s

    it boggles the mind sometimes... we have ppl that come here from as far away as china who speak almost perfect english, albeit with an accent, but the country right next door, so to speak, seems unable to do the same. whether she can communicate with voters is not the only issue, she needs to also be able to communicate with other officials; a council is made up of several people. what say the other council members? can they work with her? do they speak spanish? would her admittedly broken english be an impediment in working with the rest of the council? i think the only language taught in schools SHOULD be english, until at least high school, where other languages can be elective, but one questions the teaching of it if this woman is the product of the local high school there.

    January 26, 2012 at 3:17 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Eric

    Most deaf people cannot speak English at all, are they routinely disqualified in AZ?

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

      Deafness is a disability. Not learning English while living in the United States is a choice. Big difference.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ernie

      Speaking and understanding a language are two different things. Communicating is the essential part. Deafness has no bearing on that.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mark


      January 26, 2012 at 3:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • Saturn

      Through sign language the deaf speak English

      January 26, 2012 at 3:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mark


      January 26, 2012 at 3:42 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Joe

    Another argument for making English the official language of the United States.

    January 26, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Leaf on the Wind

      English IS the official language of the United States. It even states that in the article.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:23 pm | Report abuse |
  4. cold in Alaska

    Herman cain while running for POTUS this year used the word ain't once which really isn't a word. I would think someone running for POTUS would be a little more professional.

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

      I think you meant to say, "...which really ain't a word."

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

      sorry-I did no mean to flag this. It was intended for P Fisher.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ernie

      "Ain't" is in the dictionary you can look it up.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • dancingjellyfish

      but what educated/intelligent person took Herman Cain seriously?

      January 26, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Arthur Edwards

    Judges shouldn't decide who candidates can and can't be. THAT IS WHAT THE VOTE IS FOR! Do we really want judges deciding who can or can't run for office? If the voters decide her English is good enough and vote for her, so be it. THAT IS DEMOCRACY!

    January 26, 2012 at 3:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • Leaf on the Wind

      The judgement was based on Arizona state law. Try actually reading the article.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rsprings

      The answer is simple.. Standards are set up for people to run for public office... for example, you must reside within the city to run for city council. You must reside with the state for State assembly or Congress.. For President you must be a citizen of the USA. .It does not say you have to be able to read for any of these offices..it assumes you can. It does not seem unreasonable to me for someone to be proficient in English in an English speaking country.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mark

      Yes, it's based on Arizona state law which is voted on by the good people of Arizona. THAT is Democracy as well.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:35 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Dr Perry Fisher

    The wetback ho should speak english or go back to where spanish is spoken as the national languade and that would be mexico.I bet that wetback ho is on food stamps

    January 26, 2012 at 3:19 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Leaf on the Wind

    " . . . a U.S. citizen who graduated from Kofa High School in Yuma, Arizona . . ." The problem would seem to be in Yuma, AZ's public school system. How did she manage to graduate in the first place?

    Look at it this way: Imagine you have immigrated to another country, let's say Italy just as an example. Would you even be allowed citizenship, much less allowed to run for elected office, without the necessary skills in the Italian language?

    I know it seems racist, but I can't think of a single country that doesn't have an official language. I'm all for immigration, I think we get mostly good people coming here from all over the world, but we can't communicate with each other without one common "officicial" language.

    January 26, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Excuse me?

    "Cabrera, a U.S. citizen who graduated from Kofa High School in Yuma, Arizona,"

    How can you be a US citizen and a High School graduate and not speak English proficiently?

    January 26, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ivan

      Haha, funny.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dennn

      A person can easily graduate from high school in the US without proper English comprehension. It depends upon the school district. Our attempts to bring all students up to par have included teaching them in a language that they are comfortable communicating in whether that is Spanish, Vietnamese, Ebonics etc. Under this scenario, these students are basically treated as ESL students, taking English as a secondary language much as Spanish or French might be in a predominately white school. The basic concept is to give them proficiency in basics such as Math, Science, History, Literature without the extra burden have to learn in English. The U of Californias do it too. In the end, you have some English skills that allow you to get by conversationally, but not the intellectual proficiency in proper English. Some cultures have no interest in proper English, but we still have an obligation to educate them.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:41 pm | Report abuse |
  9. b.tom.darga

    Got to love ignorant subhuman redneck whites from Arizona!

    January 26, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mark

      What about the African American and non-Spanish speaking Latino citizens that can't understand her? Are you capable of having more than one thought every hour?

      January 26, 2012 at 3:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Andy

      Mark: you're being awfully nice to b.tom.darga. I think that thought he wrote in his post was his only one possibly this week. He may rest on that cerebral laurel for another week.

      January 27, 2012 at 7:11 am | Report abuse |
  10. Pika

    Judge: "Alejandrina, you can't speak english therefore are not fit for office."
    Alejandrina: "Que? No speaka english."
    Judge: "You look like an overwieght turd in fake snow leapard clothing."
    Alejandrina: "Que? No speaka english."

    January 26, 2012 at 3:23 pm | Report abuse |
  11. vatoloke

    At "S":

    And how is your Spanish?

    January 26, 2012 at 3:23 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Anyone can be President.

    Bush did not speak English.

    He proved that anyone could indeed grow up to be President in this Country. And they don't even have to be sober.

    January 26, 2012 at 3:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rsprings

      You sound like you are envious of him.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:29 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Ivan

    OK, when asked three times in English what school she graduated from she could not answer. Sure, she is qualified to handle council meetings in 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 for most medical issues.

    January 26, 2012 at 3:24 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Sid Prejean

    Holy cow! If the voters of her district – all legal residents and citizens – think that she is not capable of governing, then they will reject her. This political opponent, and the judge in his pocket, have created a standard which they cannot define, and forced her – an American citizen – out of the political process. Seems like she spoke English well enough to have sought the old bugger's recall.
    If that judge believes that she cannot effectively communicate in English, he should seek action against her school district.
    By the way, if preficiency in English were the standard for public office, we might have suffered through 4 years of President Gore – unopposed.

    January 26, 2012 at 3:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ben

      She cannot identify the school she graduated from in English three times and that is good enough for you? No wonder this country is sinking. The judge was just following state law.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:28 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Bill C

    Good grief. Who would have thought that it would ever come to this? The founding fathers must be rolling over in their graves.

    January 26, 2012 at 3:25 pm | Report abuse |
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