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. John Gets

    First of all, the writer of this article needs to uprade her english language skills. She used the word "their" in the following sentence when it should have been "they are":

    In the comfort of communal settings, they'll speak the way their most comfortable:

    January 26, 2012 at 12:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • correction

      "In San Luis, 87% of residents speak a language other than English in their home and 98.7%"
      If you're referring to this line. The writer used the word "their" correctly. It's a possessive pronoun that stands for "their home".
      If the write is to use "they're", it will be the same as "they are home". Does not make sense.

      January 26, 2012 at 1:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Shaneeda Quit

      It does say "they're."

      January 26, 2012 at 1:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • John Gets

      Look at the last sentence of my post. That is the sentence I am refering to. You guys need to upgrade your english comprehension skills.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Gordon

    Maybe the reporter should also take a course in English. Quote "In the comfort of communal settings, they'll speak the way their most comfortable..." end quote. Correct English would be 'they're'. But, I know that the majority of Americans have problems with writing correct English. By the way, citizens of the USA are North Americans, not Americans as they love to proclaim. Canadians, US citizens and Mexicans are all 'Americans', but those in the USA prefer hyperbole. Witness the so called 'World Series' which is purely a USA event.

    January 26, 2012 at 12:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Philips

      The rest of the world refers to the USA as America and it's occupants: Americans. Americans aren't any more arrogant than any other nation's citizens. It's called pride and everyone seems to "suffer" from it.

      January 26, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • latuya

      You obviously had nothing better or constructive to do with your time, so you just came on here to whine.

      January 26, 2012 at 1:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Marion

      Gordon, I don't what English grammar you refer to when you say the contraction should be "they're". The sentence reads: "In the comfort of communal settings, they'll speak the way their most comfortable". The contraction "they'll" is translated as "they will". "They're" is "They are". How is that a proper contraction for what she was expressing? Your post makes no sense.

      January 26, 2012 at 1:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • len

      Actually, the rest of the world refers to the US as Americans. It is 100% grammatically correct.

      January 26, 2012 at 1:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • John Gets

      Oh God. Does everyone seem to just skip over the "their" in that sentence? The "their" should either be "they are" or "they're". I hate it when dumb people try to act smart.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • John Gets

      Oh God. Does everyone seem to just skip over the "their" in that sentence? The "their" should either be "they are" or "they're". I hate it when dumb people try to act smart

      January 26, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mickey

      "Their most comfortable" people!!!!! Their is a possesive – are they declaring ownership of most comfortable? Ummmmmm no. It should be THEY ARE which contracts to (drum roll please) THEY'RE, just like Gordon said.
      That is Grade 5 grammar for pete's sake.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Report abuse |
  3. chris

    Bottome line......you live in the US, you work in the US, so you need to speak english in the US.....thats it....too often and in too many places, we accomodate those who cannot speak the official language of our country and do nothing to see that those individuals actually learn to speak english. Go to a department store and see the signs hanging, they are in english and spanish...That same accomodation is not made to me. Kind of off on a tangent, but similiar point. Vives en Estados Unidos, porque no hablas ingles en Estados Unidos?? If you want to run for office, have the decency and respect for this country to at a minimum speak our language!!

    January 26, 2012 at 12:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Patrick

      Um, there is no official language of the United States . . . .

      January 26, 2012 at 1:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kathryn

      There IS no official language in this country.

      January 26, 2012 at 1:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Monica

      BottomE line? Good try, though.

      January 26, 2012 at 1:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Saturn

      May not be official, but since Federal legislation is written in English, then English is the language of the land. Stop splitting hairs and contribute to the conversation!

      January 26, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Report abuse |
  4. csnord

    She is an American citizen, born in the US, and she was educated in American schools through high school. After all of that, she cannot speak English well enough to answer basic questions about her life. The educators en every one of the schools she attended should be fired and replace. What a massive failure of the educational system.

    January 26, 2012 at 1:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bill

      Thank you for seeing the real root of the problem.

      January 26, 2012 at 1:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • xabana

      Agreed, but we are going to need to fire you as well. You had at least 2 errors.

      January 26, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Saturn

      Is the failure the educational system who showed up everyday to teach her English or this woman who clearly did not try? There is more to this story than is being told.

      January 26, 2012 at 2:14 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Scottish Mama

    Why did she try to have the council member removed?

    January 26, 2012 at 1:00 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Brad

    What is everyone so afraid of? What do you care about some town you've never heard of, thousands of miles from where you live, and a place you will NEVER go. The democratic process is majority rule. In THAT town, the clear majority speak Spanish, so why can't the leader also be a Spanish speaker? If it turns out the town doesn't want a Spanish speaker in office, then they don't have to vote for that person.

