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. Juan

    I just wanna know how she graduated high school not speaking english!

    January 26, 2012 at 7:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Wayne

      "English as a second language" all the way. The real question is how she passed an English class.

      January 26, 2012 at 9:13 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Bob

    Forget speaking. Think about reading. If elected, she would have to read documents in English before voting (unless you are a Congressperson in which case you don't read, you just vote). The disadvantage to this individual cannot be easlily overcome. Would you want a representative who cannot read the documents being handled in the council?

    January 26, 2012 at 8:00 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Confuzzled

    How can any elected member of our government represent your community to the rest of the nation/state when they don't have the capacity or the ability to communicate in a way that all members of our government can understand. English (specifically American English) is the norm in the US. Spanish (or other languages) might be the preferred language within a specific community, but when running for office and to represent your community, it's not unreasonable to have a requirement that you have the ability to be proficient in the spoken and written English language.

    January 26, 2012 at 8:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • Andy Smith

      There's an app for translations. She can use that. 🙂

      January 26, 2012 at 8:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • D Peterson Carpintero

      Apparently you do NOT understand or comprehend written English very well.
      The article clearly states:
      "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."
      How & where did you get your high school diploma?

      January 27, 2012 at 12:37 am | Report abuse |
  4. Emily Francona

    Are you kidding? If elected, Cabrera would have to represent all citizens in her district equally, not just the Spanish-speaking ones. That is what representation is all about. As a naturalized citizen with English as my THIRD language, I can categorically state that a command of the English language in this country is absolutely essential for anyone to succeed in the job market, let alone in politics.

    January 26, 2012 at 8:14 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Andy

    wow...lots of racism on this board.
    I think there may be a lot of supporters of this ruling who are racist, but i don't think that makes the ruling unfair or racist.
    Realistically, elected government officials need to be able to communicate with other government officials. Sometimes that means someone out of your district or even state. There has to be a single unifying language so that the leaders of this country can communicate with ease. English is the logical choice because the majority of Americans speak it and all politicians speak it. If we were in Mexico, the language should be espanol and if we were in china it should be mandarin. It has nothing to do with race.

    January 26, 2012 at 8:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • ZZzzz

      thank you. Languages are not races of people. Therefore, it cannot be racist.

      January 26, 2012 at 8:30 pm | Report abuse |
  6. MJ

    Ugh! This story is what's wrong with this country! I cannot even believe she had the nerve to run for office! No shame. If I went to Italy and wanted to run for office – I would be expected to speak Italian! Well!
    Why do we have to debate the finer points of what proficiency means to morons like this?
    English – everyone on the planet knows that Americans' primary language is English.
    I blame lawyers – for all of it. Government, laws, perp's rights – thank a lawyer.

    January 26, 2012 at 8:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • Wayne

      No, thank the politicians. "English as a second language" taught in our schools. That means classes are taught in Spanish to spanish speakers. That's why we gettos

      January 26, 2012 at 9:20 pm | Report abuse |
  7. ZZzzz

    Why is something like this so inflammatory? Shouldn't people running for public office speak English fluently? HOW IS THIS EVEN A DEBATE?!?! Race has nothing to do with it... Language does!

    January 26, 2012 at 8:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • koza


      January 26, 2012 at 10:13 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Andy Smith

    I don't see a problem with her running for office. Let the people in county / district decide if they want her as a representative. I don't see what the big deal is. We have representatives in every corner of this country who don't seek the language of every single member of the community they represent, and we let them run and represent those people?. If majority of the people she would represent is okay, why not? I hear a lot about giving more power to the state / local government control, let the "locals" decide then. If you want more personal responsibility, it doesn't get more personal than the people she would represent deciding for her. If you want freedom, it doesn't get more free than electing the person who represents you.

    January 26, 2012 at 8:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Andy Smith

      Okay, not quite done. Got a question, would you prevent someone from running because they can't speak? Didn't think so. Then why not her? Because she can speak and someone might not understand her? Okay, let her write her communications down. I'm sure she could get a translator to go around with her to explain her positions to her colleague, or probably use an app on her smart phone for the translation. Haha.

