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. Leonard

    Clearly an indictment of AZ government if someone can graduate from an AZ school and not speak English.

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

      I agree ... but I do so sadly as this is something I will never be able to understand!

      January 26, 2012 at 4:20 pm | Report abuse |
  2. ieat

    issue is that she's not only representing the people there. She has to communicate with people outside as well. I know plenty of people who are fluent in both English and Spanish. If she can't master that, why should one expect her to master politics?

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

      Thank you, my thoughs exactly. She represents the 87% Spanish Speaking as well as the other 13% non spanish speaking people. So just screw the little guys there huh? Either learn how to speak to all of the people you represent, or get out of politics.

      January 26, 2012 at 4:11 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Excuse me?

    If she was deaf, first, since she might not speak American Sign Language, she would need a special interpreter to translate her sign language into Spanish, then one to translate her Spanish into English.

    January 26, 2012 at 4:07 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Mr.Butters

    Spanish really needs to find it's place. It's place as one of the unofficial official languages is getting tiresome. Canada has two languages, English and French. If you look at websites based out of Canada of call comapnies it asks you if you want to speak in English or French. No different then the US with options to speak to a Spanish representivive. Even US Government websites have Spanish options. It's basically all there. All you have to do is recognize English and Spanish official languages.

    January 26, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Joe

      ... except that we don't want Spanish as a second language

      January 26, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bob

      I'll recognize spanish as a official language when I start crapping out gold bricks.

      January 26, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Kia

    Would "people" have a different point of view if she were deaf and could not speak at all? I don't think this would be news if that were the case.

    January 26, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tek

      Yes we would have a different opinion if she was deaf. Why? Because being deaf is NOT A CHOICE. Speaking only one language IS.
      Any other questions?

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

    If you're going to live here, follow our laws. If you don't, you can kiss the American ass.

    January 26, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bob

      They will never fallow the laws!! All they do is jump the boarders,start popping out kids left and right and have a check cut for them from our gov.

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

      I agree! Great post!

      January 26, 2012 at 4:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Karl

      There is no official language in the U.S.

      January 26, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Alex Sarmiento

    Well, in United States is very important to learn proper english if you apply for this kind of jobs . Nobody is complaining because she speak mostly spanish. I speak spanish, but if i need to communicate with some indian, chinese or polish person then english is a must.

    I am one of those who think that everybody should learn a common language. It is very important for everybody to be able to communicate without these language barriers. Nowadays , english is the de facto universal language.

    January 26, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • dancingjellyfish

      yes it is. Thank you.

      January 26, 2012 at 5:07 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Joe

    Hello... If you went to Mexico or other country an you do not speak the language I guarantee you will not run for any political office. If you're here in the US, learn the language. End of discussion.

    January 26, 2012 at 4:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • Alex Sarmiento

      @Joe, do you mean United States of America, not just America. America is South and North America. Mexico is in North America, Mexico is in America, Chile is in America, Canada is in America, Peru is in America... United States of America is in America... i hope you got the point.

      January 26, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • sm2009

      Alex, Joe said the "US." Yes, everyone is aware that other countries are on the North American and South American continents. The difference is that they do not have America in their countries' names, as does the "United States of America." It therefore is logical that America, when referring to countries, refers to the United States of America. Mexico is not offcially known as "The Mexican Proviinces of America," therefore "America" when referring to countries is inaccurate unless referring to the United States.

      January 26, 2012 at 4:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kim

      Yes he means, in the US of A. That is what he said, he did not say in America. Maybe English comprehension should be more the issue, not just the English language.

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

    English? With all the boarder jumpers we keep letting through and then give them the right to vote and eveything else... they better start speaking spanish. I can't wait for all of these boarder jumpers to trash this country as bad as Mexico.

    January 26, 2012 at 4:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rock Woman

      I can't wait for people like you to learn how to spell border. Until then, I'll be tempted to trash English speakers.

      January 26, 2012 at 4:19 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Joe

    Straightforward case and a straightforward decision. There is no mystery as to why the ability to read and write English at an acceptable level is a basic pre-requisite for holding office in the US. Unless, of course, you are a bleeding heart liberal who 'hates' the US while accepting all the handouts they can get their hands on.

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

    I'm all for making it a requirement to be proficient in English in the USA, as Pamela Splettstoesser so eloquently explained. Heck, we might as well follow the rest of the world in having an official language:


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

    If there's a problem with her english; people have a difficult time understanding her- than no, she shouldn't be able to run for office, end of story. But ALSO, if somebody is deaf and not able to speak- people would have a difficult time understanding that individual, than they should not be able to run for office, end of story. I guess we need to clarify if some of these negative comments stem from a touch of racism or if there's a legitimate concern about communication. Many, many years ago when immigrants flooded this country a few of them may not have had the greatest grasp of the English language but they adapted and started new businesses and ran for office as well. I think Alejandrina Cabrera should be commended for trying to do some good for her state. Which would the citizens of Arizona have, Alejandrina Cabrera run for office with a little trouble with English or Alejandrina sneaking illegal immigrants across the border and selling drugs as a side job. Welcome to the 21st century melting pot everybody!

    January 26, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • KristinaKaye

      Why do some many of these posters always have to say something completely off the topic as presented. This lady was not able to answer or understand when the judge asked her 3 times ... from what high school did you graduate? Seems like a very simple question requiring not so hard an answer. If you don't understand that simple question how can you represent your district when everything is in English everywhere else in the USA?

      I am not against anyone who speaks a language different from American English. But I do get extremely frustrated when I have to deal with people who can't understand something as simple as a cup of coffee with milk only. Many of the Dunkin Donuts stores in my area in New Jersey are in this condition.

      January 26, 2012 at 4:32 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Tina

    Everyone living in the United States should be able to understand and speak English with proficiency. Other Countries are the same way. Learn it or leave. All US Citizens should demand this.

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

    If she's been here for so many years, and even graduated high school here, and has still not taken the effort to learn English, what makes people think she'd make any sort of effort in a public office?

    January 26, 2012 at 4:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • MC in TX

      In a general sense I have to agree. It's astonishing that somebody could graduate from high school and not even be able to converse in English, though I am sure this is not unique.

      Though this is tangential, my personal opinion is that there needs to be a national standard test, along the lines of the SAT, that all high school students should be required to take before graduation to establish national high school proficiency standards. This should be completely independent of the standards applied by the school districts, though (i.e. the school's choice to graduate or not graduate the student is an independent matter). But prospective employers and agencies funding school districts should have an independent, nationally recognized standard for judging whether students have met minimum criteria.

      January 26, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Thor

    If "her" peeps want to elect her to represent them in office, then, let them! Her ability to govern shall be tested and if she fails... oh well.

    January 26, 2012 at 4:18 pm | Report abuse |
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