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. JRH

    It should certainly be better than CNN's, no doubt about it. Some of what passes for "English" on this and other news outlet sites is atrocious. Barack Obama is far and away the most well spoken, erudite man among the entire field in 2012. If someone wants my vote, they need to demonstrate a command of the language. Newt and the rest in the GOP haven't demonstrated that. They sound like children on a playground.

    January 26, 2012 at 5:20 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Tony Beez

    Let the voters decide who they want to represent them. If an elected official proves to be ineffective as a result of poor English language skills then they can be recalled or not reelected.

    January 26, 2012 at 5:20 pm | Report abuse |
  3. 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 country 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 5:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • Linda Thomas

      You are riight on that. I have lived in other countries and I have never seen a ballot written in English there. Why should we forsake our own language to cater to citizens who will not learn English?

      January 26, 2012 at 5:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • marty

      Lack of a proficiency of English didn't stop George W. Bush from being president. But then again, look at what he did while in office. Maybe he didn't understand what people were actually telling him.

      January 26, 2012 at 5:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • tacjam01

      @Marty, sort like Obama in 2010, the people spoke LOUDLY (in English) for him to stop throwing money away, maybe we should've spoken Kenyan!

      January 26, 2012 at 5:36 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Linda Thomas

    You cannot conduct government business if your language skill level prevents full understanding of the language in which government business is carried out. It seems like a no brainer to me. Let her become more proficient in the language and then try to run for office.

    January 26, 2012 at 5:21 pm | Report abuse |
  5. oakhill3

    I'd just like to know how and why she was able to graduate from a US high school without a good grasp of English. THAT is a travesty.

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

      Good point.

      January 26, 2012 at 5:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • Pete/Ark

      it's called "social promotion"...translated into everyday english : "this kid is hopless,let 'er go".

      January 26, 2012 at 5:54 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Minoa

    Um, how many of the leading industrialized countries do you see with a black President or Prime Minister? Which of those countries can match the extent that minorities in the U.S. have important positions in companies, government , education, media, entertainment, etc? Sure, we still have racists, as do all countries, but that problem is gradually improving. Virtually EVERY country has official languages, and rules about the use of them...of course the shrinking number of stupid racists in the majority like those rules, but there are ALSO all kinds of legitimate reasons for those rules, too. How do you think the citizens of San Luis would feel if the govenor appointed a judge to the area that spoke niether English or Spanish well, perhaps a friend that was originally from Korea?

    January 26, 2012 at 5:29 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Matt

    The US is an English speaking nation and I agree that we should preserve that fact. That being said, this is a question of whether or not a candidate is eligible to run for office. As much as the US is an English speaking nation, it is also a representative democracy where voters elect their government officials. As such, any candidate should be eligible to run for office if the voters of their jurisdiction find them fit for office. The argument that this woman may not be able to communicate with other officials is moot; if the voters want to elect a sub-optimal official that cannot communicate with her English-speaking peers in government, that is their right. People should reap what they sow- let them have their illiterate candidate and let them handle the consequences (good or bad, as I am in no position to suppose one way or the other).

    January 26, 2012 at 5:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Oh Lordy!

      The question is not moot; who do you think she has to represent her people to? She must be able to communicate her district's needs to the state if not the federal level

      January 26, 2012 at 7:45 pm | Report abuse |
  8. tacjam01

    If you can't speak. read and understand English extensively, you should not be able to run for public office. Our laws are written in English, being able to understand the written ENGLISH laws is a prerequisite for the job.

    January 26, 2012 at 5:33 pm | Report abuse |
  9. CoAVS

    Looking at these comments makes me sick. The lack of knowledge on American history is going to cause the county to fall apart. If we look back to the 1850s there was a party called the No Nothings. The No Nothings only existed because of deep seeded hatred of immigrants. Later on in the 1890s radical Protestant groups called for not allowing Jewish or Catholic immigrants. Other groups called for not allow people from less “civilized”, or “advanced” countries such as Poland, Russia, and Italy. The same thing is happening here, the immigrant is going to take my job was a excuse for racial and religious discrimination.

    January 26, 2012 at 5:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Al

      Heavy rant, but, it does not address the point at hand.

      January 26, 2012 at 5:54 pm | Report abuse |
  10. John Beckman

    People are confusing the ability to communicate with friends, business & local stores with the ability to run a government office. The government official will have to be able to read and write county & state rules and legislation. Under stand budgets, local taxes, valuation of real estate rules to correctly understand the county property tax laws, county health requirements, auto tag issues, electrical supply issues. This requires your council representative to be able to effectively communicate with all manner of local, state & Federal governments on your behalf.

    January 26, 2012 at 5:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • MRN32

      You stated perfectly.

      January 26, 2012 at 6:15 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Cowshed

    It seems to me that if the people being represented are satisfied enough with the level of English ability to elect the candidate, then that should be good enough. After all, many elected officials who speak English well seem to be severely lacking in integrity but are allowed to continue serving at the will of their electors. I feel that integrity is a much more important qualifier than language proficiency.

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

    She doesn't have a 4-year-old's proficiency in English. I find it amazing that so many people are standing up for her, when her failure is so profound. Watch a few episodes of sesame street and try again.

    January 26, 2012 at 5:39 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Roger B.

    If I visit Spain, Mexico or Cuba, a certain ability to communicate in Spanish is expected. Although Congress has not shown the courage to pass legislation to makae English the U.S. official language, English is the language use to found the nation.

    January 26, 2012 at 5:42 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Dagobert II

    Again, what is the standard of proficiency? Most politicians are lawyers. Should the standard of proficiency be the Latin legalese of lawyers? If we're not careful we may find ourselves further enslaved to the corporation of the bar. In this sense we already are a multilingual nation and the Latin speaking 'foreigners' are in control. Ironically, a Spanish speaker might be more proficient in the language of government than an English speaker due to the similarity of Latin and Spanish. I don't doubt that the judge in this case ruled according to the law, but the law is fraught with problems. And we might want to take care in what we ask from the law lest we get it.

    January 26, 2012 at 5:44 pm | Report abuse |
  15. John Beckman

    In Addition to the above I am an immigrant, As a young child English was not my native tongue, and my family did not speak English at home, as a child I was picked on and made fum off because of my English and my religion. Today people still ask where is my accent from although I feel I speak excellent English, graduated from high school and have to college degrees. This is not a racial issue, it is an issue of having a functioning government that represents all the people and will do its utmost to protect the peoples interest.

    January 26, 2012 at 5:48 pm | Report abuse |
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