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. Don Canard

    everyone being able to communicate with each other means a country that works better instead of a country that doesn't work. And yes, the common language is English, welcome to the United States. You're new here.

    January 27, 2012 at 11:55 am | Report abuse |
    • Ivy League White Guy

      Jose, how is what I said racist? It's demographics, buddy. Treat other people nice when you are the majority, because someday you might not be the majority and you want them to treat you nice. See, simple..., not racist... it's called the GOLDEN RULE.

      January 27, 2012 at 1:12 pm | Report abuse |
  2. livinx

    My question is how did she graduate high school speaking so little english? Its fine to speak another language when at home or in a personal setting, but when conducting business or politics here in the United States you need a fluent ability to speak, read and write English.

    January 27, 2012 at 12:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ivy League White Guy

      I'm sure that if a rich employer offered you a job but you had to speak to him in his native tongue you would change your convictions real quick amigo, so stop being such a bigot and let the people speak whatever language they choose. Stop trying to silence the Hispanic community in Arizona.

      January 27, 2012 at 12:29 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Carl

    If you can't speak or understand " our " language these's no way you should be in a public office !

    January 27, 2012 at 12:37 pm | Report abuse |
  4. strategic bob

    if you have to be proficient in English to run for office, then why was George W. Bush allowed to run for President?

    January 27, 2012 at 12:43 pm | Report abuse |
  5. desertbird

    IVY League White Guy – English is the language that this country was founded on. I CANNOT go to France, Germany AND YES EVEN MEXIO and live there and demand that THEY change their language to English because I don't want to learn theirs ok I probably could but how RUDE and really lets face it ridiculous. ANY foreign person who comes here knows what language we speak. LEARN IT OR STOP COMPLAINING

    January 27, 2012 at 12:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • Seraphim0

      Again, Americans forget just how multi-lingual the rest of the world is. You can live in france and not speak french. Same with Spain. Or Italy. Wouldn't be easy, but the majority speak a second, and sometimes third, language.

      It's only, really, in America that we look down upon anyone who cannot communicate 100% fluently in just one language.

      January 27, 2012 at 1:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • L

      @Seraphim0, it's true you can probably go to major cities in France and Germany and probably Mexico and have no problems getting around while speaking English instead of the native language. But do you have any idea how rude it is to EXPECT other people in their own country to cater to you, an obvious non-native? Even if you're a tourist, you can easily be looked down upon for showing up and not even TRYING to speak their language. I've traveled fairly extensively for the average American, and the reactions are always so much nicer when I at least try to speak their language, even if I'm not good at it. But if I go up to someone and expect them to speak my language, it's not usually a welcoming response.

      January 27, 2012 at 4:36 pm | Report abuse |
  6. CanadianAmerican

    to the IVy League educated white guy. I too am IVY League educated. So what. Feel superior. At Yale I learned diversity is a key component to a healthy university, and in business key to its success. But, again the issue of language usage in day-to-day govenrment (outside of Puerto Rico, or Guam) the use and ability to communicate effectively in the English is key. I live here in AZ now and it is a must. We have a large hispanic population and those that are able to function in english have greater opportunities than those that don't. The language issue is not about race, but proficiency and ability to communicate. In summation you're an idiot looking for an arguement.

    January 27, 2012 at 1:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ivy League White Guy

      Yale? Never heard of it. As far as I am concerned the only Ivy League schools that matter are Penn, Princeton, and Harvard (except for when they have to apologize for giving Republican inbreds MBAS). I won't argue with you about English being a powerful tool for success in this country. My point is that education should allow us to see the potential of a system, specially along the border, where two languages are necessary to communitcate and conduct business. The Mexicans learn English, Americans learn Spanish. Simple as that. And if you want to accuse me of being a supremacist, just ask yourself who is the one putting down the language of another group of American citizens? That would be you, lady friend.

      January 27, 2012 at 1:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • strategic bob

      I was stationed in both Puerto Rico and in Guam. Spanish is the predominant language on the street in Puerto Rico and is used for many official Commonwealth functions, but English is also used widely in many arenas as well, and especially at the Federal level of government. Most cosmopolitan Puerto Ricans speak English. Out in the villages, not so much. Despite having been a Spanish possission for a long time, and the prevalence of Hispanic surnames amongst the native population of Guam, few Guamanians speak Spanish. Chamorro is the native language, and it seems to be dying out. English is the predominant language in Guam.

      January 27, 2012 at 1:30 pm | Report abuse |
  7. deb

    Watch–very soon our congress will introduce a bill establishing English, the great language of our nation, as the official language. That will be a time for real Americans to dance in the streets.

    January 27, 2012 at 1:05 pm | Report abuse |
  8. reader

    I am not so much concerned with how well she speaks it but in how well she can read and write it...in order to represent her people properly she will have to be able to read and fill out forms some of which I am sure will be challening to even a college grad

    January 27, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Iggy

    They want to block her period! She wins the whites lose!!! Say it how it is. Quit with the bull crap... Most Americans can only speak one language and they can not eve speak that one right...

    January 27, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dibert

      Mexicans don't speak Spanish fluently either. So, the taxpayer spend a lot of money educating them in Spanish/English classes. It will not take her very long to learn English. She can delay her political ambitions for now and enroll in classes to learn how to speak English properly. She should be able to articulate her self to who would be her English speaking constituents also.

