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. Chuck

    I understand why some would be uncomfortable with elected official that may not be at proficient at English. However shouldn't this be an issue decided by his/ or her voters and not the courts. If the voters are comfortable with her and vote her in or not , that should be way this decided.

    January 26, 2012 at 10:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • me

      LOL "amagos"

      January 27, 2012 at 12:58 am | Report abuse |
    • Doc

      Well, in a sense though, I think that's whats happened here, Chuck. Because we live in a republic, the will of the voters / people is reflected in the people elected and those people elected are the ones that made these laws. A problem here could simply be that its the tyranny of the majority thats effecting this small town in this way.

      I would like to know what % of the population of the town, ONLY speaks spanish, they seem to have left that out of the article.

      I feel bad if its a majority spanish speaking community with a land slide like that, and someone who pretty much speaks only spanish can't be elected to represent them. Unfortunately representatives need to communicate with other representatives, and the vast majority of people she would have to communicate with in order to do her job properly, will most likely speak english. (if we are talking about trans-arizona issues needing to be dealt with in her region.)

      January 27, 2012 at 1:46 am | Report abuse |
    • William Wilgus

      How would she be able to do legal research, read proposals. etc.? No, her almost non-existent English ability certainly dis-qualifies her from holding office, let alone running for same.

      January 27, 2012 at 1:54 am | Report abuse |
  2. HK

    At the end of the day, I think that yes, you do need to be able to speak and write English to run for office or for any state or government positions. Imagine if there wasn't such a law and the president of US couldn't speak English well enough for the people of US to understand him!!! It's crazy. If you live in a country where the OFFICIAL language is English you NEED to be able to write and speak fluently. Also, those who don't know the language should LEARN it if they want to live in US and be successful. Many people are just lazy or ignorant and don't want to learn the language. I think the judge made the right choice.

    January 26, 2012 at 10:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • me

      What country are you from? This article is about USA, which has no official language.

      January 26, 2012 at 11:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • glennrobert

      There was at least one King of England who spoke German, not English and the country survived and the people in her district almost all speak Spanish.

      January 27, 2012 at 1:31 am | Report abuse |
    • Lee

      There is actually a very simple answer to that. If he can't speak English well enough to be understood, do you really think enough people would vote for him? And if they did, well, that's the nature of our republic.

      January 27, 2012 at 2:07 am | Report abuse |
  3. Etaoin

    While most of her constituents speak Spanish, obviously some of them speak English.
    How DID she graduate from an American high school?
    I'm all for having bilingual skills but a really really basic command of English would not seem to be an unfair requirement.

    January 26, 2012 at 10:45 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Dave

    Thank you for speaking the intelligent truth..... If we had more of this thought process we would be in a lot better place..

    January 26, 2012 at 10:58 pm | Report abuse |
  5. me

    Every country is a collection of tribes. The United States has always been that way. In the 1800s, most of the Irish and German immigrants and their descendants spoke poor English.

    January 26, 2012 at 11:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • roger

      The early immigrants you speak of also realized that speaking English was very important, and demanded this of their children because they knew this was their future.

      January 27, 2012 at 2:01 am | Report abuse |
    • D Peterson Carpintero

      YOU must have not studied US History beyond high school.

      Immigrants to the USA found themselves banned from speaking their native language (Native Americans and Hawaiians were also prohibited from speaking their native tongues and practicing their Ancient Religions) by local laws made by xenophobic politicians and school administrators (who were of European Caucasian descent).

      Yes, they realized how important it was to learn English by force, under the threat of breaking the law!

      January 27, 2012 at 2:17 am | Report abuse |
  6. anon

    well enough is correct. good enough is incorrect. adjectives and adverbs are not the same thing.

    January 26, 2012 at 11:43 pm | Report abuse |
  7. stop all the ignorant attacks to the victims of a faulty system

    Why take this to court and not blame the faulty education system. How is it that that high school allowed someone to graduate without knowing Engish. How did she write essays? I blame the US education system. This is a cowardly way to block minorities from having political power. Arizona must be SO proud to represent a community they cannot communicate with to address real needs. They are so racist its embarrasing to consider them real Americans. So much for "freedom and justice for ALL."

    January 26, 2012 at 11:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • William Wilgus

      If they were REAL AMERICANS they would be able to read, write, and speak English. That at least used to be a requirement to become a naturalized American Citizen. If they were born as American Citizens, then shame on their parents for not seeing that they learned English. WHEN IN ROME, DO AS THE ROMANS DO!

      January 27, 2012 at 1:59 am | Report abuse |
    • William Wilgus

      If they were REAL AMERICANS they would be able to read, write, and speak English. That at least used to be a requirement to become a naturalized American Citizen. If they were born as American Citizens, then shame on their parents for not seeing that they learned English.

