How Much English Is Enough To Hold Office?

Feb 1, 2012
Originally published on February 2, 2012 11:49 am

A woman who was barred by a judge from running for a City Council seat in San Luis, Ariz., last week because she lacked English-language skills has filed an appeal. Alejandrina Cabrera is hoping to get her name back on the ballot claiming her language abilities are sufficient to represent residents of the largely bilingual border town.

"It's not perfect," Cabrera said of her English at a recent press conference. "But it's perfect for this position in San Luis, Ariz., because the people speak both language, but the people prefer Spanish."

The case stems from a nearly century-old Arizona state statute that disqualifies "a person who is unable to speak, write and read the English language" from public office.

Cabrera's legal team has argued that she is able to speak, write and read in English — and without official criteria around language proficiency, her level of English should not prevent her from seeking public office any more than her race or IQ.

"How can you say that somebody flunked a test when you never said what the minimum grade was to pass it?" John Garcia, one of Cabrera's lawyers, said following the court ruling.

Garcia took issue with William Eggington, who was brought in by the court to test his client's English skills. He claimed that the sociolinguist's Australian accent was hard for Cabrera to understand and may have had something to do with his determination that her English abilities were below the level needed to serve on the City Council.

Cabrera's trial has been a controversial one, not only because of the fraught role of Spanish in American society, but because it was brought by Juan Carlos Escamilla, the mayor of San Luis, against whom Cabrera, a community activist, has led two unsuccessful recall campaigns.

"I've always believed nobody is above the law," Escamilla told Michel Martin, host of NPR's Tell Me More. "And I strongly believe that the citizens of San Luis deserve a representative to be able to speak to them."

Escamilla concedes that Spanish is the language of most interactions in the city. Many of the public comments at City Council meetings are presented in Spanish, but the mayor says that the duties of council members extend beyond San Luis.

"We are a border town," Escamilla says. "A lot of the issues that we face cannot be fixed within our city limits. We need to be able to advocate those concerns at a higher level and all that is conducted in English."

Alejandrina Cabrera's attorneys have said they want the matter to be settled before ballots are printed on Feb. 7.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. As you just heard, we've been focused on the battle to determine which Republican will have the right to contest President Obama come this fall, but there's another argument brewing over who will get to vote.

Many states are now requiring a government-issued ID to vote. The people who have instituted these measures say it's just common sense in a time when you have to have one to drive or get on a plane or enter a government building. So we wondered who doesn't have one and why don't they? NPR's Corey Dade has been looking into this and he will tell us what he found out in a few minutes.

But first, we want to turn to another thorny election issue, this time in a local race. In the border town of San Luis, Arizona, a judge struck a potential city council candidate from the ballot because her English skills were deemed inadequate. That's because state law requires government office holders to be able to speak, write and read in English.

Alejandrina Cabrera is appealing the decision, saying that most of the predominantly Mexican-American population of the town would be comfortable with her English.

ALEJANDRINA CABRERA: It's not perfect, but it's perfect for this position in San Luis, Arizona because the people - they speak both language, but the people prefer Spanish.

MARTIN: That was Ms. Cabrera speaking at a press conference earlier this week. We wanted to talk more about this, so we've called upon the mayor of San Luis, Juan Carlos Escamilla and Michelle Faust. She's been reporting on this story for member station KAWC in Yuma, Arizona.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.



MARTIN: And before we begin, I want to point out that we tried to reach Alejandrina Cabrera, but her lawyer said that she is ill and she was unable to provide a statement or be with us. So with that being said, Michelle Faust, how long has this law been in effect and what does it say?

FAUST: Well, let me just give a little bit of background. When they created the state constitution, which was just a few years before - we're coming up on our centennial, so a couple of years before they adopted it in 1912, they said to serve in any office in the state - and I'm going to read it - Statute 38201. (Reading) A person who is unable to speak, write and read the English language is not eligible to hold a state, county, city, town or precinct office in the state, whether elective or appointive.

