City council hopeful: 'My English is good enough'
Alejandrina Cabrera answers questions about her ability to speak English in Yuma County Court.
January 30th, 2012
01:11 PM ET

City council hopeful: 'My English is good enough'

When a judge ruled that Alejandrina Cabrera’s name couldn’t be on the ballot for City Council in San Luis, Arizona, because she couldn’t speak English well enough, it was not only a blow to her, but to her fellow citizens, Cabrera told CNN.

“When he took my right to be on the ballot he took away the right of the people who want to vote for me,” Cabrera said in an interview conducted in Spanish with CNN en Español.

A battle over Cabrera's run for office began when Juan Carlos Escamilla, the mayor of San Luis, said he was concerned that Cabrera might not have the proper grasp of the language for the job. Escamilla filed a lawsuit in December that asked a court to determine whether Cabrera's skills qualified her under state law to run for the council seat.

The fight began as a purely political one, with opponents seeking to block her from running for office after she tried to recall Escamilla from office twice, according to The New York Times. But it has turned into a firestorm in a town where many constituents have the same grasp of English as Cabrera. Those questions, and the political fight they stirred, led to a court hearing to determine whether Cabrera spoke English well enough to be able to run for office. The ruling was that she did not.

The issues at the center of this debate: Just how much English must you understand to run for a political office? And what does it mean to be proficient?

According to a judge, you need to know more English than Cabrera was able to demonstrate.

But by Cabrera's account, she's fluent enough to serve her community, and she isn't running for national office.

“I think my English is good enough to hold public office in San Luis, Arizona,” she told CNN.

“I am not going to help (at the White House)," she added. "I will be helping here.”

When she said her English is good enough for San Luis, she brings up a point that’s been a large part of the debate about her language skills.

In San Luis, 87% of residents speak a language other than English in their home and 98.7% are of Hispanic origin, according to 2010 U.S. Census data.  Most of the people there, by all accounts, speak in English and in Spanish. In the comfort of communal settings, they'll speak the way they're most comfortable.

Which may be why, when CNN en Español asked if she would conduct the interview in English, her lawyer instructed her to speak only in Spanish.

Instead of the confident, strong way she speaks in Spanish to the residents of San Luis, Cabrera speaks a bit more slowly, and perhaps with a bit less conviction, when she switches to English. That's something she admits, but she says that she can communicate at the level she needs to in English, given where she lives. She grades her English proficiency at a 5 on a scale from 1 to 10.

“It is true my English is not fluid, I am a very honest so I can tell you I’m not fluid in English, but I do understand it. I can read a a letter. I can read a book,” Cabrera said. “Right now I have a private tutor helping me improve my English.”

While she’s doing that, Cabrera still feels her language skills are where they need to be.

“From my point of view, it would be more helpful to have someone who speaks Spanish (in San Luis),” she said.

Escamilla, the mayor who began the fight over Cabrera’s skills, notes that many of the other council members are also Hispanic but they are truly bilingual.

“With all due respect for Ms. Cabrera, I think she is a good person, but her understanding in English is not good enough. She struggles to speak it, and she doesn’t understand it,” he said. “All our meetings are in English.”

During the court hearing on the issue, Yuma County Superior Court Judge John Nelson made the ruling after testimony from linguistics experts and Cabrera's own testimony, where she answered questions and read a few documents.

Cabrera, a U.S. citizen who graduated from the bilingual Kofa High School in Yuma, Arizona, was questioned in English on the stand about where she graduated, where she was born and what her name was. She was able to tell her lawyer her name and where she was born, but struggled with what school she had graduated from, according to the Yuma Sun.

Cabrera believes that ruling is stripping her of the her right to run for office. Escamilla believes the court is just enforcing the law.

In 2006, Arizona passed a law that made English the official language of the state. Earlier, in 1910, Congress passed the Enabling Act, which allowed Arizona to become a state with certain requirements. Among them was one that addressed the English language.

"The ability to read, write, speak, and understand the English language sufficiently well to conduct the duties of the office without aid of an interpreter shall be a necessary qualification for all state officers and members of the state legislature," a section of the act reads.

But Cabrera's lawyers argued in court that her disqualification was unfair and may be unconstitutional, seeing as there is not an actual standard for a specific level of proficiency for a council candidate.

