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. tacjam01

    Latino's have problems with all our laws, immigration, drug, murder, gangs....ever heard of the good part of town where Latino's hang out?

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

    Jeff, being deaf is not a choice, it is a disability protected by the Americans with Disabil;ites act. Failure to learn English is a personal choice and a pesonal failure, very different.

    January 26, 2012 at 6:33 pm | Report abuse |
  3. nodak

    My grandparents emigrated from Germany. I never heard them speak German and when I asked them to teach me the language they said "no that was the old country, we don't live there."

    January 26, 2012 at 6:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • yup

      Though there would be nothing wrong with learning the native language of your grandparents, they were right to insist you learn English first and foremost in this country. Generally speaking, most immigrants who come here for a better life and to become actual Americans do exactly what your grandparents did. It's only the latinos who feel the culture of their homeland is more important than the culture of the country they want to live in.

      January 26, 2012 at 7:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • D Peterson Carpintero

      My grandparents came to this country speaking English, German, and Spanish from Argentina.
      The difference between mine and yours is we celebrated our rich diversity and chose to teach all of the languages spoken & yours did not.
      Actually German immigrants were forced to not speak their native language by local laws and had to take loyality oaths against their principles during the periods of the two World Wars and those that did not were incarcerated in camps just like the Japanese Americans. LEARN your US History!

      January 26, 2012 at 8:17 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Jeff

    So its OK to discriminate against people for personal choices. I am sure just about everyone China will be glad to hear that they are failures because they don't speak engish.

    January 26, 2012 at 6:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • programmergirl

      They don't have to speak English: they live in CHINA. Chinese is the language there. The person referenced in the article lives here in the USA. We speak ENGLISH here, NOT Spanish. Get a clue. And your reference to 'Personal choices' is part of the problem. Hispanics don't want to integrate, they only want as many hand-outs and free social services as they can get their hands on. If they "choose" to refuse to learn English, they have only themselves to blame when they lose out on employment or political opportunities. Again, this is America, NOT Mexico!

      January 26, 2012 at 6:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • reACTIONary

      If you move to China you probably would not have to learn Chinese... English is spoken by all the educated classes in the world. BUT you miss the point... 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 6:51 pm | Report abuse |
  5. programmergirl

    It's always the Hispanics that want this special treatment. Everyone else that comes here wants to learn English and become a true American. Not the Latinos. They want to fly their flags, speak their language and basically take over this country. The judge was right on the money in disallowing her to run for office. It's well past time to get past this politically correct BS and pass a law to make English our official and ONLY language. If these people don't want to learn OUR language, there's a simple solution: GO BACK TO MEXICO!

    January 26, 2012 at 6:41 pm | Report abuse |
  6. djblax

    Wow, the number of racist respondents here is astounding... it's these types of attitudes that make me ashamed of what the USA has become. Shame on you all...

    January 26, 2012 at 6:45 pm | Report abuse |
  7. snookers

    There must be something missing from the article. If this gal was born in the USA. It did not say naturalized US citizen.
    And even if only Spanish was spoken at home, how could she avoid learning English. She must have gone to only Spanish speaking schools. Only listened to Spanish language TV. It is an enigma to me. She should not even speak with a Spanish accent if born and raised in the USA. Itt always amazes me how quick a 5/6 year old and even younger pick up a foreign language. Generally faster than their parents.

    January 26, 2012 at 6:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • not so fast,

      this is because Some states and some school districts have chosen, decades ago, to teach all subjects in other languages in areas where large numbers of kids came from homes with students who speak a different language as the primary language in the home. What started off as a way of helping children become educated AS they learned English turned into never haveing to learn english. We culd critized the schools or even the state, bu that does not fix anything. The Legislators must act to change this.

      Here is an idea, use a little funding to offer classes to 4 year olds to teach them english prior to kindergarden, offer classes after school to all grades K thru 12 at the schools, Offer Classes at libaries for adults. If there is a concern about funding, use the funds that are saved by not providing every legal forn in the state in 20 extra languges.

