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. dave

    How many of you relize that that Tx New Mex, Arizona and Califonia are Spanish Territories that we stole in a war

    the people who live their now have Spanish backgrounds

    January 26, 2012 at 3:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • KASUMU

      Like you said...Spanish back grounds....where is Spain? You can't continue to go back a hundred years and complain about what happened then. Move forward...to the 21st century.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • EatYouAlive

      "stole in a war"... yeesh

      January 26, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Good Grief

      And listen to our own President,.. instead of saying 'we need to ....', he says 'we hafta' (instead of 'we have to' which is poor grammar to start with,,,,, just sayin'

      January 26, 2012 at 3:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • So what's your point?

      we stole it yes. we also made these prosperous and desirable places to live.

      at some point you have to look forward not backward.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sean

      And the Spanish stole it from the Native Americans. Get over it.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dawn

      Dave, learn how to spell #1. #2 This is AMERICA. We won, deal w/ it. and if she can't speak English well enough to run for office.... BUMMER! she should have taken that into consideration. This is AMERICA. In the words of Theodore Roosevelt
      " There are no hyphenated Americans who are good Americans. The only man who is a good American is American and nothing else. We are a Nation, not a country full of foreign nationals. We are a People, not a polyglot boarding house."
      English will always be OUR LANGUAGE here in AMERICA. Don't like it? you do not have to live here. And for the record it's there, NOT their.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • karsmo

      Most realize that, Dave. But they're part of the U.S. now, and if Mexico wants to take that up with us, they can bring it on, not undermine U.S. possession now by encouraging border hopping. But it's a moot point now, since so many places have been taken over by illegal immigrants and their US citizen children who still can't understand English.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • BooseyBoo

      If I remember correctly, after the defeat of Santa Ana, Texas was purchased from Mexico some time after. So, the claim that Texas was stolen is not quite correct. I cannot speak for the other states though.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Frank

      Stolen? the U.S. paid $15 million for those territories.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Durundal

      Of couse I realize, that said I am a little surprised they are not more multi-lingual – its a freakin asset when youre looking for a job (and like it or not people will judge you by your accent). Plus if these people ever want to work outside of whatever latino haven they are operating out of, it would behoove them to be as indoctrinated and fluent as possible. That said, I share the same feeling with native english speakers learning multiple languages (we are a very diverse globe that can only benefit by keeping an open mind to cultural differences).

      January 26, 2012 at 3:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nikki

      No, Dave, our current states you mentioned were WON in a war. That's what happens in a war - the winner gets to keep the land. Since the beginning of wars, that's the way it has worked and continues to work today.

      You might want to recall that the land was ORIGINALLY stolen from the indigenous peoples on both sides of the current U.S. border. Want to give home/land land back to the Indians?? Oh wait, the majority of Indians were butchered by English, French, Spanish, Mexican, etc. for the land, gold, and resources. Now, ain't we all proud of that??

      January 26, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nikki

      "How many of you relize that that Tx New Mex, Arizona and Califonia are Spanish Territories that we stole in a war
      the people who live their now have Spanish backgrounds."

      This is the english you were trying to present: "realize that Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California WERE spanish territories (as in Spain, not Mexico) that we won in a war . The people who live there now (not everyone) have . . ."

      I corrected: relize that that Tx New Mex are The there, included a period at the end of your sentence., and began the next sentence with a capital T. Did you graduate (or not) from the same school?

      January 26, 2012 at 4:15 pm | Report abuse |
  2. ColdWar153

    s – It shouldn't boggle your mind. It's cheep and accessible to cross over here from Mexico – anyone can do it. It takes far more resources to do the same from China. If you are well off enough to leave China, you probably have a better education than someone that can just pick up and go from Mexico. Any Mexican with equal educational resources knows English just as well – and those that have come to the U.S. are, for all intents and purposes, invisible to you and don't fit the stereotype you have of what a Mexican should look like. Just saying.

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

    It should be English and only english....................If you can't speak english then no hob!

    January 26, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Report abuse |

    I want to know how she graduated high school in the US and can not speak proficiently in English....There are standards...are they only applied to non-Hispanic groups.

    January 26, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • Texan

      This is my question as well, how did she graduate from high school without learning to speak and/or understand English?

      January 26, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dana

      Do you actually have children in school? I do, I know what the "education" looks like and I am not surprised that she finished high school with that level of English.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • KASUMU

      @Dana, yes; my daughter had to meet the requirements established, to graduate. In addition to the general education requirements, each student had to go, before a panel, to provide a presentation, on any subject, of their choosing. If they did not meet the standard, they did not graduate. It WAS/IS a public school.

      January 26, 2012 at 5:39 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Ken

    English proficiency requires hard work and discipline. If it's not important enough to do that then the consequence is an inability to communicate well or even at all with the majority of citizens in this country. It's only logical that it limits ones opportunities. If I want to be an engineer, I have to learn engineering and become proficient at it. I can't just apply and assume I'll get the job. Why should a job such as a politician, where communication is essential, not be dependent on language proficiency? She has the Spanish, now she needs to get work on her English. It's holding her back and that is on her own shoulders, not on others.

