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. lgarner

    they'll speak the way their most comfortable:

    This article/blog writer can not use correct grammar. Why is anyone surprised at the level of English proificiency?

    January 26, 2012 at 12:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Carolyn

      Good catch.

      January 26, 2012 at 12:40 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Jeff

    The Tea Party should fight this precedent, given the poor grasp of the English language exhibited by its members. The voters should decide, otherwise this will always turn on a subjective opinion by one judge.

    January 26, 2012 at 12:36 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Tupac

    She should not be allowed to hold office with so little English. I am for having an official language in this county and that language being English – this goes for gov't offices, schools or anything else related. Noteworthy is that I myself am a speaker of English as a second language...

    January 26, 2012 at 12:36 pm | Report abuse |
  4. runforofficeinmexico


    January 26, 2012 at 12:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ivy League White Guy


      January 26, 2012 at 3:17 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Scott

    The author’s English writing schools aren’t so hot either: "they'll speak the way their most comfortable:” It should be “they’re” instead.

    January 26, 2012 at 12:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Scott

      Too bad I’m slow to proofread. I meant “skills,” not “schools."

      January 26, 2012 at 12:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • dontbestupid

      Actually 'they'll' is correct, as it mean 'they will.'

      January 26, 2012 at 12:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • dontbestupid

      Wait...I'm stupid

      January 26, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Spenser Amadeus

    She's a U.S. citizen who attended and graduated from a U.S. high school. But when asked in English what high school she attended, she wasn't able to answer?

    January 26, 2012 at 12:37 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Bernie Margolis

    I am a native Spanish speaker who came to the United States at the age of 4 and attended American schools through graduate school. My parents did not allow me to be placed in an ESL (English as a Second Language) class. As a result I always managed to outperform at least 95-99% of my peers on standardized English tests throughout the course of my schooling. I believe that this is because I didn't have bad grammatical examples to learn from at home so all the grammar that I learned came from school books. The real crime here was that Alejandra was allowed to graduate from American schools without ever learning to speak English properly. This is partially her parents' fault, but it's also the fault of a school system that is far too accommodating to non-native English speakers. My advice to other non-native English speakers out there is to speak your native tongue at home but make a concerted effort to always speak English in public.

    January 26, 2012 at 12:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • HenryMiller

      I spoke German until I came to the US at the age of six. Fairfield Elementary School was a great total-immersion course in English–I recommend something similar for all kids who aren't native speakers of English.

      January 26, 2012 at 12:50 pm | Report abuse |
  8. vatoloke

    Heck there are a lot of English speakers who can't be understood either.

    January 26, 2012 at 12:37 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Sherrill Myers

    English should be the official language of the USA and proficiency in English should be a requirement for citizenship, high school graduation and public office.

    However, there should be much more emphasis on learning foreign languages by US citizens to promote understanding and appreciation of other cultures.

    January 26, 2012 at 12:38 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Vijay

    .."....Just how much English must you understand to run for a political office?". Wow. Would GB fail? Or an excuse is made for "equal opportunity non understander?"

    January 26, 2012 at 12:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • HenryMiller

      George Bush graduated from Yale University, an Ivy League school, and he has an MBA from Harvard. I expect his grasp of English is absolute.

      January 26, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Retarded Child

    The following account is an example of how even if you know English, you still need to be able to communicate effectively... it could mean your life!

    A traveler stopped at a convenience store to ask directions. The man behind the counter pointed to a traffic signal a block away and said, “Go to that intersection, take an immediate left, go about a mile. It will be the big red building on your right.”

    The traveler repeated, “Go to the traffic light, take an immediate left, go a mile to the red building on my right. Is that it?”

    “That’s right,” said the convenience store operator.

    Unfortunately, the traffic light was on the corner heading into the intersection and the man in the store had neglected to mention the grassy median that separated northbound and southbound lanes. The traveler took an “immediate left” and headed south in the northbound lane. Less than one block later, he slammed headfirst into an eighteen-wheeler and was killed.

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

    The judge asked her where she went to high school and she had difficulty answering in English? Did shoe also have difficulty answering in Spanish?

    January 26, 2012 at 12:40 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Hate joy bahar

    If we were to run for office in Mexico,( just as an example) we would be required to learn the language of that country. People come from all over the world and are able to learn English, why is it that we cater to the Spanish population and don't require them to learn our language. Think of the money we would save on education if we did what every other nation in the world does, require their language of origin be the official language spoken. If we continue down this path very soon, this country will be a Spanish speaking nation. It's amazing to me how people come from far away 3rd world countries, they take English classes, get jobs, educate their children, and are proud to call the USA home.

    January 26, 2012 at 12:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • HenryMiller

      Apparently, since they're trying so hard to turn the US into North Mexico, those from Mexico aren't "proud to call the USA home."

      January 26, 2012 at 12:59 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Sunflower

    She graduated from a local high school and can't speak English??? doesn't say much for their education system does it.......

    January 26, 2012 at 12:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • Barry G.

      You might be surprised to learn how many graduate from colleges, with poor speaking, reading and writing skills.

      You may also be surprised to learn how deficient many of our "teachers" and "educators" are.

      January 26, 2012 at 12:47 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Tupac

    Oh and no, voters shouldn't decide because then one day we will have a mess on our hands, where every town's majority is voting in a different language. This is an absolutely absurd notion that would cause us all issues later on – let us have an official language of English and anyone who comes here can learn it, just like I did. America is fragile when it comes to standing up to the real rights, against so many minorities, thus we may just end up like Canada one day soon – have different language-speaking parts, etc etc etc

    January 26, 2012 at 12:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • Biggie

      Tupac is my man...

      January 26, 2012 at 12:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mickey

      Ummmmmmmmmm Tupac, stick to what you know. Canada has TWO official languages – not a big deal. Switzerland has four official languages.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:20 pm | Report abuse |
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