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. Pat

    It's so terribly funny when there's a story to which the bigots can post their lack of education and show us all how stupid they are. Oh, is speaking English more or less important than getting your facts straight or, at least, remembering what it is that you were going to say?

    January 26, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • JMB

      This has nothing to do with getting facts straight or intelligence as the judge stated. It has it to do with how the ideas, thoughts are conveyed and communication ??? English is the language, period, learn it or move on.

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

      How can you get the facts straight if you don't understand what's being said in the first place?

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

      @JMB I'm sure a sarcastic comment would be lost on you, so I will be direct. Your failure to use proper punctuation in your reply proves both that you have a poor command of the written English language as well as your point about clear communication. It is ironic that you prove the need for clear communication by failing to do so.

      January 26, 2012 at 4:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • dogamus

      Cosmic, you're being sarcastic ??

      January 26, 2012 at 5:01 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Josh

    Guess all deaf people can't run for office according to the law.......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

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

      Deafness is a physical disability and therefore qualifies for protection under the ADA.

      Choosing not to learn the language of the government for which you are running is not.

      January 26, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Bob

    A shame but our politicans know darn well that not only do we have millions upon millions of illegal aliens that do not and do not want to learn english. We have given amnesty once and are about to a second time (depite what politicans call it). We will also have a third amnesty because they will keep coming. Our politicans know darn well over 80 percent of Americans want E-Verify with jail/fines for employers who violate it but the politicans choose to IGNOR the majority. MIght just as well repeal the law and let anyone come here. Me I am sick and tired of pushing 1 for english and having everything we buy in english and spanish. That sound you hear is US going down the toilet.

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

      OMG!! I resent having to press any button to communicate in English and have decided to not do business with any Company that is ignorant enough to make me do so. It is hard to boycott though because so many have given in.

      January 26, 2012 at 4:46 pm | Report abuse |
  4. D Money

    We have the technology to translate sifferent languages quite efficiently. All this ProEnglish, "lets make english the official language" BS is just code for xenophobia, racism, prejudice (whatever you wanna call it). Spanish speaking pplation in this country is growing rapidly and americans (white males in particular) are tugging at their collars, nervous about the future. Doesnt it just make sense to not have an official language. Do we have an "official culture"?

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

      D money you are correct we do have the means to interperate. As far ss racism and bigotry I do not agree. Go to Mexico for example, outside of tourist areas that cater to the american dollar they do not and will not recognize or make acommidations for non spanish speaking people. By your definition...racist. Countries in Asia and Europe, no acommidations for language...guess they are all bigots and racisist. Only in America can you learn Spanish, French,German,mandarin, and Even Russian. And its not because of our superior schools or intellect, its because of accomidation.

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

      yes, white males in particular /facepalm

      January 26, 2012 at 4:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • dancingjellyfish

      D MOney, get over yourself. It is nort racism or bigotry. And the only reason the number of Spanish speaking people is rising is because of illegal immigration. If these people had enough respect for this Country and the people who built it they wouldn't be sneaking in like criminals. Maybe if they had to work to get here they would learn the language. @Riptide, you are correct. No Country outside of the US makes so many concessions to so many Nationalities. Yet they want more and more and more. They need to become an American or go live in a Country more suited to their liking because this obviously isn't it if they keep trying to change it.

      January 26, 2012 at 4:53 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Peter

    It really concerns me that she was able to graduate from an American High School, and still can't speak English. I had to take English all twelve years that I went to public school. Looking at some of these other comments by people who claim to only speak English makes me even more concerned about the state of our public schools in this country.
    And to answer the question about how much English is enough, it says so right there in the law: "sufficiently well to conduct the duties of the office without aid of an interpreter shall be a necessary qualification"

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

    Dear Dave who doesn't know how to spell "realize",

    The wars were years ago this is America 2012. English should be the official language of the nation. PERIOD. If you can't speak it, get out!

    January 26, 2012 at 3:58 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Pamela Splettstoesser

    I agree with Leaf on the Wind.
    I lived for over a decade in Europe. While in Germany and the Netherlands I was required to learn the language in order to take residence in either country. I was given free language lessons at the town-hall. Before I was allowed to have citizenship rights I had to pass a language test. This is the requirement for most European countries. Perhaps America should take notice and implement some similar policies. Hiring English teachers to give classes to immigrants would be cheaper on our economy than providing translators!

