When I read that Yuma County (Arizona) Judge John Nelson ruled that Alejandrina Cabrera couldn’t run for councilwoman of San Luis given her insufficient English proficiency, I had all sorts of mixed feelings.
On the one hand, the woman was running for a City Council seat in a border town where 90% of the population speaks Spanish. The New York Times reported that initially Cabrera’s opponents spearheaded the effort to block her name from the ballot. This move soon became a divisive issue given the lack of clarity in the law regarding how much English politicians must speak.
Cabrera has maintained that she communicates with the community in Spanish and that she speaks enough English for her work with the council. She was, however, unable to answer some questions the judge asked her in court in mid-January. Whether it was because she was nervous, as she said, or because she didn’t understand, is anyone’s guess.
On the other hand, Cabrera is an American citizen running for office in the United States. Regardless of where that office is located, she will have to interact with English speakers. We can no longer conduct the business of our communities in isolation and I think people who aspire to elected office must speak English well. I also think that in areas such as San Luis, politicians should be required to speak Spanish well, too.
When will we realize that the best way to serve and lead the Hispanic community is by educating ourselves, learning English, and helping others to learn it as well? Thinking that it’s some sort of discrimination to forbid people who are not proficient in English to assume political positions is a cop-out. It gives aspiring Hispanic politicians a free pass not to make the effort.
We all know it: We need more Hispanics to step up to the plate, to take on leading roles and get seats at powerful tables. But Hispanic leadership needs to uphold the same standards required of non-Hispanic groups. Let your language be an advantage: Keep it and learn a second and a third one. Don’t hide behind it. It’s like waving the flag of a self-imposed limitation in the face of your enemy. “Hey, we are not really trained for one on one combat, so be nice to us.”
I’ve said it before and so have many of others. The Latino power does not reside in the fact that we are 50 million people. It’s in the level of education of our people and in our leadership quality. It’s in the ability to persuade powerful political groups to follow our ideas because they are fair and good for the future of the country. It’s in the connections we build with the powerbrokers of America. You can’t do that if you only speak Spanish. And we can’t wait until the second or third generation learns English, as they inevitably will.
We must find ways to get more adult immigrants, who have the opportunity to make a difference in their life times, to learn the language of the land. Demanding that they speak decent English if they want to hold public office may be a good way to motivate many to overcome this obstacle.
Mariela Dabbah is a published author and founder of Latinos in College, a not-for-profit organization, and of the Red Shoe Movement, an initiative that invites women to wear red shoes to work on Tuesday to signal their support for other women's careers.