By MARC LACEY, Published: January 25, 2012 | Source: New York Times
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.”
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 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.”
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 manner?”