Whose Accent Counts? All Speak English with an Accent in the US?

San Luis, Arizona is a small border community (2009 population was 25,682) located on the southwest corner of the state. As is true in most Arizona border towns, its population is predominantly Latino (94%) and Spanish is the common language.

In an interview with the New York Times Archibaldo Gurrola, a local UPS deliveryman and former San Luis councilman, stated that

It’s strange to speak English here. Spanish is what you hear everywhere, maybe with some English thrown in.

Language and political hegemony go hand in hand, and thus it is not surprising that a 1910 act granting Arizona statehood includes a provision requiring that officeholders must perform their duties in English without the aid of a translator.

Alejandrina Cabrera was a candidate for a seat on the City Council and her English proficiency is limited. She is a U.S. citizen and a graduate from an Arizona high school. Apparently motivated by political rivalries, Mayor Juan Carlos Escamilla filed a legal challenge to Mrs. Cabrera’s inclusion on the ballot on the grounds that her “lack” of full English proficiency disqualifies her from serving on the Council.

The case was brought up to the County Supreme Court. Judge John Nelson ordered a linguist to assess Mrs. Cabrera’s English proficiency. The linguist, William G. Eggington, who originates from Australia, determined that Mrs. Cabrera

does not yet have sufficient English language proficiency to function adequately as an elected City Council member.

Mrs. Cabrera noted that she was thrown off by Professor Eggington’s accent at least once. He asked her about summer, which he pronounced “summa.” That is the sobriquet for the nearby community of Somerton, causing Mrs. Cabrera to be utterly confused.

On January 25 Judge Nelson agreed with Professor Eggington’s recommendation and ruled that Mrs. Cabrera be struck from the ballot. Her lawyers said that they might appeal to the Arizona Supreme Court.


  1. Blaque Swan

    I hope they appeal. By Nelson’s standards, it could very well be that he wouldn’t be able to serve in, say, England.

    Here’s the thing. A council member official duty is primarily to serve their constituency. If the people she serves speak mostly Spanish, then it’s not gravely important that she be all that proficient in English. I’ve been around local politics all my life. Anything she would’ve needed a translator for, we’d all need a translator for. As well as a dictionary and a lawyer.

    I understand the logic of upholding a century old law even now – though, it is ironic that it’s federal law, an act granting statehood, that Arizona is resting on in 2012. That said, if she was proficient enough to graduate high school and it was Eggington’s accent that threw her off, I believe this will be overturned. Or at least, it should be.

    Just so long as they stay out of SCOTUS, she should be fine.

    It is disgusting that one immigrant should have so much influence over the political prospects of another, especially one who’s been here since adolescence.

    Jose, maybe you don’t know the details . . . but maybe you do. Is there any particular reason the linguist who ended up conducting the exam had an accent not common to the US, much less the Southwest?

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