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. Jimh77

    If you come to this Counrty to stay, You speak ONLY English or go back to where you came from. End of your VISA. We can have but 1 primary language.to communicate in the USA.

    January 27, 2012 at 9:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Shelle

      Jimh77, I appreciate the ultimate message of "learn English if you move here on a permanent basis," but ONLY English is taking it a little far. I don't speak only English, and I think that's part of the beauty of the country. I think you should feel free to speak whatever language you want, just make sure you learn English, too.

      January 27, 2012 at 10:07 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Nick

    You're missing the point. The point is that it's the same everywhere in the world. If you can't comminicate on the level required of the country then you can't be as effective in the eyes of politics. Think if Obama ran for President with a think African accent and barely knowing English. That brings fear. Furthermore she live in the U.S. where English is dominant and she should know it. Lastly, if I were to go to Mexico or any other country like Spain, which I live in at the moment, I wouldn't be able to get a job without knowing at least more than survival Spanish. I couldn't run for any office here because I'm not fluent FIRST, then other reasons. Get it?

    January 27, 2012 at 9:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • ModerateMainer

      I agree, and it's the height of of egotism to just expect all of society to adapt to you rather than the other way around.

      January 29, 2012 at 2:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dot

      What do you mean," Obama with thick African accent"? He never lived there. His mother was US born. Why would you even think about that? What about Romney with a thick Mexican accent (His family emigrated from there) or Rience Prebus, wherever he came from or Jindahl or anyone else of thousands of children of immigrants. Did you ever notice the thick southern accents of our country or eastern states the way they pronounce words? Word use can change from town to town. Sometimes we do not understand each other even when we speak English.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Report abuse |
  3. smaaackdown

    FAA regulations state that you must be able to "read, write, speak, and understand english" to get a pilot's license. Also, the human race is moving forwards. English won and is the international language. Let's not get our panties in a twist; we still live in a free country after all. Jesus Christ.

    January 27, 2012 at 9:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • D_STreet

      The FAA requirement is a safety issue, not a cultural imposition. Sure, English is widely used, but so was Greek at one point. So was Latin, Occitan, French...

      There's no reason to believe that English is either superior or permanent.

      January 28, 2012 at 7:23 am | Report abuse |
  4. Shelle

    Comical. If you move to this country on a permanent basis, have the respect to learn English. Fortunately, it's not a matter of opinion whether you need to be fluent in English to run for office, it's a matter of law. I moved to South America with about five Spanish words in my arsenal. Now, people assume I'm from Peru when they hear me speak Spanish. I have no sympathy because I went through it myself. Yes, it is hard, but that doesn't excuse the laziness of expecting others to try to understand you because you don't want to learn the native language of the country you live in.

    January 27, 2012 at 10:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Scott from NH

      How come when my friends grandmother speaks Italian at home and not English people think that's cool? Oh, right, because she's white. Latino's are learning English faster than any previous immigrant group, but really, who even cares, the second generation of every immigrant group always speaks fluent English. These people in Arizona are so incredibly racist they're willing to throw away democracy and freedom. Their fear and racism overwhelm any sense of values they once had.

      January 27, 2012 at 11:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nuh

      Well said, Scott. My family has been here for over 25 years and you can still hear my parents accent when they speak English. That doesn't mean they don't "have the respect to learn English", it's just that they're both bilingual and speak more Spanish than English, which sounds like that's the case with Ms. Cabrera.

      January 28, 2012 at 12:19 am | Report abuse |
  5. luvuall

    Maybe at the rate the Mexican population is growing in this country it isn't safe to assume that English will always be the only official language. Word to the wise who only speak English: necesitas estudiar Espanol!

    January 27, 2012 at 10:12 pm | Report abuse |
  6. midas

    Well we elected George Bush and he didn't know English just listen to any one of his debates. The old racist south also had literate tests to keep black people from voting. See alot of this racist crap still flying.

    January 28, 2012 at 2:17 am | Report abuse |
  7. Laura

    sounds like the judge made the right decision, in accordance with the law, but what about a candidate who is blind or deaf? is proficiency in ASL allowed? would a candidate who needed an ASL translator to speak with a non-signing person be allowed to run for office? Spanish isn't the only language that isn't English...

    January 28, 2012 at 9:44 am | Report abuse |
  8. Zap

    Really people! Nothing is racist about this. It's a prerequisite! No one cares about you speaking English at the dinner table or whatever you do. Just know it before you run for office! You can go whereever you please in this world but atleast learn the language if your going to run for a political position. I say she should get banished from it because she's to dumb to realize this simple situation. I still don't understand her graduating from an American high school, that's embarrassing to the school system let alone herself. Typo by author maybe?

    January 28, 2012 at 10:47 am | Report abuse |
  9. Jack black

    Hahaha !!! I wonder if someone who could not speak, write and understand Spanish to run for an political office in Mexico? How could you be born and graduated in the U.S and can not speak English. What a joke!!

    January 28, 2012 at 10:44 pm | Report abuse |
  10. midas

    We elected George Bush and he didn't know English.

    January 29, 2012 at 1:25 am | Report abuse |
  11. Bob Ramos

    All of this is terribly wrong. The only ones that need to decide if they want her are the voters in her District and no one else. No judge, no politician – JUST THE VOTERS.

    January 29, 2012 at 5:56 am | Report abuse |
    • snookers

      Apparently it is a Statute in the AZ legal system. An individual running for public office must be able to speak and read English. This is a country of Laws. Not any different that you have to be a minimum age. It does not matter if it appears right or wrong to an individual. The Judge can only follow the law, he can not legislate from the bench.. If many folks disagree , then peti-tion to get the law changed.

      January 29, 2012 at 6:27 am | Report abuse |
  12. Ma. Fca.

    I work as a Spanish-English interpreter. A Spanish-speaker who graduated from the local English language H.S. should surely have been able to state in English the name of the H.S. school she graduated from. What were the specific English words used in this court-room examination? I find that short mono-syllabic English words from Anglo Saxon roots are less understandable to Spanish speakers than multi-syllabic words from Latin roots. So what words were being used? Part of the story's missing, ....coincidentally you have another story about the importance of the words used in the Penn State sexual abuse case, where the witness didn't use the short 4 letter words that most American English speakers understand. N.B. to 'reporters' you need to be specific. ¿COMO SE LLAMA LA ESCUELA SECUNDARIA DE DONDE UD. SE GRADUó?

    January 29, 2012 at 6:03 pm | Report abuse |
  13. ziggrl

    And just how is she going to communicate with her fellow city council members if she doesn't understand what they are saying? This lady is a troublemaker.

    January 29, 2012 at 6:32 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Yehuda

    This is blatant discrimination; the AZ law should be repealed.

    January 29, 2012 at 10:45 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Jeff

    She speaks enough english to get by. And understands it more than speaks it.

    Leave her alone.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:30 pm | Report abuse |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37