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. Zach

    Public servants are employees of the people, not the government. Therefore it is not the job of the court system to judge the eligibility of a candidate; that is the responsibility of the public servant's employer... the public.

    January 26, 2012 at 5:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ivy League White Guy

      I agree.

      January 26, 2012 at 6:21 pm | Report abuse |
  2. linnie

    Let's face it, if she was elected in her district, next she'd have to have an interpreter at all city council meetings.

    January 26, 2012 at 5:49 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Cobra-212

    The job of any elected representative is to represent the people who elected you. To do that you must not only communicate with them, but also with others. Towns must interact with city, county, and state representatives, as well as vendors, contractors, etc. This is America and English in the language. We should insist on fluency in English for any elected official. It is an even bigger issue that she was born in the U.S., raised and schooled in the U.S., and yet is not fluent in the language of this country. This is taking liberalism to new heights, as rather than help people being raised in different cultural backgrounds adopt and join the big melting pot, they are helping them remain segregated and distinct. That isn't what made this country what it is today, and is helping to destroy it.

    January 26, 2012 at 5:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jill cobb

      "It is an even bigger issue that she was born in the U.S., raised and schooled in the U.S., and yet is not fluent in the language of this country"

      I agree with this statement, Cobra-212. Something is definitely wrong with this picture.

      January 26, 2012 at 5:54 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Al

    "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."

    Even though this argument is a can of worms, the statute seems very sensible and created to care for the general population. As an example, if the is a federal complaint complaint against the municipality, could the person in the elected position respond. I have to side with the existing statute.

    January 26, 2012 at 5:49 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Pete/Ark

    He learned to speak Texan in Maine....english was his third language

    January 26, 2012 at 5:51 pm | Report abuse |
  6. yurlipsrmuvn

    Amazing, most commenters here are usually libs spouting their usual socialist tripe and would normally defend this "poor" linguistically challenged minority. A glimpse of common sense from the left? Refreshing.

    January 26, 2012 at 5:52 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Pete/Ark

    and Texans

    January 26, 2012 at 5:55 pm | Report abuse |
  8. agreeable

    I agree with everybody so far.

    January 26, 2012 at 5:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • your an idiot

      you are wrong

      January 26, 2012 at 5:59 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Poor Me

    I would say she lacks intelligence if she can not say in ENGLISH the school she attended.

    January 26, 2012 at 6:10 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Sharkfisher

    I f she WILL NOT learn the language she should not be allowed to run for public office.Let her try run for pulic office in Juarez.We have too much mexican influence here already.

    January 26, 2012 at 6:14 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Paco

    Not the same.

    January 26, 2012 at 6:24 pm | Report abuse |
  12. James

    Another fine example of mexicans not wanting to be Americans but wanting all the benefits of living here... I hope I see the day that our government and the general population says "enough is enough" and does something politically incorrect like using nonviolent force to get these people to either get with the program or leave.

    January 26, 2012 at 6:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • reACTIONary

      Another fine example of someone not reading the article. She isn't a mexican, she is an American. If you read the article, you would know that the Spanish language speakers in AZ predate the 1910 enabling act. The fact of the matter is, Spanish has been spoken in North America longer than English has. The United States has always been a multilingual country.

      January 26, 2012 at 6:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • koza

      Correct...She must have a good command of English. Well done Judge.

      Only Spanish speakers don't want to adapt to America it would appear.... Asians have no problem. Spanish speakers are a cancer in this regard. It also affects our schools.
      Let's be 100% clear. Look at the top languages in terms of scientific achievement. Spanish is a non-contender. It is English, German, French, and in the future, we anticipate Chinese. Spanish? No. You want to dumb down America...learn Spanish as a second language instead of, as mentioned, French, German, or Chinese.

      January 26, 2012 at 7:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • Satan

      She's an AMERICAN who speaks Spanish as a first language. And, as the article clearly states, the demographics of the area she wants to represent is almost 90% hispanic and almost 100% speak Spanish. And by the way, what exactly are the "benefits" of living in the U.S.???? Can you name 5? No health care, terrible transportation system, declining education (that taxpayers refuse to subsidize)...what are the benefits???

      January 26, 2012 at 7:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • BooseyBoo

      Her being American and not speaking English well enough is a prime example of the demise of this country. The jusge is absolutely correct in ruling against her. It is UNSAT that she cannot speak a cohernet sentence or understand a basic one spoken to her in English regardless if was born in Arizone or not. Too bad so sad!

      January 26, 2012 at 7:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • koza

      @Satan - It is irrelevant that Spanish is her first lanuage. It is also irrelevant that she is American. You mention this exactly WHY?

      What is relevant is the people she SERVES. Unless you can gaurantee that EVERYBODY she comes into contact is a Spanish speaker, and that all the documents that she will be required to read - and write - are in Spanish (and have been correctly translated - thus requiring more expense to the taxpayer), your comment that the region is Spanish speaking is irrelevant also.

      In this economy, it should not be difficult to find somebody who is fluent in English and can speak passable Spanish. THAT is the correct ratio, not the other way around. Do try to keep up.

      January 26, 2012 at 9:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • koza

      @Satan– Why do read in a post only what you want to see, rather than what is actually being said?

      I said the SECOND language choice should for an American not be Spanish. As her first language is Spanish, my statement therefore did not have any bearing on her...I would hope her second lanuguage was English...Since she is having difficulties, who knows, it could have been her third or fourth. If she is Hispanic, off course she should learn her mother's language and culture. I would not have it any other way. The parents responsibility is to make sure their child becomes a proficient in English in addition to Spanish. The parents failed. The US tax payer should not have to take up the slack for that failure.

      Again, if you actually read what I said, native Engish speakers, when deciding on a second language, should give preference to German, French, and Chinese for the reasons these are the languages in which the scientific literature of the world is written (other than English) Spanish does not rate. Spanish is often promoted as a good choice for a second language without understanding the benefits of the three I have mentioned.

      You can call me an idiot. Who cares, since you cannot defend your viewpoints. I on the other hand can.

      January 26, 2012 at 9:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • koza

      Gudo - As a native, I have a natives ear...meaning while I cannot explain to you the rules of grammar, my ear knows when something is not correct. Also, the grammar is only approximate, it can never completely capture the language.
      The people with the best command of the language would be writers and I suppose English professors...and I am neither.
      Regarding slang - The slang you pick up depends on the speech patterns of the people you associate with. I tend to eschew the company of people who speak in slang.

      I am familiar with English and Australian English and slang...in additon to US English. Was there another country you were referring to? Canadain slang I don't care about.

      January 26, 2012 at 9:23 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Sharkfisher

    There are millians of people from many countried that have come here and they have all been willing to learn our language EXCEPT the latinos . If they can't learn english they they care very little for this country.Only the latinos.

    January 26, 2012 at 6:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • reACTIONary

      The Spanish speaking population of AZ did not "come here". They were here BEFORE the English speaking population! Spanish is one of America's indegionous, native languages. We have ALWAYS had a mulitlingual country.

      January 26, 2012 at 6:48 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Paco

    Haha, puta.

    January 26, 2012 at 6:29 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Jeff

    Why not? They seam to be saying it is because she can not communicate orally with out assistance. Well niether can a mute person or even a deaf person who has difficulty speaking.

    January 26, 2012 at 6:29 pm | Report abuse |
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