That’s something Escamilla disagrees with vehemently.

“We are not taking Alejandrina’s rights away we are just following the state law,” he said.

Cabrera believes the mayor and others have taken the issue too far, that she is well-qualified to serve the community she lives in, and that the language testing she was given was at a much higher level than necessary.

“I am not applying for a job with President Obama,” she said. “All I want is to do my job as an activist helping my community.”

Glenn Gimbut, the city attorney for San Luis, says he believes the right decision was made for the people of San Luis.

“The votes of the people who might have voted for her would have been wasted, because they could have voted for someone better prepared to be an elected official,” Gimbut told CNN.

But one resident, Ana Maria Beal, said that someone with Cabrera’s background is exactly the kind of person she’d like to see represent her.

“She is someone who wants to work and worries for our people. That’s the type of person we need up there,” she said. “We don’t want someone who comes from Harvard.”

And that sentiment may be why Cabrera plans to appeal the decision, according to an interview with the Yuma Sun.

“I can't give details about the appeal, but the judge's decision was not just,” Cabrera told the newspaper. “He can't take away my constitutional rights, and if he takes away my rights, he takes away the rights of the community.”

While we’ll have to wait and see what happens with an appeal, one thing is sure: Cabrera’s case has sparked a national debate about whether English should be the official language of the country and also leaves open many questions about the democratic process.

Let us know what you think about Cabrera’s situation and her response to being taken off the ballot in the comments section below.

– Journalist Valeria Fernandez, CNN Español's Gabriela Frias, Fernando del Rincon and Gustavo Valdes contributed to this report.

soundoff (1,720 Responses)
  1. TKO

    Trying to blame the education system for Ms Cabrera's apparent lack of English skills is nothing more than a cop-out. The education system can't force someone to learn (practice) their English. I mean really…how much effort has she put into learning the language of our country? How many resources are out there nowadays for someone to learn a language…especially English? Answer: More than I can count.

    The reason Ms Cabrera doesn't have a functional command of the English language is because she isn't forced to use it on a daily basis. When she goes to work, she speaks Spanish. When she's at home with her family, she speaks Spanish. When she watches TV, she watches a Spanish language channel. When she listens to the radio, she listens to a Spanish language radio channel. When she talks to someone on the phone, all she has to do is press #2 for Spanish. How on earth are you ever going to become functional in American society (outside of her safe, Spanish speaking enclave) if you don't speak English? How does she expect to conduct business for the city, if she has to interact with someone outside of her little town, that doesn't speak Spanish?

    The harsh reality of the situation is that in order to function in American society, (especially government), one must possess basic English language skills. Ms Cabrera doesn't have them yet. She can try again in a year or two when she does. Problem solved.

    February 1, 2012 at 10:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • THE GHOST OF CESAR CHAVEZ

      The problem is far from resolved. This controversy has added more salt to the wound. Arizona is becoming more and more radicalized against Hispanics. Here is another example of the culture of hate and discrimination against Hispanics. English is the valid as a means to express your voice and participate in the political life of your state? Spanish is a language for subhuman laborers who serve a rich white majority? Her political opponent is better than her solely because he speaks English and she speaks Spanish? Do you understand now? Shame on Arizona and their radical republican hate of Hispanics.

      February 3, 2012 at 1:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bryan

      THE GHOST OF CESAR CHAVEZ said:
      "Her political opponent is better than her solely because he speaks English and she speaks Spanish?"

      He is better suited for the job exactly for that reason. The language of our government is English. If someone is running for a position that requires communication that is in the English language, you cannot say that someone who cannot speak English proficiently will be suited for the job. The fact that a majority of the citizens that would be voting for her are of Hispanic background, signifies that they may be unconcerned by the insufficient amount of English Ms. Cabrera knows. The debate isn't whether or not Ms. Cabrera is less educated and therefore, is not qualified. It is very simple:
      Will Ms. Cabrera be able to communicate proficiently in the English language?
      Answer: No
      Therefore she does not meet the requirements for the position.
      I don't know what kind of test she was given, but if she cant even answer "What school did you go to?", how will she be able to hold a conversation of any higher degree than "Hello my name is ____." She may understand better than she can speak English, but I'm pretty sure that if all she can do is listen to people and not give feedback, she is not qualified.