      January 27, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Dibert

    I live in a city where the mexican population has grown tremendously in the last 10 yrs. I have learned that mexican children are practically reared by their grandmothers who refuse to learn english, so the children from young only speak the mexican language (there is a difference between the language that mexicans speak vs latinos). When these children enter school, they are taught by mexican speaking teachers, so english is a second language that the state spends a lot of money on teachers and resources. This is done on purpose, to keep bilingual teachers and resources flooded into schools that are now predominantly mexican children. Also, the job market stresses hiring people who are bilingual...thus, there is a very low unemployment rate among mexican citizens. Lots of money that taxpayers pay and states have to allocate for the purpose of educating these children of 3-4 generation mexicans.

    January 27, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Michael

      There is no 'Mexican' language – it is Spanish. There is no 'American' language – it is English. Spanish spoken in Mexico sounds different than Spanish spoken in Spain just as English spoken in Alabama sounds different than English spoken in Scotland but it is still the same language.

      January 27, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Hawkiman

      Michael it all depends on how you define language. Many outside of the U.S. differentiate between "American" English and "British" English. I also know many people from South American countries who differentiate between "Mexican" Spanish and the Spanish they speak.

      January 27, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • Shelle

      I'm laughing over here at people referring to different accents as different languages. I speak Spanish from South America. The words that are different than Mexican Spanish are generally the slang words, similar to the differences between American English and British English. They are still the same language. Thanks for the chuckle.

      January 27, 2012 at 10:01 pm | Report abuse |
  11. TAylor

    I think this is a fair enforcement of the use of a national language. Unless I'm missing something, the role of representatives is not simply to work with their constituents, but also to communicate with other representatives and the central governmental heirarchy as a whole. If your English isn't good enough to do this, you aren't qualified.

    January 27, 2012 at 4:07 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Paul

    If you want to fracture a country, have more than one official language. Look at Canada. The French speakers are ETERNALLY aggrieved because there isn't enough French in society; and they must be compensated and protected and given favorable tax treatment to support French language infrastructure. One people can only have One Language. If English were the Offiical Language, this would be moot. I feel that no other language should be used in official communication. On the other hand, sufficient resources should be provided to attain sufficient English to all.

    January 27, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Hawkiman

    While I am not sure if Ms. Cabrera should be disqualified from running, she would definitely be a liability if elected. The business of running a city involves a lot of businesses and agencies from outside of the city, and they will most likely conduct their business in English. If she cannot answer what school she went to when asked in English, she will definitely need a translator to understand the business being conducted.

    January 27, 2012 at 4:32 pm | Report abuse |
  14. lilcjoy

    Aw come on. Get Rosetta Stone It will teach you to speak fluently in any language!!

    January 27, 2012 at 5:59 pm | Report abuse |
  15. EJPilo

    We, well, most of us, in the USA come from multi-cultural backgrounds. Whether recent or for generations our familial folk have, along with their neighbours, assimilated and grown into the American culture. Some held onto a great many traditions while others quickly let them go. But, one thing is clear. Our language is English, and for a huge number this had to be, and was, learned. When the Continental Congress convened, the language of English out voted German by one vote. I am a resident of AZ. Yes, there is a large number of people that are of Latino heritage living here and across our great country. I lived in South Dakota for about 7 yrs & a great number of the population was of Scandinavian descent. Did the state provide Norwegian or Swedish – No. Even when I lived in NY, did the state provide whatever was the prevailing language of whatever heritage was most of the population descended from – No. Enough is enough of the idiocy that whomever complains the loudest and longest gets what they want. I think, if you are unable to communicate fully and represent fully the people of your area, knowing that you do not only reside in your own little 'local bubble' of heritage, but a great nation of a 'melting pot' – in order to reside in our vast USA of equality – for Pete's sake take some English classes and then your communicative skills will be the greater benefit to all.

    January 27, 2012 at 6:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • snookers

      I do not get it either. English is not my native tongue,. Dutch is. English is the numero uno lingua franca across the globe.
      The Latinos I have met( actually not different than any other foreign language speakers), were always eager to learn English since it translates into a better paying job. Speaking English is your passport to the rest of the world with French a close second.
      This lady either lived in a vacuum or did not live her entire life in the USA. Although she probably was born in Arizona since she is not a naturalized American citizen according to the article..If she lived all her life in AZ, shame, shame on the US education system. .
      If you live in the USA or unless you are a shut in, who can not avoid not to learn English, especially as a kid growing up. She should not even have a foreign accent. Something missing from this article.

      January 27, 2012 at 7:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • KF

      The problem is not the education system. The problem is that 98% of the local population is hispanic and a large percentage of those are most likely 1st generation immigrants. Another problem is that because of the huge amount of hispanics in the area for the last few decades (if not longer) has had the side effect of making everything dual language and so new immigrants don't feel a need to learn to speak the language properly. Thats why you have people who have been living in the states for 30+ years and can still barely speak english. The same thing is going on in any of the major "ethnic" areas in the states. Go to chinatown and you'll find asians that can barely speak enough english to get by because there are enough fellow immigrants that speak the mother language that they don't feel like they really need to learn english. Is that an ignorant mentality? Sure it is... but not everyone feels the need to leave poverty behind them. I personally never understood why someone would want to come live in a country for a better life only to spit on it by not bothering to learn the language, but then I suppose some people only respect money, and not necessarily the foundation of where their prosperity is coming from.

      January 28, 2012 at 8:30 am | Report abuse |
    • ModerateMainer

      I definitely agree with you, and this is coming from a left-ward leaning Mainer. By making accommodation after accommodation, what incentive do people have to learn English? Just because enough people can't do something, it's not ok to just decide, oh well let's change the rules because people can't do this. No, let's make people change. Like you said, Spanish speakers are by no means the only influx of non-native speakers, and somehow they figured it out for hundreds of years.

      January 29, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Report abuse |
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