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.
"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 Luis."
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 25,000 residents.
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 well."
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 the city.
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 business.
"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."
Read more a The New York Times.
It should be noted that in the article, it mentions that the town is 90% Mexican-American, and Spanish is the spoken language of the town. Even the electric and water bills are sent in Spanish. This lady has twice tried to get the Mayor recalled, and is on the outs with a friend of hers who is also on the council, so she has that going against her.
But the main issue here is, the city council is English, and this woman apparently can't communicate in English well enough to be on the council itself. She doesn't even have what is considered a "survivable" grasp on English, which would make it difficult for her to do business and converse with the rest of the city councilmen.
Is this fair?