MARTIN: So this is - as you just pointed out, this is very helpful. This is a very longstanding standard for holding office in the state.

FAUST: Exactly.

MARTIN: And is there a specific benchmark that the court is expected to use? A specific standard to determine proficiency in English?

FAUST: This is exactly the question at hand. The lawyers are arguing that the linguistic expert that came in and the judge determined what level of proficiency should count to be able to hold office in the city of San Luis. Her lawyers are arguing that, while her English is deficient - she does not even argue that that's not the case, but she speaks enough for the city of San Luis.

MARTIN: OK. Let's turn to Mayor Escamilla now. I understand - do I have this right that you filed the legal challenge to Ms. Cabrera's English abilities? What were your main concerns?

ESCAMILLA: Well, even though Mrs. Cabrera is able to speak a few words in English, she cannot understand it. If you were to give her a few sentences, she would be able to read it, but she wouldn't be able to tell you back what she just read. And it's so critical and so important nowadays, especially - all our daily business at the city is all done in English. How would you make the right choice for our people if you're not able to understand the material that's being presented before you?

MARTIN: We're talking about a case in Arizona that has raised questions about whether good English language skills should be required to serve in public office and just what constitutes adequate English proficiency. We're speaking with the mayor of San Luis, Arizona, Juan Carlos Escamilla. He raised the challenge to the city council candidate who has been barred from the ballot.

And we're also speaking with KAWC reporter Michelle Faust, who's been covering this controversy. Michelle Faust, how has this challenge been received by the community? If you just give us the points of view that you're getting.

FAUST: First of all, let me just say that when I approach people in San Luis, I usually interview them in Spanish. I try to start conversations in English, but they usually end up in Spanish. So it's quite obvious that Spanish is usually the preferred language on the streets in the city of San Luis.

However, that said, there are many people that I spoke to who said it shouldn't matter - her linguistic ability. And I did speak to a couple of people who said in Spanish to me, you know, she should be ethical and speak the language of the country where she is working and so everyone has their own opinion, but it is really important that someone who doesn't live in the area understand how language works in our community.

MARTIN: Mr. Mayor, you've said yourself - you've been quoted as saying your own English is far from perfect. Do you find that Michelle's analysis is correct, in that when you speak to your constituents of the town in general, do you find that you are generally speaking to them in Spanish, also?

ESCAMILLA: That is correct. We are a large Hispanic population, but just because we're Hispanic doesn't mean that we're not able to understand the language. I mean, there's a large population that speak both Spanish and English. There's a very small percentage that only speak Spanish and, I mean, if you were to go down to our down street area, mostly will be spoken in Spanish and the reason for that is we are a border community. We do get 65,000 people coming across every single day that only speak Spanish. So we cater to that industry, but just because we're a large population of Hispanics doesn't mean that we cannot speak English.

MARTIN: Mr. Mayor, before we let you go, what do you think this controversy is about? You know, on the one hand, you could say the rules are the rules and other people might say this is an example of the kind of ongoing anxiety that people have in this country about the growing Latino Diaspora and so forth. What do you think it's about?

ESCAMILLA: Well, I mean, I've always believed nobody is above the law and I strongly believe that the citizens of San Luis deserve a representative to be able to speak to them. Our government is not in our city limits. I mean, we are a border town. We are the first line of defense. And a lot of times, a lot of the issues that we face cannot be fixed within our city limits. We need to be able to advocate those concerns at a higher level and all that is conducted in English and it's so critical and it's so essential to be able to do your job and represent the people of San Luis. So it's fundamental in order to be able to really do your job.

MARTIN: Juan Carlos Escamilla is the mayor of San Luis, Arizona and he joined us from his office there. Michelle Faust is a reporter and the host of Morning Edition from member station KAWC. She joined us from her office in Yuma, Arizona. Thank you both.

FAUST: Absolutely. Thank you.

ESCAMILLA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.