[lg policy] Arizona Candidate Challenged Over English Skills
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Thu Jan 26 15:51:04 UTC 2012
Arizona Candidate Challenged Over English Skills
By MARC LACEY
Published: January 25, 2012
SAN LUIS, Ariz. — When Alejandrina Cabrera speaks English, her face
takes on an expression somewhere between deep discomfort and outright
despair. Her tongue, which darts around her mouth in her native
Spanish, slows to a crawl. Most residents of San Luis, Ariz., are
“I speak little English,” she said in a hesitant and heavily accented
interview in her lawyer’s office. “But my English is fine for San
Mrs. Cabrera may be able to get her point across in English, but
whether she is proficient enough in the language to serve on the
governing board of this bilingual border city has deeply divided the
What began as an effort by political opponents to block Mrs. Cabrera
from the ballot for a seat on the City Council has mushroomed into an
uncomfortable discussion of just how fluent Arizona officeholders need
to be. Like many other states, Arizona has long required politicians
at all levels to speak, read and write English, but the law fails to
spell out just what that means. Is grade-school knowledge enough? Must
one speak flawlessly? Who is to decide?
“I do feel this opening a box of Pandora, and we don’t know where it’s
going to lead,” said Mayor Juan Carlos Escamilla, who filed a legal
challenge of Mrs. Cabrera’s English ability.
He acknowledged on local television that his own English was far from
perfect. “I feel I don’t dominate 100 percent, but I can still get
by,” said Mr. Escamilla, who graduated from the same Arizona high
school as Mrs. Cabrera. “I can write, read and understand it very
It was Guillermina Fuentes, a former San Luis mayor, who first raised
Mrs. Cabrera’s English skills as an issue last month. Former friends,
the two women had a political falling out.
“You’re hearing my broken English,” Ms. Fuentes said in a telephone
interview. “I know people have a hard time understanding me at times,
but I understand the language and I was the one always interpreting
for Alejandrina Cabrera.”
Ultimately, the matter is to be decided in court. On Jan. 13, Judge
John Nelson of the Yuma County Superior Court ordered a linguist to
evaluate Mrs. Cabrera after she took the stand and failed to answer a
straightforward question from her lawyer, John Minore, about where she
went to high school. Mrs. Cabrera explained later that it was anxiety,
not failure to understand the question, that had her tongue tied. She
went to a hearing specialist in an effort to show that auditory
problems were also an issue.
“I was in shock,” she said. “My brain, my mind was white. That was my
first time in court.”
The judge, though, heard enough to have doubts about her language
abilities. He ordered her to be tested by a language expert hired by
In his report, which was detailed in a court hearing on Wednesday,
William G. Eggington, a professor of English and linguistics at
Brigham Young University in Utah, said that based on interviews and
tests he conducted with Mrs. Cabrera, she had “basic survival level”
English that fell well below that needed to participate in city
“I admire Ms. Cabrera for her courage and ambition, and wish her
well,” Professor Eggington wrote. “However, in my studied opinion,
based upon the results of the range of tests and analyses described
above, she does not yet have sufficient English language proficiency
to function adequately as an elected City Council member.”
But Mrs. Cabrera said the fact that Professor Eggington was from
Australia led to at least one misunderstanding during the assessment.
He asked her about “summer,” which she said he pronounced “summa.”
That is the nickname for the community of Somerton, prompting her to
be utterly confused.
The linguistic dispute is taking place in this small southwestern
Arizona city, where more than 90 percent of the population is
Mexican-American and Spanish is widely used. In 1993, Cesar Chavez,
the Latino civil rights leader, died in San Luis, which used to be a
community of farm workers.
At a local pizzeria, the orders are taken in Spanish, although the
waitress switched to English while asking about thick or thin crust.
On the beat, police officers, some of whom come from the Mexican town
of San Luis just across the border, say they communicate over the
radio in English but interact with residents in Spanish.
“It’s strange to speak English here,” said Archibaldo Gurrola, a UPS
deliveryman and former San Luis councilman who is a political ally of
Mrs. Cabrera. “Spanish is what you hear everywhere, maybe with some
English thrown in.”
Mrs. Cabrera, a United States citizen who spent much of her childhood
south of the border but graduated from an Arizona high school, said
Spanish is the language she uses during her campaign as she interacts
with residents. It is also the language she uses as she lives her life
in San Luis, although she does help her two children with their
schoolwork in English.
“You go to a market, it’s Spanish,” she said. “You go to a doctor,
it’s Spanish. When you pay the bills for the lights or water, it’s
At Council meetings, though, the materials delivered to the members
are in English and much of the discussion is in English, too,
officials say. During public comments, the language often shifts to
Spanish as people more comfortable in that language take the
microphone. To accommodate those who are not bilingual, an interpreter
is on hand and headphones are available.
Glenn Gimbut, the city attorney, acknowledged wearing the headphones
when the conversation shifts to Spanish. He had been leading the legal
challenge of Mrs. Cabrera’s candidacy. But Mrs. Cabrera’s lawyers
forced him from the case for conflict of interest because he was both
representing the city and suing it.
“This is the law,” Mr. Gimbut said, arguing that the 1910 act granting
Arizona statehood required officeholders to perform their duties in
English without the aid of a translator. “It’s been on the books since
In the end, the dispute over Mrs. Cabrera’s fluency may have more to
do with politics than language. San Luis is known for its fierce
political infighting and Mrs. Cabrera, a Democratic activist, twice
tried to recall Mayor Escamilla, a fellow Democrat, after the Council
cut spending by laying off employees and increased utility rates. Both
recall efforts failed, but Mrs. Cabrera then joined other critics of
the city leadership in filing nominating petitions for the four
Council seats up for a vote in March.
Arizona has run into trouble policing language in the past. Last year,
the state stopped sending monitors into classrooms to check the
English proficiency of bilingual teachers after the federal Department
of Education opened an investigation.
Mrs. Cabrera’s lawyers argue that striking her from the ballot would
have unforeseen consequences. “Does this mean that if your accent is
too thick, you can’t enter politics in Arizona?” said Brandon S.
Kinsey, one of a team of lawyers representing her. “Where’s the line
that you draw, and how do you apply that line in a nondiscriminatory
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