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. Sandy

    I find the entire situation terribly embarrasing. The main language in America is English. The woman is now a US citizen and graduated from an american High School but can't speak english???? I live in Germany and learned the language. People who live in Germany and don't learn the language can't find decent work and can't be a citizen of the country. Such people usually end up selling drugs or going back to their native country where the people understand them. I would never lower myself to such a level and assume that the people here should speak English with me. I would strongly recommend those individuals living in this woman's neighborhood do some soul searching and ask themselves if it is appropriate to remain ignorant.

    January 27, 2012 at 6:11 am | Report abuse |
  2. snookers

    The Judge ruled based on the law in Arizona. He really had no other choice, he has to follow the law.. If folks do not like his ruling, they should contact their State legislator and have the law changed if the majority wants it changed. That is the proper way in a democracy. Ditto, if you do not like that students pass in HS without basic command of the English language. Individual teachers can not change that. If the majority want two official languages, I guess that can be done also at the State level. In Europe , some countries have more than one official language, Belgium and Switzerland come to mind. .

    January 27, 2012 at 6:56 am | Report abuse |
  3. Joe

    This is America, Native lanuage is english! Speak it, Or go back to your own country. If you can not speak your native tounge where you live, You have no place in politcs of that area.

    January 27, 2012 at 8:13 am | Report abuse |
    • John

      When the English arrived in America from Europe, did they learn the native Indian language? By your logic its the English who must go back, then. I'm a British American, but I respect every language community that has contributed to to what America is now. Learn to admit the fact that it was not our land previously, we took it by force – so we must respect other communities. Only then will America be a true icon of freedom and liberty.

      January 27, 2012 at 8:31 am | Report abuse |
    • Jeff

      John your completely detachment with this topic. Can you take back time? No you can’t nor can anyone else for that fact. So this chewed fat about going back to the time where British invaded the native land and speaking that language is a bunch of hog wash! English was predestined to be the American language. I have no problem with people knowing or speaking other languages, but if you are for whatever reason going to school here in the USA, you will teach the Native American tong which is English, and you much learn it more so if you are running for a public office, regardless if the population if is more Spanish speaking or not. Next thing we’ll have other foreign languages wanting the same, without learning the native language here in American and the history that was built on it. No other country does it, so why should we?! Learn our language or move back from where you came, and where you won’t have this battle.

      January 27, 2012 at 9:33 am | Report abuse |
    • AL

      News flash for you pal: In the 1800s, the United States took parts of Mexico (where Mexicans and their families were already living and Speaking Spanish), not the other way around. How would you feel if a neighboring country took over part of your ancestors' homeland and forced you and your family to speak a language other than your own?

      January 27, 2012 at 10:29 am | Report abuse |
    • RN

      Since there were literally HUNDREDS of native american languages spoken in the US prior to North Americas ""invasion"" I suggest you tell the rest of us which ONE (yes just one) we should be speaking so that we can change our ways immediately. Oh, and English (as they speak it in the UK) was also not a native language there either. It is a combo of several native languages and the language of the Saxons who were Germanic, and the language has been transformed and changed several times starting in the 8th century.

      January 27, 2012 at 11:39 am | Report abuse |
  4. MsT

    We live in AMERICA, speak ENGLISH! If I moved to another country I would learn the language. Why is it that our leaders have let this go so long? I live in South Florida and I get phone calls on a regular basis from people asking me if I speak Spanish and Creole. No, I speak ENGLISH! It's frustrating because they act as though they are aggravated with me because I, an AMERICAN, speak only ENGLISH. It's even more frustrating to know that some of these people have been in this country long enough to have gone through at least high school and they still did not find the need to learn the ENGLISH lanuage. If that isn't bad enough they grow up and become teachers and my son, who is an honors student in an engineering magnet student, gets stuck with a math teacher that he doesn't understand! I am in no way saying that his teacher doesn't know the material, but how do you expect to teach the material to the students if you can't communicate with them? Learning to speak ENGLISH should be a requirement for becoming a citizen of The United States of America.

    January 27, 2012 at 8:22 am | Report abuse |
    • Turtlesnake

      don't be a weenie this is planet earth and we all have the right to do whatever we want to do

      January 27, 2012 at 9:03 am | Report abuse |
  5. Rodeo_Joe

    English is not native to America. The English speak English. Duh.

    There are many Native Languages in Arizona, but English is not one of them.

    Still trying to criminalize the Native people, ye Europeans?

    January 27, 2012 at 8:34 am | Report abuse |
    • John

      Fully agree with you...

      January 27, 2012 at 8:38 am | Report abuse |
  6. Majormonogram

    Here's a simple solution: change the national language from English to Spanish. Let's face it, by 2050 the majority in this country will be latin americans. And i'm sure within my lifetime a President will be elected that has latin roots. It's inevitable. The current majority in this country will then be nothing but a wimper, a sound signifyin nothing..

    January 27, 2012 at 9:18 am | Report abuse |
  7. P.Ha

    I say English, Spanish, Chinese, French, and Vietnamese should be the offical languages in America. How many real American can speak another language?

    January 27, 2012 at 9:34 am | Report abuse |
    • P.Ha

      Elizabeth, you could share that dookee with me, but hey ladies first. You are not that smart Elizabeth.

      January 27, 2012 at 9:50 am | Report abuse |
  8. Stefan

    I'm a liberal. I voted for Obama. I am a white male who has learned to speak Spanish because I think it is a valuable language skill. I grew up in a city where white people were not the majority. I went to public school, where most of my friends weren't white. I think I appreciate other people's backgrounds and cultures.

