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. dmood

    I work in Mexico, have lived in Spain, Costa Rica etc. I speak Spanish there. Someone who has lived in this country that many years and never learned English doesn't deserve to serve in public office. My children are hispanic, they speak two languages. The back lash that is happening in this country against hispanics, is largely the result, rightly or wrongly, of hispanics not learning the language and gaming the system.

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

      That's the best response yet.

      January 26, 2012 at 5:10 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Iggy Pop

    If you want to serve in public office in America you need to have a good grasp of English. There is nothing racist or anti-immigrant about it... English is the main language spoken in the country and if the majority of the others that hold public office also speak English then you do too. It is really very simple. Bi-lingual is great! But just be able to speak English as one of your two languages.

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

      Will all candidates for all offices in the nation are now tested for standard english competence and understandibility , including white rednecks from the deep south, etc. A large part of our nation does not speak standard english–poor grammar, poor vocabulary, poor pronunciation. Clearly this is one additional racist nail in the coffin of republican run states such as Arizona. Next they will say that black english will preclude the right to run for office. Surely this would not stand at the supreme court level, in spite of its now being controlled by right wing conservatives.

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

      If you want to get a job in private industries that deals with the general public/general co-workers., you better have a decent command of English, period. It is not considered discrimination turning an applicant away due to lack of English language skills. Heck , quite some jobs nowadays give preference to folks who speak both Spanish and English.

      January 26, 2012 at 6:06 pm | Report abuse |
  3. watcher

    The Article stated: "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."

    I think that is very fair of the Judge.. We have laws. enforce them. Then maybe we would not need more laws that take away our rights

    Watcher always watching the sheeple

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

      The same way US laws are valid in Puerto Rico, which still isn't a state.

      January 26, 2012 at 5:21 pm | Report abuse |
  4. momoya

    To hold a political office it is necessary to be conversant in the law in the language it utilizes–whether that language is Mandarin, Spanish, or English.

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

    Maybe you haven't noticed, or maybe you're too young to notice, but the English language skills of most under 30 are quite poor. Why single this one person out?

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

      Because she is seeking a job (supposedly) to represent the public. And I have no doubt there will be more other able bodies in public who can speak more than one language fluently given that if it is Chinese, Burmese, Russian or Spanish etc. I, for one, wouldn't let her represent me any where. I can speak good English even though it is not my first language. I have learn, studied and practiced hard every single day (and continue to do so) since I came to America 20 years ago.

      January 26, 2012 at 5:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jacko

      I don't know a single person under 30 who can't enunciate what school they went to

      January 26, 2012 at 5:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • snookers

      I just do not get it. This lady went to American HS. My native language is Dutch and spent the first 25 years of my life in Holland. I had six years of English in Dutch school and had no problem with English when arriving in the USA. Just had to adjust to American spelling/pronunciation. Maybe the problem lies in American HS? Quite some kids that I have met and that only speak English, have a rather poor vocabulary in English after HS graduation. And their spelling is quite often atrocious.

      January 26, 2012 at 5:31 pm | Report abuse |
  6. carlos

    I think it should be up to the community to determine if she should run or not run for city council not a judge, and for English being the language of the land and in Gov. It’s the 21th century the Spanish population is growing American needs to write up new laws promoting Spanish as the other official language for GOV. and in the U.S.A., mandatory Spanish classes in are school system K-12 plus College, and rewrite some of these old text books to add Spanish culture and to study famous Spanish people who help built the U.S.A in are classes room.

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

      Funny, but I don't recall this need for the U.S. to adapt to the Germans, Italians or Irish immigrants who came to this country (most of them legally) a hundred years ago. Why can't the latinos adapt? My mother, who is from Ecuador, and all her relatives who came to this Country in the 1950's learned English. This new breed/generation of latinos are embarrassing those who have been here for decades and adapted. You want Spanish as your first language then go back to the Country you left.

      January 26, 2012 at 5:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • doughnuts


      And since that is the same word in English and Spanish, you should be able to understand it, Carlos

      January 26, 2012 at 5:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • seriously?

      if you want spanish, move to spain or mexico. we speak engligh here. language divides a country and causes a lot of mistrust. if you don't want to speak chinese, don't move to china. if you don't want to speak english, don't move to the US.

      January 26, 2012 at 5:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • mikeM

      Why not do away with English altogether? Who needs it? It's just the language of hateful anglos. Espanish ees much better. It just takes more words to communicate.

