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. Socrates

    Hell, we had a president for eight years that couldn't put three words together without stumbling over two of them.

    January 29, 2012 at 11:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kissma

      What is worse is we have one now who can't speak without having someone or something feed it to him!

      January 31, 2012 at 8:16 am | Report abuse |
  2. BLARGH!

    There is no official language in the United States – English isn't even a constitutional requirement to serve in Congress or to become President. So where does AZ get off thinking they can establish a language requirement?

    The English-language test to become a naturalized citizen isn't exactly at the level of the SAT – more like kindergarten English. This is a very slippery slope, and the AZ law may be found unconstitutional if she fights it.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:05 am | Report abuse |
    • Federalist

      It's not Arizona's law. It was a federal law that was passed at the state's inception for the express purpose of ensuring that Arizona did not become an extension of Mexico. The United States did, after all, fight a war to wrest the territory away from our neighbors to the South.

      January 30, 2012 at 10:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Leather

      Federal,..Enabling Act of 1910

      January 31, 2012 at 11:21 am | Report abuse |

    Don't make this your country its the UNITED STATES of AMERICA!! Deal with it or find your way out the door in which you crawled under or go back to your own country. Yes, i know who will complain on this... LOL

    January 30, 2012 at 10:26 am | Report abuse |
    • You're an idiot

      Hey PA, the article states she's a US citizen just like you and me. Looks like you're the one who has trouble with plain written English.

      January 30, 2012 at 1:49 pm | Report abuse |
  4. TBD everywhere

    I learned to speak English at 11 upon my (legal) arrival into the U.S. I am astounded that this country does not have an officially declared language. However, the language of the majority is English. That is to say, the majority of the country, not San Luis, AZ or San Ysidro, CA. In my country of origin, I'd better not be trying to run for office in a different language than what is declared to be the official language. We also vote in ONLY the official language! I understand America is a melting pot and there are many cultures here. I say the U.S. should declare an official language- English!

    January 30, 2012 at 1:55 pm | Report abuse |
  5. firefly

    Google her name. She was born in the US and went to school here. Now tell me why she can't understand English. What a disgrace to the United States Public School System. She has no right to be in office.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • UIDzero

      She spent much of her childhood south of the border.
      All I can offer is she is totally arrogant to suggest that the rest of the city should bend to her as being a special case. If she feels she is smart enough to be a council member, then she is smart enough to learn English. This will cost her city, state, and country a fair amount of money in legal fees without producing any real product. English needs to be declared this county's language, it is far too expensive to try to support both. My family learned English enough to open successful businesses from nothing when they entered this country (legally). People needs to understand that they need to adapt to this country, not the other way around.
      Let's use a JFK quote, "Ask not what this country can do for you, but what you can do for this country."

      January 31, 2012 at 10:14 am | Report abuse |
    • malonebash

      the public school system educates the children in English, but the actual utilization of the lanquage is not put into motion because only their native tonques are spoken at home and in their immediate envrions. Most of these people hold jobs werein minimal amounts of verbal communication in the english lanquage is needed. All the denunciations of public schools makes me wonder, are the people doing the denounciating graduates of private schools which they think allows them to spew their hatred of public education due to the fact of their misquided sense of superiority?

      January 31, 2012 at 10:29 am | Report abuse |
    • dieshard

      THIS American, asked for an interpreter!!! W T F!!!! LEARN ENGLISH LADY !!! This ain't mexico !!!!!

      January 31, 2012 at 7:04 pm | Report abuse |
  6. penny

    Yes English is the language of the US and we simply need to make that a law and end this discussion. It is not that unusal in a multicultural country to have one language to conduct business in and run the country.
    We can not have language communication become another problem on top of the already huge issues we are facing.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:32 pm | Report abuse |
  7. ageofknowledge

    We should insist that if the immigrant who comes here does in good faith become an American and assimilates himself to us he shall be treated on an exact equality with every one else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed or birth-place or origin.

    But this is predicated upon the man's becoming in very fact an American and nothing but an American. If he tries to keep segregated with men of his own origin and separated from the rest of America, then he isn't doing his part as an American.

