Arizona Candidate’s English Under Challenge
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.’
Mrs. Cabrera lost in court: Judge Orders Arizona Candidate Struck From Ballot
‘Obviously, we’re disappointed, although the judge acknowledged that there’s no precedent for him to follow,’ John S. Garcia, one of the lawyers for Ms. Cabrera, said Thursday.
Mr. Garcia said he planned to meet Thursday night with Ms. Cabrera to determine her willingness to continue the legal battle.
Mrs. Cabrera’s ability with English was made an issue by two political opponents who are not confident about their own abilities in English, in a town where Spanish is more commonly used than English, and the court appointed expert was an Australian with an accent.
San Luis, Arizona [pop. approx. 25,000], is pretty much just a suburb of San Luis Rio Colorado, Sonora, Mexico [pop. approx. 175,000]. The two towns are so close that an American schoolboy wandered into Mexico when he got on the wrong school bus. San Luis, AZ is over 94% Hispanic.
Mrs. Cabrera graduated from the same high school as the mayor of San Luis. This puts them ahead of about 65% of the population of their town in educational achievement.
From the first link at the top:
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 Spanish.’
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 statehood.’
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 manner?’
Either the law should be changed, or everybody in Arizona who runs for office should be subjected to an English proficiency exam. (That would keep Sarah Palin from running.)
Here is another story on the issue, from the Fronteras Desk, in text and in audio.