      January 26, 2012 at 6:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Becky Kinder

      The article doesn't mention it. She was born here in the U.S., but her parents took her back to Mexico when she was young. She returned back to the U.S. shortly before she graduated high school. Although, I'm not sure how her high school allowed her to graduate with her inability to speak English proficiently.

      January 26, 2012 at 11:58 pm | Report abuse |
  8. pieces09

    For citizens to make the choice of who to represent them,the citizens themselves should be able to understand and speak the English language which is the official language of the land.Hence,the person they want to choose should be able to speak and understand english.How can someone stay in this country for five years or more without being able to speak and or understand the english language with a reasonable proficiency?The court ruling makes a lot of sense.

    January 26, 2012 at 6:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Paco

      Many Asian countries have a higher percentage of people proficient in English than the US, and as more latinos come here that will increase. English is the de-factoo international language, not good for the US. We only need some people who cannot do more than mow lawns and make tacos, and speak mexican.

      January 26, 2012 at 7:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • D Peterson Carpintero

      Dear Pieces09,
      Yes it is a sad state of affairs that people who come here to the USA can NOT learn English through the English only Immersion programs that the states have put into place in the public schools.
      But this is understandable because all professionals (Educational Psychologists, Lanuage Acquistionists, Sociologists and Educators) have determined that English Only Immersion does NOT work; PERIOD.

      January 27, 2012 at 12:11 am | Report abuse |
  9. Bruce

    I would like to know how in sam hill did this woman received a high school diploma if she is not proficient in English? The diploma is not worth the paper it is printed on if she is not proficient.

    January 26, 2012 at 6:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • D Peterson Carpintero

      Yes Bruce, it is a shame. It is also a shame that hundreds of thousands of Caucasian, African American, Native American and long-term Latino students graduate from high school and they can NOT and do NOT have a command of Academic English. They read at a 6th Grade level, can NOT spell, and speak street English (You speak English good or I ax dem wat it are).
      This is a failure because of putting into place a policy/law that prohibits teaching a student in a manner proven to work. It comes from lowering standards and putting more resources into high school sports programs than putting these resources into the classrooms.
      Stop blaming the teachers and blame the state lawmakers who put these laws into effect!

      January 27, 2012 at 12:22 am | Report abuse |
  10. snookers

    Many countries , excluding the USA, have mandatory foreign languages. Many textbooks when going into higher education are often only available in English.

    January 26, 2012 at 7:05 pm | Report abuse |
  11. TAK

    I'm going to try to do something unusual for these forums, contribute a thoughtful, well measured opinion. It is my hope this won't devolve into a racial back and forth but I'm sure it will...

    I understand that a grasp of the predominant native language is helpful to govern in any country. However, can someone point me to the part of the Constitution that lays out the language requirements for running for office in the United States?

    Without using existing written law as a guide, this judge becomes what conservatives hate most, an activist judge.

    January 26, 2012 at 7:07 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Jim-Bob

    The voters and only the voters should have the right to decide who is elected, not a judge. That she graduated without being proficient is a fault of our current multi-language education system. She should be allowed to run. This is an example of what we have allowed to happen by not teaching kids English in school.

    January 26, 2012 at 7:10 pm | Report abuse |
  13. kojack45

    How can someone who attended an American school not be proficient in English?

    January 26, 2012 at 7:38 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Kate

    completely agree.

    Job Description:
    It is the responsibility of the City Council to pass ordinances and resolutions as well as to set broad policies and approve the annual budget. City Council members are assigned liaison duties with various City department boards and commissions. They represent the City of Boise in regional organizations.City Council members are responsible for their constituent outreach and communications. This includes but is not limited to speaking with the media, attending ceremonies and other events, and interacting with the public.

    Happy to hear she's fluent in Spanish. However, the people of San Luis will be much better off with a candidate well versed in BOTH Spanish and English.

    January 26, 2012 at 7:56 pm | Report abuse |
  15. nepetacataria

    Isn't it the responsibility of a holder of public office to be able to communicate the needs of their constituents to the rest of government, whether it be local, regional or national? In order to do so, a comfortable grasp of the English language should be a requirement in the U.S.

    January 26, 2012 at 7:57 pm | Report abuse |
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