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. Jim TX

    Let the Registered Voters decide. Not some Judge that speaks Legalese.

    January 26, 2012 at 4:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Minoa

      I disagree. The judge made his decision based on the laws already on the books. For once a judge followed the law (enacted by the representatives of the voting citizens of Arizona, which ARE registered voters) rather than make up stuff as he goes.

      January 26, 2012 at 5:14 pm | Report abuse |
  2. DEW

    everytime i call a company, the person on the line i can't understand. who cares not the gov.

    January 26, 2012 at 4:54 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Ken from FL

    Read Sam Huntington's "Who Are We?"

    January 26, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Report abuse |
  4. DeBo

    "The ability to read, write, speak, and understand the English language..."
    Assuming that list is all inclusive, this pretty much eliminates a blind candidate in terms of reading and writing, and eliminates a percentage of the deaf who may not be able to speak proficiently, or understand the language unless they are reading lips.

    January 26, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Texas

      Brail is in english and signing is taught using english grammer?????

      January 26, 2012 at 5:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Graced

      Wrong. The ability to read – Braille. Write – blind people can write, you do know that, right? Even if with the aid of a computer that types out what they're saying. Deaf people use American sign language, a legally recognized form of communication on the English language. Spanish isn't English.

      January 26, 2012 at 5:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • ddg

      The meetings, closed sessions, etc. must be conducted in English. How can she possibly do the job? She can't write, etc. AND, a blind person is afflicted with a disability whose rights are protected by the ADA, so the city would make reasonable accomodations for a disabled person. She isn't disabled.

      January 26, 2012 at 5:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • Texas

      Graced, thank you for making my point 🙂

      January 26, 2012 at 5:15 pm | Report abuse |
  5. NotTheGOP

    What are these, Juan Crow laws?

    January 26, 2012 at 4:57 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Bob Havecker

    Our language is English! If you cannot speak the language there are many things you cannot do in this country. If that is a problem perhaps you should consider living in a country where you are fluent in the language. There are many of them to choose from to our south.

    January 26, 2012 at 5:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • Los Feliz James

      Right on. My sentiments exactly.

      January 26, 2012 at 5:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Graced


      January 26, 2012 at 5:10 pm | Report abuse |
  7. roger

    If there is a proficiency test for language there should also be proficiency tests in other areas - that way Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann and Christy O'Donnell wold never have wasted so much of our time!
    This time around we shoud not only allow states to secede from the Union - we should kick them out, starting with states like Arizona who talk alot about freedom but trample the rights of anyone left of Barry Goldwater.

    January 26, 2012 at 5:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Graced

      Oh, I'd love to have my state secede from the Union so we can actually live in a land of the free, not the freeloaders. What a beautiful change that would be.

      January 26, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • ddg

      Normally, the democratic process should weed out the wingnuts! In this case though, we have to have some kind of standard language.....latin, english, whatever, so that everyone can participate. The vast majority of the country speaks English so it's pretty much a no-brainer isn't it? Otherwise you'd legally impose constructive racial segregation on particular areas. We'd expect someone who wants to make laws to have gone to law school....lol

      January 26, 2012 at 5:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • Minoa

      There are many legitimate reasons to have an official language and rules about the use of them. Also, the majority in Arizona want and welcome LEGAL immigrants, but not ILLEGAL immigrants...no matter the race. Why is it that you dunderheads on the Left can't understand that?!? BTW, you want to kick citizens that disagree with you out of the country?! That, my friend, is extreme, wacky, and downright un-American. I will quote you with glee when pointing out the intolerance on the Left.

      January 26, 2012 at 5:56 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Buck

    You don't travel much do you?

    January 26, 2012 at 5:03 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Tim

    City Councils often interact with other administrative and government groups in order to represent the base that they represent. in order to do this they need to be able to communicate, and this person was not able to do that. That is the bottom line. It isn't about race, except that they are pushing the issue to make it about that. The fact that she graduated from a school in that area and is not able to communicate in English should be of the greatest concern.

    January 26, 2012 at 5:04 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Texas

    If you want to speak your native tongue in office go back to your native country. If you want to hold elected office in the US you need to speak it's native language Period!!!

    January 26, 2012 at 5:04 pm | Report abuse |
  11. James R. Ruston

    I am sure the city provides a translator for Latinos in court or medical situations. They could provide a translator in this case for when ms Cabera needs it.

    January 26, 2012 at 5:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Texas

      Who pays for that extra translator??? American tax dollars????

      January 26, 2012 at 5:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • Graced

      What a fabulous idea! Let's spend some MORE money we don't have instead of asking people who want to SERVE to LEARN what they need to accomplish the goal! YES! The land of the liberal! Hooray!

      January 26, 2012 at 5:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • mpls007

      The story cites the 1910 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.

      Clearly according to this act, the judge made the correct decision since she would not be able to 'conduct the duties of office without aid of an interpreter'. The language of the act is plain and simple, if you cannot speak enough English to accomplish this, then you are not allowed to run for state office.

      January 27, 2012 at 12:59 am | Report abuse |
  12. Cindy Bradley

    How can someone be born here, graduate from high school here, and not speak English?

    January 26, 2012 at 5:05 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Texas

    Leave then!

    January 26, 2012 at 5:06 pm | Report abuse |
  14. slippery

    The language of government in the US is English. Nuff said.

    January 26, 2012 at 5:06 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Jim TX

    Let the Registered Voters Decide!!

    January 26, 2012 at 5:06 pm | Report abuse |
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