    January 26, 2012 at 1:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • karl

      Because Brad it sets precedence. It starts in a town you don't know and soon they are trying to run for the presidency. you need basic rules about what it takes to run for a position in our country.

      January 26, 2012 at 1:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • blindbear

      @Karl. Do you want her to provide her long-form birth certificate, too? Does anybody else notice the general rule that the racist posters are the most illiterate?

      January 26, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Carlos

    I am Brazilian, also an US citizen. In Brazil it would be unthinkable running for office in a language other than Portuguese. So is the rule with every single country. You come here, you should learn English. If you cannot, it is a proof of your incapacity.

    January 26, 2012 at 1:01 pm | Report abuse |
  8. lolotte

    I am born French, and even if my English is full of mistakes and i an trying very hard and never ask for a translator. When you live in another country you have to respect the people of this country and speaking the language is part of it. If you want to run for an official position you have to be fluent in the language because you have to understand the rules.

    January 26, 2012 at 1:01 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Steve

    The Judge made the correct ruling. The candidate simply doesn't have a sufficient grasp of the English language. ALL Business Dealings; All Legal Contracts; The World's Air Traffic Control System; U.N.Business, is all conducted in English. All Official U.S. Government matters are done in English. 'This is the Sovereign, UNITED STATES.'
    We're Comprised of Different States. But we're 'UNITED under (One-Common) English-Language that is morally right; Necessary; and Universal to All Americans.' Having absolute-Commonality in a strong Language; is a Huge part of what makes our Nation Stronger and Better..
    ...... Bottom Line: The candidate is Not Qualified to run at this time. Only after an obvious; clear and convincing test that she understands and Communicates clearly in ENGLISH; should she be allowed to run in a local election..
    Having Spanish Language skills, are NOT the Required-skills necessary for living in the United States of America..

    January 26, 2012 at 1:05 pm | Report abuse |
  10. G Gomez

    I believe the courts ruled correctly. It is reasonable to expect that a representative of the people will need to communicate with those who do not speak spanish and for the sake of clear understanding a common language is needed. English is already the most commonly used language used in business and politics, logically it should be the official business language of the country. That is not the same as the only language. Diversity is necessary for growth and a joy of life, we should embrace it and seek it. For the official business of running the country being able to understand each other is absolutely vital. There will always be those who refuse to see the other side, stubburnly clinging to their views as the only one worthy of a voice and for that reason there will always be a need for courts and laws.

    January 26, 2012 at 1:06 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Bob

    A member of the City Council must understand & intemperate all rules and regulations from all levels of government. She is strong in Spanish but speaks with a bit less conviction, when she switches to English.
    She thinks she can communicate at the level she needs to in English, given where she lives how can she pass on information in Spanish if she doesn’t completely understand the information given in English?

    January 26, 2012 at 1:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • NonBeliever

      Is that like "interpret"??? Perhaps that was a spell check error, or perhaps your grasp of the English language isn't very good either. That being said, the court made the absolute right decision. Now we need to stop providing services in Spanish. If we were not catering to those who choose not to learn the language (ENGLISH) , they would be forced to learn in order to be able to function. This is how it is in every other country in the world. Go to a French bank and ask for an English-speaking person. When they stop laughing, you can leave.

      January 26, 2012 at 1:20 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Gail D

    THIS IS THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA (not mexico, spain or anywhere else) We speak ENGLISH. Deal with it !!!

    January 26, 2012 at 1:10 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Legislative Intent

    The AZ law appears to ensure that the elected officials are in fact the people’s representatives. If you are a state representative communicating through an interpreter, then it is the interpreter and not the representative who is actually doing the talking – i.e. all translations are subject to interpretations hence we call them interpreters. The voters did not elect the interpreter, they elected the representative. Accordingly, the AZ law appears to appropriate protect the democratic process.

    January 26, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Golden Rule

    Arnold Schwarzenegger can speak perfect, intelligible English, and he was the Governator of California. If he can learn proper, American-style English, anybody can!

    January 26, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Jim Savett

    This is an example of those who are American but refuse to join the rest of us, you know the mainstream. My grandparents immigrated not knowing English. However, seven children on my paternal side and three children on my maternal side not only were not given English as a second language classes they learned the language well enough to graduate college and enter professions.
    Without sufficient English you will be an outsider. Parents who do not insist that their children learn English are doing them and society a disservice.

    January 26, 2012 at 1:14 pm | Report abuse |
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