    There can be no divided allegiance here. . . We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, of American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding-house; and we have room for but one soul loyalty, and that is loyalty to the American people.

    -Teddy Roosevelt.

    January 30, 2012 at 3:28 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Nellore Venkataraman

    As an American, whose mother-tongue is not English, I want English to be the legal and official language of U.S.A. English is the language of the world. With English you can get by anywhere in the world–with Spanish not even in half of South America-Brazil, Guyana, Suriname do not speak Spanish. Incidentally, I am "fluid" in English, Spanish and Portuguese, among other languages

    January 30, 2012 at 3:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • JLV

      You're obviously not as "fluent" in English as you think you are.

      January 31, 2012 at 11:38 am | Report abuse |
  9. Ana Sofia

    As a naturalized US Citizen, I have always believed it is my responsibility to learn the language and the culture. Before making any nasty comments just to get your opinion across, one should do a bit more of research on the subject. This has opened up the "pandora box"; actually the Mayor of San Luis, AZ opened it. Yes, it is questionable our state's department of education actions, are we not preparing our teachers? are our schools only trying to comply with requirements? For the residents of San Luis the questions is "are our elected officials proficient in English?", "why is now the Mayor so worried about a candidate's fluency? This is a political vendetta for which he didn't expect much to happen, San Luis is a community with approximately 98% of Mexican descent residents who do not really care about who represents them since they do not believe in politics and politicians.
    Let's then make in to law that all elected officials in San Luis, Az are highly proficient in English and for them to make sure that all business at City Hall and all City Departments are handled in English.

    January 31, 2012 at 12:39 am | Report abuse |
  10. Lou

    Every student that graduated from Kofa High School in Arizona over the past 20 years just had their diploma invalidated.

    January 31, 2012 at 7:43 am | Report abuse |
  11. Employed

    i am not against the spanish language my husband is from peru. but seriously this is the United States and if you live here yous hould be required to learn English. Think about it if we went to lets say Peru or brasil and decided to live there if you want to survive your expected to learn Spanish the people of peru are not expected to learn English just to make your life easier. So why is it that when we go to stores do we have to feel out of place in our own country because the owners do not speak english? I am all for the English language being required, just like if we went anywhere else in this world we would need to speak the languange of that country. And yes I know that english is not the official language but Hello DUH our founders spoke what?? ENGLISH. Now i have freinds that hardly speak english and I tell them the same thing...

    January 31, 2012 at 9:39 am | Report abuse |
  12. Ozzi

    City council members often go the state capital to process requests for funds for local projects. She will need English to process these requests. If she wants to move beyond city council she will need to speak English because she will be working on a national basis. I would work on the English because she could eventually represent AZ in Congress if her leadership skills are that sharp.

    January 31, 2012 at 11:17 am | Report abuse |
  13. chilly g


    January 31, 2012 at 11:27 am | Report abuse |
    • Larry

      That's so funny :)...

      Hey those schools in Arizona – they be so bad. Listen to me talk – I said, "They be...." I meant to say – "They was..." 😉

      January 31, 2012 at 12:34 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Gwyllem

    Arizona was a state in the Confederacy and came into the Union after the Civil War. The people need representation and this woman went through a kangaroo court.

    January 31, 2012 at 12:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Richicago

      The Enabling Act of 1910 that brought Arizona and New Mexico into the union REQUIRES that and that ability to read, write, speak, and understand the English language sufficiently well to conduct the duties of the office without the aid of
      an interpreter shall be a necessary qualification for all state officers and members of the state legislature." End of story. It's the law. Plus, I am thinking that the majority of those she would be "representing" are illegal anyway.

      January 31, 2012 at 12:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Speckly

      She wasn't running for state office or the state legislature, only local office. "End of Story."

      February 7, 2012 at 11:48 am | Report abuse |
  15. toby

    You need to be proficient and able to communicate in English – How can you represent anything in America if you don't even care enough to speak the language?

    January 31, 2012 at 1:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • dieshard

      Do what she's doing>>>GET AN INTERPRETER!!! Learn ENGLISH lady !!!

      January 31, 2012 at 7:18 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