      February 8, 2012 at 5:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • Julia

      Well spoken, Bryan. If I were in Germany and wanted to run for political office, I would expect to have to be proficient in German. Certainly I would not expect to have everything either slowed down or translated for me if I won. It is a form of arrogance to even expect a second language to be accommodated at government level in ANY country. It's a no-brainer that any country on the face of the planet should be able to conduct business in its own language. I believe it is an incredible disservice to accommodate Spanish as much as we do, not because I dislike Hispanics but because it enables them to continue to function on a less participatory level than persons fluent in english. Asians learn English when they come here...and they learn it FAST. They do not expect us to change things around to accommodate them when they have chosen to come here. They adapt to what is customary in America. I believe Hispanics - and ALL newcomers - should do the same.

      December 17, 2013 at 12:57 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Martha Z.

    It's not the school system to blame. She is a US citizen that was living in Mexico and later transferred to the US to earn her high school diploma. She is not suited for that position, the community most of its citizens speak Spanish but the majority are fluent bilingual. I grew up and work in the City of San Luis, she is not a good candidate as she is making its citizens look like we are not uneducated citizens. I agree, I hope she is removed from office. There is no discrimination here, the lack of English is what is setting apart. Lastly, most of the citizens are against voting for her as her husband is unable to cross to the US. I am assuming that she lives in Mexico and wants to run for a political office in the US? I

    February 2, 2012 at 10:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • THE GHOST OF CESAR CHAVEZ

      With all do respect to you, Martha Z., but you made several grammatical errors in your comment above. Should an unscrupulous opponent have the right to block you from expressing your opinion, which is clear to me regardless of the linguistic mistakes you made, just because your English is not perfect? No. You have the same right as I do to express yourself. Furthermore, I don't think that your claim that most people are against voting for her. Your claim is not enough to make it true, we need evidence. Lastly, what does it matter that her husband lives in Mexico and is unable to cross. Her husband is not the one running for office, she is, and she is a US citizen. I support her right to run for office and for the people to have the right to vote for her or against her, on the basis of principle. Arizona, do not bring more shame to your state by taking away this citizen's rights.

      February 3, 2012 at 1:17 pm | Report abuse |
  3. winnie Omodt

    I applaud citizens becoming part of the political process – the more the better, but we need to have a common communication currency ( I can't understand half of what a lot of "native born" people utter today).
    I work on a nursing unit where about 1/3 of my colleagues immigrated from other countries. They are clear and careful linguists.

    February 6, 2012 at 11:25 am | Report abuse |
    • LAS ANIMAS DE REIES LOPEZ TIJERINA, RODOLFO CORKY GONZALES, CESAR CHAVEZ, GUS GARCIA...

      Good point, but you must see the benefit in you making the effort to learn their languages, too. Communication works both ways.

      February 7, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Report abuse |
  4. LAS ANIMAS DE REIES LOPEZ TIJERINA, RODOLFO CORKY GONZALES, CESAR CHAVEZ, GUS GARCIA...

    MESSAGE TO ALEJANDRINA CABRERA: Don't give up. Teach the racist radical politicians and their lamebotas what you are made of. Draw strength and inspiration from leaders like Chavez, Tijerina, Gonzales, Garcia, and many more. Fight to be a voice for the people of San Luis. People of Arizona, support Alejandrina Cabrera and the students of the Tucson school district. Fight for your civil and human rights. Don't let them put their nazi boots on your necks anymore. Vote them out of office.

    February 6, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Report abuse |
  5. AzBorn

    Little known fact…
    As a condition of Statehood Arizona was required to guarantee that its executive and legislative officials read, write, speak and understand English.

    February 8, 2012 at 8:07 am | Report abuse |
  6. gustavo

    lol, it's very crntuoy Spanish, probably from Mexico.They're asking how many you have. Two or how many?

    February 11, 2012 at 10:40 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Gregory

    It's still a big deal... she is a psohcreoler for sure. No more toddler! Love her backpack & lunchbox. :) 

    February 11, 2012 at 11:55 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Irem

    good ..but rbemmeer, those who take action deserves to taste its visible impacts .hehe Fifth of october?

    February 14, 2012 at 12:07 am | Report abuse |
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