    The problem is that there are so many immigrants in the USA who are not required to learn English and consequently tend to group with people who speak their native language. They have children who hear only their parents native tongue at home and play with other children who also have parents who speak only their native tongue... it is a never ending circle and eventually you have complete towns where native English speakers are the minority.

    Being a bi-lingual American, I feel that it is necessary for any public official to have a proficient command of the English language to competently perform their duties. I believe the judge in this case made the correct decision and someone should certainly look into how this woman was allowed to graduate from an American high school without being able to fully comprehend and speak English. Changes have to be made in the school system and immigration requirements before this issue of language and immigration get out so out of hand it is irreparable.

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

      Outstanding comment... thank you for taking the time..

      I am multilingual as well and have traveled a lot in my days. Its imperative these folks learn the language of the country in which they WANT to live. If you do not like it, please go back to your country where you can speak only your native tongue. By the way, no one is saying you cannot speak your language here but you must learn English as well...

      January 26, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Chris

    The country elected "dubbya" twice and we all know that man couldn't construct a coherent sentence with both hands and an english teacher. So why can't this women run for office if she is an American citizen.

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

      Very stupid comment.. borderline idiotic.. thx for showing how stupid you are....

      January 26, 2012 at 4:03 pm | Report abuse |
  9. quagmire

    can you run for office in mexico if you don't speak Spanish? just wondeting

    January 26, 2012 at 3:59 pm | Report abuse |
  10. chinaman

    I think the bigger issue is how the heck did she graduate high school if she can't even answer iin plain English what HS she went to? Seriously???? did she go to a private all Spanish speaking high school? or did she go to a public HS? if the latter than there is something seriously wrong with the schools in these predominantly hispanic towns all across the US.
    That school needs to be investigated by the state board of education if they keep graduating kids that can't even speak basic English.

    January 26, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • Plexie

      Truth of the matter is she is latino and there are so many here now overwhelming schools actuallly learning has become a secondary or tertiary consideration.

      January 26, 2012 at 4:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • dogamus

      You're not going to learn conversational English in a classroom for a couple of hours a day. You need total immersion. I had 10 years of French as a boy, but had to live in France before I could really speak it spontaneously.

      January 26, 2012 at 4:13 pm | Report abuse |
  11. jimmy


    January 26, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • alan s

      No, Jimmy, not bigots. Just people who want our country to have a common language, so we can all speak together and work together better.

      January 26, 2012 at 4:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • JMB

      Very stupid comment with no thought at all.. English is the official language.. Learn it or leave.. simple.

      January 26, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Michael

    Due to the fact that English is a requirement of US citizenship, and is the international language of law and business, it only makes sense to make it a requirement for political office which deals with the laws and business of government.

    January 26, 2012 at 4:03 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Jack

    I immigrated into the United States from non English speaking European country. I am a veterinarian, working in my profession. I believe that there is no excuse for any immigrant not to learn the language of the country that you call your homeland. In my opinion the solution is simple, you ether present the High School diploma or the passing score of the Test of English as a Foreign Language as well as a Test of Spoken English or equivalent.

    January 26, 2012 at 4:04 pm | Report abuse |
  14. dogamus

    The author states that, "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." Does he litterally mean "Hispanic" or Spanish speaking? Hispanic is someone ralated to Hispania, aka Iberia, i.e. Spain, Portugal and Basque.

    January 26, 2012 at 4:04 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Bubba

    So what about deaf people that cannot "speak" at all, but use sign-language? Most people would need an interpreter for sign-language. Even if you can read write proficiently, you would still need an interpreter to communicate in any non-written manner. So is Arizona saying that deaf people that communicate using sign-language are forbidden from holding public office?

    January 26, 2012 at 4:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • JMB

      Bubba... not at all the same things. Folks that are deaf do have have much choice. Those that only want to speak Spanish and not learn English, do it by choice. You want to stay here, then learn the language.. I do not think it asking that much. I live here and speak fluent English yet I learned Spanish, French and Italian ?? My wife speaks fluent English and also teaches sign language. I think its just out of pure laziness– they choose to live here yet refuse to learn the official language.... How did this woman graduate from high school ??

      January 26, 2012 at 4:13 pm | Report abuse |
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