    January 26, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • PennyNot

      She was given a high school diploma from an Arizona school without the ability to communicate in english. That is not on her, that is on the education system. If Arizona wants to be english speaking, they need to require english proficiency for graduation. Who pays for that extra education is another matter entirely.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sean

      At what point does an adult take responsibility for themselves?

      January 26, 2012 at 3:57 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Kathe

    How sad it is that she is an AMERICAN citizen that supposedly graduated from high school but she has problems speaking English. How said is that? How did she pass her classes if her English is so bad? Someone must have been translating for her. I lived overseas, in a non-English speaking country for several years. I had to learn their language to go to my job and function daily, but I spoke English in my home and when with fellow ex-pats. She needs to learn English better PERIOD-IMO.

    January 26, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Report abuse |
  7. larry simpson

    they should also fire and ban the teachers that gave her a high school diploma

    January 26, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • PennyNot

      Or at least the policy makers that determine minimum graduation requirements.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Guest

    Somewhat off topic...I don't care what your mother tongue is, but if you say "ideal" when you mean "idea," I'm not voting for you.

    January 26, 2012 at 3:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • dancingjellyfish

      lol...thank you. Someone, somewhere in this Country has to be held to a higher standard!

      January 26, 2012 at 4:07 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Not Jan Brewer, governor, arizona

    I done think its time we git some englsip spekers in government. I dun did 2 much work to let dis happne.

    January 26, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Report abuse |
  10. PennyNot

    I find the most telling part of this that she graduated from a high school in Arizona without the ability to speak english proficiently. If they are to require english language proficiency in jobs, they should be required to provide proficiency teaching and testing as a graduation requirement. I like a lot of what Arizona is doing but it's a two sided issue with citizenship, if you will have requirements you must provide the basic teaching to meet those requirements in your schools.

    January 26, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sean

      Good point, now think about that and the flak they are getting over the ‘ethnic studies’.

      January 26, 2012 at 4:01 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Mike

    Before running for office, any candidate should be interview by Samuel L. Jackson.

    January 26, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Good Grief

      ...or Larry King,... just sayin'

      January 26, 2012 at 3:54 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Jim

    Territories we stole in a war?
    We won the war!
    Spoils go to the victor.
    Get over it!

    January 26, 2012 at 3:51 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Joe

    This is America not Mexico – speak good English or don't run for office. Pretty simple really!

    January 26, 2012 at 3:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • DMo

      **This is America, not Mexico. Speak English well or don't run for office. It's pretty simple, really!

      You can't run for office.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • Joe

      Excellent improvement on my original contribution. I was writing in the vernacular because it sounds more natural, but if you feel a pressing need to be pedantic, have at it... Now, if you have nothing useful to contribute, GTFO.

      January 26, 2012 at 4:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • ali

      Actually, Joe, DMo, Mexico is America, too.

      II live in AZ, speak English and Spanish, and am more concerned that too many of Arizona's children graduate without the ability to read and write ANY language.

      January 26, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Bill

    It's pretty pathetic that a U.S. citizen has such horrible English, and that entire American towns speak Spanish almost exclusively. I'm no xenophobe, having immigrated here myself, but I really think it's time we officially adopt English as our national language, and require it to be the primary language of our country, government, and citizens.

    January 26, 2012 at 3:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • DMo


      January 26, 2012 at 3:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sean

      The major of citizens speak English. All legal docu.ments are recorded in English including the U.S.A. Const.itution and Bill of Rights. It is also considered the international trade language. So I ask you… why not?

      January 26, 2012 at 4:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • dancingjellyfish

      @DMo, you ask why? Come down and visit South Florida and try to communicate in a store or on the phone or anywhere really. English is the second language down here. This Country is being taken over and the descendants of the people who helped build it to become the Country that most people who emmigrate want to be are being told they are wrong for wanting to preserve some of the "old" or "real" America, if you will. What's wrong with wanting it to stay the fabulous place it was. Trust me, if you spend some time down here you will know why. Let's not even talk about how all those non-English speaking people drive and most cannot read the signs. All school docs are in English, Spanish, Portugese and Creole. More money is spent on "special" classes for non-English speaking kids than any other activity. As a matter of fact many activities are gone as all the extra money goes to ESOL and the teachers who teach specifically to those students. It isn't fair and it isn't right. I guarantee my daughter wouldn't receive any special treatment in a Mexican, Central or South American school. There are Countries where Spanish is the only language. People who want that should be living in one of those Countries. They should not be here demanding special treatment.

      January 26, 2012 at 4:42 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Good Grief

    And listen to our own President,.. instead of saying 'we need to ....', he says 'we hafta' (instead of 'we have to' ) which is poor grammar to start with,,,,, just sayin'

    January 26, 2012 at 3:52 pm | Report abuse |
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