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. marianne

    This is the USA...speak English proficiently. If you graduated from a school in Arizona (not Mexico) you should be able to speak English, and if you want to hold office in THIS country, learn our language. I'm all for a constiutional amendment requiring English as our official language. Then I look forward to having all our people learn other languages just because they can.

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

      You're right, except the teachers down here at the border don't speak English, either. The parents and rest of the family all speak Spanish at home, so there's no chance for a child to learn English. If you plan to bag groceries or work at a gas station, by all means, fail to learn English. If you plan to be a success in this country, make the effort.

      January 26, 2012 at 1:53 pm | Report abuse |
  2. james

    it is sad that she graduated high school with that low of english proficiency...

    January 26, 2012 at 1:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • Elaina

      Absolutely agree!

      January 26, 2012 at 1:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dave1955

      It's also sad that you haven't learned the rules for proper capitalization in English.

      January 26, 2012 at 1:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • james

      @Dave1955 – your pedantry is expected. but not, i am not running for office and if my application to file for intent to run (or whatever such form would be) was capitalized in the way i do (do not, actually, as you have pointed out) on internet fora, then i would not complain if it was rejected for poor english grammar...

      January 26, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • james

      @Dave1955 – your pedantry is expected. but note, i am not running for office and if my application to file for intent to run (or whatever such form would be) was capitalized in the way i do (do not, actually, as you have pointed out) on internet fora, then i would not complain if it was rejected for poor english grammar...

      January 26, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Libtard

    wow, is this even an issue? The language in which American legislation is written is English! Which means English is the language of the land. Therefore, any canditate looking to hold public office needs to be proficient in English. CNN really is entertainment news. Your articles lack substance and depth.

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

    This can become a major issue in the future in border towns primarily. But I would like to see competency requirements for all candidates. Many officials are not competent to hold office based on the results we see.

    January 26, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Report abuse |
  5. bobcat (in a hat) ©

    I'm sorry, but due the fact that she was born, raised and educated in this country, there is absolutely no reason that english is not her first language. And that being said, I feel until she is able toproficiently speak the language of america, she should be denied office.

    January 26, 2012 at 1:47 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Alex

    Lady, in your mind that may be good enough for San Luis, but it's not good enough for the USA. Take some classes and get back to us...

    January 26, 2012 at 1:49 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Ed Sr of Dallas Tx

    You cannot speak our language you cannot vote or run for office!

    January 26, 2012 at 1:49 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Kittyg

    We need to officially make English the language of the U.S. and then demand no more teaching in any other language....no more signs in other languages, etc. It is absolutely ridiculous to be called for jury duty and have instructions read in English, Spanish, Vietnamese and Chinese. Then when it comes time to select groups for enpaneling a jury for a court, those selected are informed that if they do not sufficiently understand Englsh, they are excused! This is a basic duty of citizenship! Speaking English used to be a requirement of citizenship and we need to return to that requirement!

    January 26, 2012 at 1:49 pm | Report abuse |
  9. fearlessdude

    Anglo racists are in action again. Just wait another 50 years when Hispanics will be majority and will make Spanish the official language. Spanish is more of a phonetic language anyways. Easy to read-write. English spelling rules: There are no rules, you have to learn every word.

    January 26, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Saturn

      Your comment is a little racist. Your description of the ease of the Spanish language versus the English language makes it sound like Hispanics are too dumb or lazy to learn English. I know you don't believe that do you?

      January 26, 2012 at 1:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • james

      yep, in english we have to learn every word. that is why we are smart. easy language like spanish = lazy people can learn it...

      January 26, 2012 at 2:16 pm | Report abuse |
  10. ac

    Pepperoni Cain ( Vermin Cain, Herman Cain) suffered no ill efects for knowing and using only EBONICS........nayn, nayn, nayn.

    January 26, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Report abuse |
  11. ingyandbert

    I believe this question was answered with the election of George W. Bush. Surely this candidate couldn't mangle the language worse than he does.

    January 26, 2012 at 1:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Observer

      George "Is Our Children Learning" Bush frequently sounded like he had never taken an English class in his life.

      January 26, 2012 at 1:53 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Mrs. S

    As an ESL teacher, I am a proponent of all immigrants learning to speak English even though it is not official language of the U.S. Not because it is my job, but rather because of the solidarity it brings not only in the U.S., but also the world. That being said, Ms. Cabrera should follow the example of John Abraham Godson. He was the first black member of Poland's parliment. He is from Nigeria and learned Polish well enough to run for office. His tenacity and love for his new country is evident because of his ability to learn the language of the nation's majority.

    January 26, 2012 at 1:52 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Joan

    If you live in the U.S. you should speak English. I recently saw a bumper sticker that said "Uncle Sam wants you to Speak English!" I think it is pathetic to be a citizen of the U.S. and have gone to school here and still have very little command of the English language. During the two World Wars people immigrated here from all over Europe. AND THEY LEARNED TO SPEAK ENGLISH. My husband's grandfather came over from Russia and when he arrived he vowed never to speak Ruyssian again. When his son went to school and took Russian, he refused to help him. I think it should be mandatory for anyone to become a U.S. citizen to have a good command of the English languare.

    January 26, 2012 at 1:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mickey

      With all the people on this board whose ancestors gave up their mother tongue and always spoke English, it is amazing that any Little Italys, Vietnams, Chinatowns ever existed. It is twisting history to say that your ancestors gave up speaking their native languages – the majority of immigrants take a generation or two to integrate.

      January 26, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Ha

    Finally, all people with a southern accent can’t hold office.
    I can’t understand a thing they say and I doubt any of them could display a proficiency in speaking proper English.

    January 26, 2012 at 1:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chaz

      Right. And Brooklyn, Queens, Upper Maine accents are SO easy to understands. From a Southerner with a PhD in Anthropology from Auburn, and a Masters in Media Communications from NYU.....you're an idiot.

      January 26, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Report abuse |
  15. jroblaine


    January 26, 2012 at 1:53 pm | Report abuse |
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