      January 27, 2012 at 2:01 am | Report abuse |
  8. lola

    Are we still in the US. Speaking multiple language is a great thing, I am french and I speak 3 languages, but the point is we are in the US were the language is English, so people need to make an effort. I came here speaking no english, and I worked really hard to be able to communicate with people and then to improve my english everyday, because I am not here to speak any other language. So of course it is an issue that this lady does not speak good english.

    January 26, 2012 at 11:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • snookers

      Thank you ME. I am Dutch. The French are funny though, many do speak reasonable English , however, they tend to reply in French if you are in France. I pity any American trying to learn Dutch though while in Holland.. The Dutch are show offs and once they recognize your accent, will converse with you in your native language.

      January 27, 2012 at 12:03 am | Report abuse |
  9. Excuse me?

    Obviously the English language is simply too difficult for Spanish speakers to learn. Some of them have lived here for decades and still can't understand a word.

    January 27, 2012 at 12:00 am | Report abuse |
    • snookers

      First of all English is not a difficult language to learn. I found it very efficient, not much embellishments, no polite form of you, no male/female words etc. etc. Refreshingly simplified without losing any punch. You can make up very short effective sentences which would take more words and longer words in many other languages with the same end result. The only hard part is that baffling irregular pronunciation.
      I do not understand the border excuse either. In Western Europe.folks near a language border are generally proficient in either language. With or without formal schooling.

      January 27, 2012 at 2:52 am | Report abuse |
  10. D Peterson Carpintero

    I agree that there is a ton of racism on both sides of this argument.

    The FACTS are clear though:
    American Schools are over-regulated by elected officials who have NO background in field of Education (Educational Psychologists, Language Acquistionists, Sociologists and Educators). They do not make these laws using solid research and the results of studies of students but instead they use unsound political arguments to make people fearful of those they do not know. The "Divide and Conquer" method.
    Students are failing to reach a level of proficiency in English, Math, Science, and World Languages (all Core Curriculum Subjects) in all states. It doesn't matter whether or not they are Caucasian, African American, Native American, Asian and long-term Latino students; they are FAILING!

    January 27, 2012 at 12:52 am | Report abuse |
    • snookers

      Sadly, I have to agree with you. And I do not think it is the kids. It is just amazing how little is covered in those twelve years.
      I was amazed that stuff I had in 7th grade in Europe,was barely touched here at 11th grade. And 12th grade appears to be party time with just repeats from the 11th and prior grades. Many of the kids are bored to death. The whole system moves at a snail's pace equal to the least academically endowed so nobody falls by the wayside.
      I am referring to the public schools of course. Private schools do generally better.

      January 27, 2012 at 3:04 am | Report abuse |
  11. Is pointing out hypocrisy hateful?

    Every anglo student in Arizona MUST take Spanish in high school. Why should it be a big deal to expect Spanish speakers to take English and master it? This woman was educated at tax payer's expense. she would not have been publicly humiliated if she taken the time to learn English.

    January 27, 2012 at 1:42 am | Report abuse |
  12. SWalter

    I can see how this can be seen as a touchy subject. However, the basic issue is whether or not this person has a sufficient command of the English language to perform the duties of office unencumbered by any type of language barrier. Based on the facts as they are presented in this article, I feel the judge made the right decision. If you have such difficulty answering the question of 'where did you go to high school" that you simply cannot answer in English, you have no business running for office.

    January 27, 2012 at 3:15 am | Report abuse |
  13. snookers

    Latino is not a race either. It just means that your native language is Spanish. In other countries, it could also mean any of the Romance(Latin) languages, including French, Italian and Portuguese. Therefor a Latino could be blue eyed and have blond hair and there are plenty in South America. I guess national origin discrimination would be more politically correct than racism.

    January 27, 2012 at 3:32 am | Report abuse |
  14. snookers

    I call it "fear of the unknown" and actually it is pretty silly. Almost everybody discriminates in some form of another. The only person that does not ever discriminate is a blind and deaf person. Hard to discriminate based on touch only.
    And back on topic. This lady should learn English. It will open many more doors for her. More education tends to do that.
    She is currently handicapped by choice.

    January 27, 2012 at 3:46 am | Report abuse |
  15. Angie

    As a teacher for over 30 years, the issue of knowledge of and use of the English language is a big problem. I feel that there should be one major language in the USA. If schools want to offer an additional language to assist their student body or community that is fine, but everyone living in the USA should have a some understanding and at least a minimal use of the English language. Our students scores continue to fall, compared to others around the world, partly because the standards for learning the English language continues to drop.

    January 27, 2012 at 5:50 am | Report abuse |
    • fatsquirrel

      Wow,people live in the country actually have to put up the effort to learn?kids from Asia have never even been in this country speaking more english than her

      January 27, 2012 at 7:28 am | Report abuse |
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