    To be in politics in this country, you need to speak English. It isn't fair to put the burden on the state to find a translator for you, or to have you go to meetings and not be able to speak your mind coherently. Maybe speaking Spanish is fine in her neighborhood, but if she wants to represent that neighborhood to the rest of the city, she needs to learn the common language.

    A bit off topic, and half joking... but I love the proficiency argument. I'd love to see all our politicians go through critical thinking tests, basic math tests, etc. The message being – if you want the ability to run the country and control many aspects of the average person's life, you need to be smarter than the average person.

    January 27, 2012 at 9:48 am | Report abuse |
    • Paul Bartomioli

      A return to Jim Crow? by a liberal? Not a student of history, are you? Your half serious comment was outlawed in the 1960s.

      January 27, 2012 at 10:03 am | Report abuse |
    • Anon.

      Paul, how is a request for proficiency a return to Jim Crow? If my local representative was unable to communicate with the other members of government in a clear manner, isn't that a disservice to me? What if she agrees to something because she doesn't fully understand what was being said? I quote: "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." She wasn't disqualified because she had a slight accent, she was disqualified because the evidence suggested she would be unable to fulfill her obligations due to a language barrier.

      January 27, 2012 at 12:15 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Tim

    This is very simple. The government that this woman would be operating within conducts its business and affairs in ENGLISH. She could not even answer a simple question about where she attended high school in ENGLISH, so how would she be able to conduct herself and represent herself and discuss governmental affairs, debates, etc within the system.
    Simply, she would not be able to. THE END.

    January 27, 2012 at 10:27 am | Report abuse |
  10. maria

    i am a Cuban-American. i spoke Ingles in less than 3 months in New York, anyone that runs for any type of government office should know how to speck English fluently

    January 27, 2012 at 10:37 am | Report abuse |
  11. maria

    by the way i have lived in many countries since i was young and now older, English is spoken everywere i lived

    January 27, 2012 at 10:41 am | Report abuse |
    • Ivy League White Guy

      Good for you, Maria. Hopefully someday English Only advocates will learn to speak other languages just like you chose to learn English. Hopefully they will be as open minded and progressive and as willing to learn as you were when you decided to learn a second language. Good for you, Maria.

      January 27, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Report abuse |
  12. SLJ

    It should be noted that, if elected to the position, she is required to communicate with others outside of her community. Therefore, proficiency in the language of the State/Country she represents is essential. This is not an unreasonable requirement, and also serves as protection for her, since issues/laws will be drafted and discussed/debated in English. How can she adequately perform her duties if she can't understand what's going on?

    January 27, 2012 at 10:41 am | Report abuse |
  13. DRC

    The US needs to have one main language and that is English. You want to speak Spanish or Polish or Italian at home that is great. But the nation needs to have one, especially for government or courts, language. Arizona is not part of Mexico anymore so spare me that arguement. Again in the US, if you want to be a citizen or hold office you need to be able to speak English. To come into this country and expect it to cater to your native tongue shows a lot of audacity. Even if that native tongue is just across the border.

    January 27, 2012 at 11:17 am | Report abuse |
    • DRC

      Well Ivy League, You have a response like that and you call yourself enlightened? Use some of those so called brains and make a arguement against my points. Come on now. I know that little sheltered Ivy world taught you something. Explain how having one spoken tongue to united all the people is a bad thing? You are very good at name calling but that appears to be about it.

      January 27, 2012 at 12:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • DRC

      A civil rights issue? Xenophobia? Hate? I feel the "issues" are on your end, as you seem to have picked up all the little talking points from the "non-racist" Hispanic groups. What is so hard to understand that as a nation we should not have to have translators to communicate between fellow citizens? Right away you have to make it a racial don't you. God forbid someone come into our country and try to learn English right? But those that come here and demand, or won't make an effort to learn English are not racist, xenophobic or filled with some other contempt for America? How terrible of me to ask that new residents learn English.

      January 27, 2012 at 2:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ivy League White Guy

      What do you mean "your country'? So now I am not an American because you have race issues and I don't. DRC get some therapy, preferably in ESPANOL, or whatever language is spoken by the people you hate most. Yes, get it through your head... CIVIL LIBERTIES mean children should be free to speak more than one language. Peope should not be told that their kids can only speak English because DRC says so.

      January 27, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • DRC

      Our country, clown but nice try. And who said they have to only speak English? The idea, and see if this gets into that obviously think head of yours, that as a nation it is a good thing if we have a language that everyone speaks, English. Really dude your self hate, if you are white, or lack of real world understanding is pathetic. So one more time. If you want to hold and office and we want to have some type of unifiying force in this nation, having a common tongue is a good thing. Why is that so hard to understand with you?

      January 27, 2012 at 2:20 pm | Report abuse |
  14. DRC

    Only been introduced since the 1840's? That not enough time to learn English? Your parents taught you English because as a citizen it is the language that unites the nation and it is something you need. Someone wants to speak Spanish that is great. But spare us the idea that the US needs to cater to people who are in this country but can not or will not learn English.

    January 27, 2012 at 11:24 am | Report abuse |
  15. justworng1

    The Language of the United States is English, I am all for diversity but, you want to live here, then learn it.

    January 27, 2012 at 11:52 am | Report abuse |
    • Seraphim0

      Actually, there is no official language of the United states.

      January 27, 2012 at 1:21 pm | Report abuse |
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