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. Golden Rule

    I meant to type, Governator of "Cah-lee-foh-nee-ah".

    January 26, 2012 at 1:15 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Sagebrush Shorty

    Obama and his pals will fight this all the way to the Supreme Court. Anything for a vote.

    January 26, 2012 at 1:17 pm | Report abuse |
  3. bobcat ( in a hat )

    @ FXMCK
    You make it sound like she is actually bi-lingual. This could not be further from the truth. She is fluent in her home language of spanish, but struggles with english. Since she was obviously raised in this country, there is no reason she shouldn't be fluent in the language of her homeland.

    January 26, 2012 at 1:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • They fold like a tent

      The schools cater to non-English speaking students these days in order to stay out of liberal courts.

      January 26, 2012 at 1:30 pm | Report abuse |
  4. dieseltdi

    I have no problem requiring proficiency in spoken English to run for office. How in the heck did she manage to "graduate" from high school with out learning english? If I moved to Mexico and expected to spend a long period of time there, I would learn to speak Spanish. Why is it that Hispanics think that we should speak to them only in Spanish? NO other ethnic group does this!!! Live in the US, learn to speak English.

    January 26, 2012 at 1:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • They fold like a tent

      The schools cater to non-English speaking students any more in order to stay out of liberal courts.

      January 26, 2012 at 1:32 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Larry Ragland

    If people come to this country from abroad and wish to become a vital part of the United States of America, the very least they can do is to learn the language of their new, selected nation!

    January 26, 2012 at 1:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dave

      Not only that (and I am truly surprised that they didn't address this in the article), how does she expect to understand materials regarding governance that are in English? How will she communicate with other legislators that speak English?

      January 26, 2012 at 1:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chris R

      She's not from abroad.

      January 26, 2012 at 1:34 pm | Report abuse |
  6. rip66

    I do not have access to the article where "their" is used. My article reads in the third paragraph "they'll speak the way

    they're most comfortable".

    January 26, 2012 at 1:22 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Testerbill

    the AZ law does not go below state level. If 98 percent speak it should not be a problem.

    January 26, 2012 at 1:22 pm | Report abuse |
  8. dragonwife

    If she is running for city council, she'll need to be able to communicate effectively with other council members, local businesses, police, judges, etc. who may not speak Spanish. Regardless of whether the majority of the residents speak Spanish, there is still a very real need to understand and make oneself understood in English. If she can't speak or understand it with reasonable fluency, she is not qualified for the position. And I agree with others who have mentioned – if she graduated from an American high school, how in the world did she do so without being able to speak, read, and write English well? (I guess that part shouldn't surprise me, sadly, considering the number of teens and young adults who are American-born and still can't read, spell, or speak correctly.)

    January 26, 2012 at 1:22 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Steven

    Let the people decide who they want to be represent by. DEMOCRACIA after all ….

    January 26, 2012 at 1:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dig a little deeper

      The many relevant issues obviously went over your head.

      January 26, 2012 at 1:34 pm | Report abuse |
  10. James Black

    Interesting. I believe I can see both sides to this issue. First of all, you must have a sufficient command of English to be able to effectively carry out your duties. English is the primary language of the United States.

    However, I am a bit bothered by the fact that her potential opponent is using her lack of skill with the English language as a means to disqualify her from office. I think that it is probably the correct move in this case, but I definitely see it as a potential problem in the future if this is to become a common practice.

    January 26, 2012 at 1:23 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Mrs. Davis

    English is the language of the United States. No one who holds public office here should be incompetent to speak it adequately enough to answer where they went to school. Ms. Cabrera should take this as a challenge to improve her English and run again later.

    January 26, 2012 at 1:24 pm | Report abuse |
  12. HenkV

    Ah, the monster we have created by not making English our national language.

    January 26, 2012 at 1:25 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Jon Durham

    For me, this is absurd. Don't care if you speak pig latin, if you can muster the votes, you're in. Especially a council seat in a 98% Spanish speaking border town.

    January 26, 2012 at 1:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • It's more complicated than that

      Your reply is absurd as you've completely ignored the many relevant problems that will surface with a non-English speaking politician.

      January 26, 2012 at 1:35 pm | Report abuse |
  14. janskor

    I do believe that proficiency in English should be a requirement. English should be the official language of the US,. Most of us , whether it be us, our parents, or grandparents have migrated too the US from other countries, many of which were non=English speaking countries, such as Italy, Poland. France, Greece. etc. We all wanted to become Americans and speak the language of America. It hhas only been in recent years that people who are spanish speaking coming from spanish speaking countries, don't want to speak Englis, and don't want to become Americans....YET they want to be in America to enjoy the better life. Well. sacrifices and choices are made all through our lives, and they too must make the choice the rest of us did.

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

      Migrate like a bird? Does your family go back every spring? I believe you mean immigrate. Two rather different things but hey it's not like you are commenting on someone's grasp of the English language.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:30 pm | Report abuse |
  15. John P

    So, can a Deaf person not run for office? Can a person who speaks only English but speaks it with occasional errors not run for office? Can a hillbilly coal miner high-school dropout not run for office? Can 'The People' not elect whomever they damn well please to represent them?
    Maybe it's just that you have to speak English exactly as well as that particular judge to run for office. (That was intended to be sarcasm.)

    January 26, 2012 at 1:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Here's your sign

      Here are your answers: Yes, a deaf person can run; Yes, a fluent but errant English speaker can run; Yes, a hillbilly coal miner can run; No, the people cannot always elect whomever they please as candidates must meet the requirements for election to the office (e.g. to run for President you have to meet age and citizenship requirements). Happy now?

      January 26, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Report abuse |
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