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. Col. Jessup

    You're g0d d@mn right I ordered that code red!

    January 26, 2012 at 1:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • kristinacious

      Col. Jessup – love you – Amen ! Can we run for Politcal office in Sapin or Mexico without being proficient ? Doubt it.

      January 26, 2012 at 1:34 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Susan

    It seems to me that her Spanish speaking ancestors were living in that area before the English speaking people came around. The questions should be: Would her difficulty with the English language inhibit her ability to conduct herself in her elected position?

    January 26, 2012 at 1:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • kachoto

      You are way too rational and educated to be posting your communist ideas around here! Thanks for the wisdom (?)

      January 26, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Arizona Uber Alles!

    A first step towards a final solution to the "Hispanic problem". Shameful and un American.

    January 26, 2012 at 1:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • No Nonsense

      The "final solution" to the Hispanic problem?!

      There is no "Hispanic problem". The problem is that we have millions of illegal (what is it about illegal that you don't seem to grasp?) aliense running around this country who shouldn't be here. They're taxing our infrastructure, our schools, and taking jobs away from American citizens.

      Assuming this lady is legal, she should speak English fluently. If I were running for office in my adlopted country (and I doublt that I would be allowed to as a native American), I'd better know the language pretty, darned well.

      Shame on you for playing the race card!

      January 26, 2012 at 1:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • Golden Rule

      Ausländer raus!

      January 26, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • Golden Rule

      The "final solution" to the "illegal alien problem." There, much better now. Satisfied?

      January 26, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Report abuse |
  4. rj

    I'll echo what many others have said – the fact that she is a US citizen who graduated from a US high school, yet can barely understand English, is beyond pathetic. Doesn't matter if 87% or 100% of the population where she lives speaks Spanish, AZ is part of the US, not Mexico or Central America. If you're going to live on this side of the border, you need to properly speak the language, or stick to careers that ONLY require interaction with other Spanish-speaking citizens. Public office obviously is not (or should not be) one of those options.

    It's way past time for them to declare that English is the official language of the US, to put an end to these kinds of battles.

    January 26, 2012 at 1:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • kachoto

      Or for the goverment to review the Department of Education. It is a lot more shameful for us as a nation not to be able to educate our own citizens.

      January 26, 2012 at 1:54 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Lobelia

    Politicians don't need to be able to speak and write English coherently. Just look at the legislation Congress drafts every day.

    January 26, 2012 at 1:33 pm | Report abuse |
  6. FatSean

    She can't be much worse than Ahhhhnuld.

    January 26, 2012 at 1:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • kachoto

      HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!! You´ve made my day!!!

      January 26, 2012 at 1:45 pm | Report abuse |
  7. hippediva

    Anyone running for office MUST be able to communicate properly in the language of the land.

    January 26, 2012 at 1:34 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Don Diego of Calfornia - formerly of Spain

    I am sure there are people in her district that are Us and speak no Spanish. So we should deprive them becasue a grouo of foreigners came here and refused to learn the language -- NO. This is America. we speak english here. every other language is a second lanuage.

    Another comlaint I have. On TV you can usually press the SAP button and get an English language show in Spanish. But with all the Spanish shows on TV now, you cannot press the SAP button and get a Spanish language show in English. Why is there this discrimination against english speaking viewers

    January 26, 2012 at 1:35 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Jeff

    To all of Cabrera's proponents: Imagine you are in the small minority of residents that live in her city and do not speak English. Imagine you're a US citizen and have lived in the US and that city all your life. Now imagine Cabrera was allowed to run and won. Is it fair that you would be forced to make the decision between moving or being unable to effectively communicate with your city government in your native language, which is the official language of the country and state in which you reside, just because the majority speaks another language?

    January 26, 2012 at 1:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Patrick

      English is not the "official" language of the United States.

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

      @Patrick, but it should be and has always been assumed to be. There are many Spanish speaking Countries available tto those who wish to speak only Spanish. They should all feel free to go there and live in Spanish speaking heaven.

      January 26, 2012 at 8:16 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Observer

    How important can it be? We just had 8 years of a president who spoke 5th grade (or less) English.

    January 26, 2012 at 1:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • citizen

      Obama has only been president for 3.....

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


      Do you really want to make ANY comparison at all between Obama's command of the English language and Bush's?

      lol. lol. lol.

      January 26, 2012 at 1:47 pm | Report abuse |
  11. citizen

    Better than the idiots that answer Dell's call centers.

    January 26, 2012 at 1:36 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Eric Jimenez

    I'm hispanic so I can understand why some people (hispanics) might feel offended at the ruling. However, I have an open mind and understand that by placing a person who does not understand english it's the wrong thing. If she really cares about the people she wants to represents I would suggest she take ESL classes, I know I did. Take a job in the city council I believe will be a disservice to the people she represents. Why? Because there will be times when she will have to make decision and if she does not understand what is been said she might make the wrong decision.

    January 26, 2012 at 1:37 pm | Report abuse |
  13. J House

    Perhaps we should let a fifth grader take her position, since you will find many that have better reading comprehension and writing skills. After all, Enlgish is the business language in which she would conduct her affairs.
    Only in Amerika do we find ourselves debating this silliness.

    January 26, 2012 at 1:39 pm | Report abuse |
  14. foolyouonce

    So, what would happen if former President George W. ran for office in AZ?

    January 26, 2012 at 1:40 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Pat

    I feel that English should be spoken by everyone that is in the us so that they can be understood and that they can understand you. No one should be in public office if they can not speak English, period!!!!!

    January 26, 2012 at 1:41 pm | Report abuse |
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