      January 26, 2012 at 8:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • snookers

      I disagree. When living in the USA and running for public office, you should have command of the universal language of the land. Not any different than in private business. You should be able to verbally communicate with everybody and be able to read written/comprehend matter in English.
      I even will take a step further, when representing a community that mostly speaks Spanish or whatever the predominant language is, you should be proficient in both English and the predominant language in your neck of the woods...

      January 26, 2012 at 9:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • Andy Smith

      Snooker, what if I can't speak or hear? Should I not run for government office? Are my rights as an American different from the rights of others with this disability?

      January 26, 2012 at 9:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • koza

      @Andy Smith - The issue is her command of English. She could not answer simple questons. That implys she could also not answer them in written form. Somebody who was mute, but otherwise fluent in English, could communicate non-verbally. She, however, cannot even do that.

      Anything else you don't understand?

      January 26, 2012 at 10:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • snookers

      Andy, it is not a matter of a permanent handicap. Folks who are deaf/trouble speaking due to the body mechanics, can easily hold a public office/private office providing they have the education. Stephen Hawkins is a good example. There are many scientific ways to overcome such an obstacle.
      Not comprehending English is just a matter of acquired knowledge/education. Would you like a district attorney run for public office without a J.D. Permanently handicapped is not the same as lack of education.

      January 26, 2012 at 10:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dave

      Wow....? Andy is one lost puppy.... Way to take a topic out of context..... Hello.... McFly...?

      January 26, 2012 at 11:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • anon

      @koza As far as I can tell, this woman is intelligent, vibrant, strong, and appeals to the needs of the community. I do think not knowing English is a huge obstacle for her, but, well, who are you (or me, or the courts really) to bar her from running?

      So many politicians these days run with no competency in politics, no compassion for their constituency, no ethics... and you're going to harp on someone's ability to speak English??? If it really poses a problem then the voters will know. My guess is that it won't, because her constituency would mainly speak SPANISH, which is why it isn't a handicap! If she really needs to communicate with others then she has 1) a dictionary 2) a staff that probably has an interpreter and for god's sake she's running for city council, not the senate! This ruling may not be racist but it's undemocratic and sets a poor precedent for the way politics should work.

      January 27, 2012 at 12:02 am | Report abuse |
  9. jake

    Mexicans want to preserve their culture and language. You have 3rd generation American citizens entering Los Angeles public kindergartens speaking no English at all. Their parents are US citizens and high school graduates. They don't want their kids speaking English. They are Mexicans living in the US. They don't want to assimilate. They don't want their kids becoming American. They are Mexican. They simply live in the US.

    January 26, 2012 at 8:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Felipe Lopez

      And your point is?

      January 26, 2012 at 9:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Educator

      @jake. That is completely untrue. As an educator I have taught in Los Angeles and San Diego and speaking from my experience I have found that while parents and children are very proud of being Mexican they are also very proud of being American. They are very proud of being apart of this country and they very much want their children to be able to access all the opportunities that are here through their use of English (and with a good education). Time, access and convenience often get in the way of learning English when it comes to adults. And further more, most parents who did not speak English would apologize to me for not being able to communicate. It is not their desire not to learn the language. The parents/students I've had the opportunity to know are proud of all parts of their identity, Mexican, American and otherwise AND recognize the benefits and advantages of speaking both English and Spanish well.

      January 26, 2012 at 9:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • koza

      @Felipe Lopez
      - The point is it creates an underclass that the rest of us have to take care of..and it impacts our schools and public institutions. The judge thankfully had enough insight to say no.

      Any other questions?