      January 26, 2012 at 5:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • mepretty

      Congratulations AllofUS. Best comment so far.

      January 26, 2012 at 5:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • snookers

      I see nothing wrong with English as the official and primary language in the USA. Many non latino immigrants had English as a mandatory foreign language early on in school. That said, I think Spanish should be a mandatory second language in U.S schools starting the seventh grade or earlier. It will help the kids big time in their future employment.

      January 26, 2012 at 5:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • Really?

      Carlos – after reading your post it is quite apparent that you do not have a grasp on the English language either You should have typed "our" instead of "are"....tsk tsk tsk...
      Why should our children be mandated to study Spanish culture? Why should we as American citizens be REQUIRED to learn your language? To make it easier for you? I don't think so amigo.
      Nice try, but not going to happen.

      January 26, 2012 at 5:46 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Chris

    Wait,s he graduated from high school in the United States, but can't speak English well enough to give its name?

    When my great-grandparents immigrated here, you know what they had to do to get by?

    They learned to speak English.

    I'm so sick of going into the DMV or the courthouse and seeing everything in 20 different languages. You know what, if you can't read English, you don't deserve these services. You should not be able to function in this country, much less run for office, if you can't speak the language.

    A common languages is perhaps the most important binding of a culture. By pandering to those who don't speak the language instead of forcing them to learn it in order to get by, it enables them to resist integration into the nation at large. Thus, rather than becoming a part of the fabric of the American people and adding pieces of their own culture to our own, they remain separate. And just such a divide creates tears in that fabric.

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

      Really Chris. Its because of people like you that the world has a very skewed view of America. Go back to school and this time get some real education!

      January 26, 2012 at 5:19 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Milton

    I agree with the judge .

    How can you graduate from a high school not be able to speak english ..This boggles my mind.. The USA should make english the mandatory language peroid..........

    January 26, 2012 at 5:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • seriously?

      very true. high schools teach in english. i'll be she's back across the border, pronto (spanish for 'fast.)

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

    You llve in the US, and want to be US official. even at city level Therefore, you must have minimum English to communicate: where did you graduate from? Do not bring the racist card to this issue. Another question is that: How did you graduate from AZ's high school? Do you know how to read? I

    January 26, 2012 at 5:13 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Aunt Crit

    What if she was deaf? as in hearing impaired? Would she be allowed an interpreter then? Would she qualify for office then? If the majority of the population is Spanish speaking, then what is the problem? If she provides her own interpreter at her own cost, then what is the problem?

    January 26, 2012 at 5:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jessie

      So... you are saying that being Hispanic is a physical deficiency such as deafness? Are you serious?

      January 26, 2012 at 5:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • seriously?

      how many different enterpreters do the taxpayers need to provide? if someone is not smart enought, do we need to provide help with that too?

      January 26, 2012 at 5:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • AllofUS

      Deaf people can not control that they are deaf – they were either born that way or became deaf – they are not deaf by choice. This woman chose not to learn the English language. Weak point.

      January 26, 2012 at 5:32 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Anon

    She stated that “I speak little English”.

    That pretty much covers it: maybe she should have said "I speak enough English"

    How did she manage to graduate from high school.

    January 26, 2012 at 5:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • scorpion

      the same way you managed to graduate high school

      January 26, 2012 at 5:17 pm | Report abuse |
  12. kude

    Gee, why do you have to speak English well in America? Hmm, I can't remember...

    January 26, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Paul R.

    How can you enforce a state, city or county law if you can't read it? How is it possible to research law, precedent or holdings when you can't read them? What research is available to you when treatises, law books, reporters, etc., are all in English? And then she has the nerve to SUE over HER deficiency???? Jesus, this country is going down the tubes....

    January 26, 2012 at 5:17 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Hany

    We must have a common language so we can understand each other. No one for example would hire an employee whom he cannot understand. We are not helping people living in this countries when we allow them to speak different languages and not learn English....they will simply not have all the opportunities available to English speakers. The same would be true if an English speaker goes to a Spanish-speaking country or to China for example.

    January 26, 2012 at 5:20 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Jim TX

    Let the Registered Voters Decide: They'll put her in office and get run over by the other City Districts. Then cry that the system is unfair. You can't have it both ways.

    January 26, 2012 at 5:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • AllofUS

      so true! and there is no pleasing everyone which is why we need to unify and having the requirement that the first language be English is a step in the right direction. English is the number international language.

      January 26, 2012 at 5:25 pm | Report abuse |
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