      January 26, 2012 at 10:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • snookers

      Man, I pity their kids. That is almost like child abuse. Those kids will miss so much. In my neck of the woods(PA) Latinos are not that way though. They like to get good paying jobs like everybody else and are eager to be proficient in English or whatever it takes to get a decent paying job. Not speaking English would seriously hamper that goal

      January 26, 2012 at 10:39 pm | Report abuse |
  10. kuba

    Law is law and thats all in this issue.even if the huge majority of a community speak other language than english as their mothertongue, the official represents the broadly understood nation,country and its government. i conceive that the knowledge of spanish is enough to rule the territory but what wil happen when it comes to interstate meetings for instance? Officials unable to communicate without help of a interprete- that would be just a fail

    January 26, 2012 at 8:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Andy Smith

      What if her district decides to pass a law that English isn't their official language? Would the more local government (her district or county) trump the state rule? We want more power in the hands of local governments, right? There's a more local governments than a federal government, state, county, city, etc. Where does the "more power to the local government" mantra end? How "local" is too local?

      January 26, 2012 at 8:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • koza

      @Andy Smith - You are thinking locally, not in terms of the welfare of the nation. One of the outstanding features of the US is the 50 states working together with commerce and free inter-state travel...so much a success it was emulated in Europe with the Euro.

      Now you propose what exactly? To go backwards. To inroduce a hodgpodge of lanuages. That is not conducive to commerce and the good of the US.

      Anything else you do not understand?

      January 26, 2012 at 10:30 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Ted

    Speaking English means understanding US values and traditions. Many Latinos do not. When illegal immigration activists translated "The Star Spangled Banner" into Spanish for immigration rallies- they didn't translate it literally. They didn't like the words so they created " Nuestro Himno" or "our anthem" using the melody of "Star Spangled Banner" they sang a song about open borders and liberal immigration policies. Speaking English isn't just about the language. It's about our cultural identity. It's not 1800 anymore. The US has it's own culture, history and identity and that needs to be respected.

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

    English or rather American is the primary language and manner of universal communication in the USA. I really do not give a hoot what your native language is and if different than English, consider it an asset. Mine is Dutch. It really saddens me that this lady did not get an adequate education that taught her American, the universal language of this country . That is a crime in itself and will hamper any future advancement in her career. I do agree with the Judge but something very wrong with our education system. Kids love to learn new languages when young. I know I did, starting at 5th grade. Teaching kids in Spanish, unless a Spanish language course for all kids, is a cop out IMO.
    Many countries , even the Chinese, have a primary language(Mandarin), that everybody comprehends. Local dialects , spoken at home, sometimes are as different as a foreign language. Even in my little country, I have a heck of a time understanding Frisian. Ditto with British understanding Welsh. Or Americans understanding Pennsylvania Deutsch.
    Maybe Esperanto( an artificial language) should be revived. I kind of wasted my time on that. This whole thing resembles religion like in my language/religion is better than you. English is not a difficult language to learn, neither is Spanish BTW. However, I always pitied German kids. German is a bear with their grammar. Stay away from that puppy.

    January 26, 2012 at 9:01 pm | Report abuse |
  13. The Real Rest of US

    Her family and community should find her English failure embarrassing. I would venture to bet, her Mexican Spanish is equally poor.

    January 26, 2012 at 9:01 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Andy Smith

    Is the main reason why you are paying a doctor because of their language skills or because of their understanding of the human body? You eat food produced by people with limited English speaking skills, drive cars built by people with limited, if any English skills, use personal hygiene products, clothing, building materials, etc made by people with limited or no English skills (these are things that can actually injure you severely), yet you wouldn't let a doctor try to help heal you, because of his / her English skills? Wow.

    January 26, 2012 at 9:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • koza

      The assumption is the doctor is in the US. Thus, the medical instruments he will be using are in English. The staff and his assistants speak English. The prescriptions –in English. The medicine - in English. It is true a non-English speaker can be a very fine MD, but if he is going to be working in the US, he will be likely hindered by not knowing English.

      Anything else you do not understand?

      January 26, 2012 at 10:59 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Andy Smith

    "English failure"? Or failure to master the English language? You're showing your mastery of the language you want others to master. And it isn't looking too convincing.

    January 26, 2012 at 9:05 pm | Report abuse |
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