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. RUFFNUTT ( south Yemen prison GUARD )

    english=middle america spanish=lower south america...
    .
    frenchies= up above us.. if you want to speak mexicaneese...goto mexico..

    January 30, 2012 at 1:24 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Ivy League White Guy

      See what I mean, CNN? RUFFNUTT (south Yemen prison GUARD ) just used racist humor to put down Spanish speaking Americans. If I dare to defend myself (I am a bilingual American) in whichever language I choose, you will delete my comments like you did with the previous version of this article. But here we go again:

      January 30, 2012 at 4:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ivy League White Guy

      RUFFNUT, tu comentario es racista y de mal gusto pero acorde con lo que se publica y se disemina en la cadena FOX. No estoy de acuerdo con tu comentario racista. Estados Unidos es un pais con mucha diversidad cultural y racial y las personas que hablamos espanol u otro idioma diferente al ingles no tenemos porque soportar que gente ignorante y radical como tu nos discrimine y nos quite nuestros derechos civiles y politicos.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Stan

      I don't know... I've been to middle America & most of them don't know how to speak proper English either.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Report abuse |
  2. CNN this just in blog

    1000+ comments wasn't enough. If we post another story about exactly the same thing, maybe we'll get 1000 more.

    January 30, 2012 at 1:35 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Ivy League White Guy

      Yes, but if you write comments in Spanish, CNN censors will delete them. How enlightened and impartial of CNN to write a story about the English Only issue in Arizona, only to dictate that any comments readers make about the issue be forcefully limited to responses in English. I wrote so many responses both in English and Spanish for the last version of this article (I don't even know why I bother to read CNN anymore), only to have all my comments in Spanish be erased. Watch and see how long this comment lasts ( posted at 3:02), before CNN deletes it.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:01 pm | Report abuse |
  3. blursd

    “'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."

    Doesn't that say it all right there ...

    January 30, 2012 at 1:40 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  4. NeoCon13

    Not being able to speak the language never stopped GWB.

    January 30, 2012 at 1:40 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • yada

      Lol!

      January 30, 2012 at 1:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • BoFo

      Your comment betrays your ignorance. It speaks volumes of your total lack of integrity and character.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • whitney

      good one

      January 30, 2012 at 4:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Stephen

      "Betrays your ignorance?" Hmmm...You're failing at sounding intelligent.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Stan

      Thanks God we have BoFo and the Integrity police here to steer us right!

      January 30, 2012 at 4:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • mongopoo

      He tried.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • marty in nj

      His inability to READ a teleprompter didn't hold him back either. What's more, no one seemed to complain about GWB using [stilted and poorly pronounced] Spanish phrases in his campaign speeches either.

      January 30, 2012 at 6:12 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Greenspam

    How did she graduate from high school if she couldn't tell people which school she graduated from? Unbelievable.

    January 30, 2012 at 1:40 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Really???

      True.... How did she graduate from High School????? Really!!!!!

      January 30, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ravenn Klaw

      Come to Miami.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • githm

      You said it. THAT"S the problem. Many immigrants have nothing but contempt and disdain for this great country and have no intention of ever changing. It's absolutely sickening that it's gotten this far and now they are trying to set a precedent to hold public office and not speak or have a firm grasp of the English language.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:37 pm | Report abuse |
  6. RAD666

    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.

    WHICH is exactly the problem here..........................You are in the US learn and speak (when doing business) English period.

    January 30, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Ivy League White Guy

      RAD666 Reality is not helping your cause, here, my bigoted brother. If the population of her community is 90% something percent Hispanic and Spanish speaking, then it doesn't matter how red in the face you get and how many PERIODS you add as interjections to your wrong-headed comments. If the community wants her, they should be able to vote for whichever leader they want. So cut the BS and let her get on the ballot. She is a US citizen and you are a bigot.

      January 31, 2012 at 1:39 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Geezer

    Ok, I'm a die hard liberal and we should support all of the people in our country. However, this is an Enlish speaking nation. If you can't speak the language you shouldn't be able to hold the office. For that matter, I'm tired of getting a spanish voice prompt on the phone.

    January 30, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Marcos Higuera

      Now Imagine if you were not a liberal, you would have sent Einstein back to Germany to be killed with all of the millions of Jews that were massacred.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • DAT

      Wow, Marcos, what an amazing non sequitur.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sheepleherder

      Marcos – you are a moron.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • githm

      Thanks Marcos. That's exactly the lack of intelligence that makes the whole proposal scary as hell.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Luthias

      Eistien spoke English, try again

      January 30, 2012 at 6:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ivy League White Guy

      Geezer, your are sounding like a retirement home Republican old fart. Step out of the retirement home and smell the roses. This is a new America, not the 1940's or sweet pre-Civil War Alabama. We, Spanish speakers, have fought in your wars and have paid with the blood of our children. We have earned our place at the table and we will speak Spanish, si, that is Spanish with an UPPER CASE S. Hispanos, ya estuvo bueno de pendejadas Republicanas. Hay que salir a votar y parar en seco el racismo de estos viejitos pedorros y racistas.

      January 31, 2012 at 1:44 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Bigred

    English my are enough good. Comprendo?

    January 30, 2012 at 1:44 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Ivy League White Guy

      Not amused by your redneck humour. ?Comprendes, racista, mal-Cristiano, retrograda?

      January 31, 2012 at 1:46 pm | Report abuse |
  9. 12312sf124sdf51a

    She has NO right to run for office... How can we be "one nation" when we can't even talk with one another? Go back to school and learn the language, then you can run. Expecting others to understand your "gibberish" isn't fair, and quite frankly, disgusting that you would force us BORN IN THIS NATION to understand you. If we choose to move to another country, it is EXPECTED THAT WE LEARN THE LANGUAGE OF THE PEOPLE, not force our way of life on our new home...

    January 30, 2012 at 1:45 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • johnny

      I'm not sure that Americans living abroad bother to learn the local language.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • marty in nj

      First of all, someone else's "gibberish" is a language, just as American English would be taken as "gibberish" in many other countries. Second, there are plenty of countries that have more than one prevailing language, get over it. Lastly, we live in a global economy...be a good neighbor and have enough respect to learn how to communicate with people who sacrificed, struggled and, in some cases, risked their lives to come to the USA.

      January 30, 2012 at 6:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • sale

      she has the right, just not the qualifications.

      January 31, 2012 at 4:32 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Katie

    Nobody told Sarah Palin she had to speak English coherently in order to run for office, and she wasn't even bilingual!

    January 30, 2012 at 1:45 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • bethesda27

      Sarah Palin speaks English. She may have an accent based on where she lives–like everyone else in the country, we all speak with different dialects.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • urouttolunch

      I think the key word there may have been "coherently."

      January 30, 2012 at 3:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Stan

      bethsada, we don't all have accents. Some of us actually talk proper English and don't sound as stupid as the rest of the country.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:51 pm | Report abuse |
  11. chris

    Legislating from the bench – an activist judiciary is not just a liberal issue. If she otherwise met the reuirements to get on the ballot how can this even be legal?

    January 30, 2012 at 1:47 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  12. truefax

    Soooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo many mexicants taco belles not enough time.

    January 30, 2012 at 1:47 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Ivy League White Guy

      Come on CNN censor, please tell me there is a sand grain of moral understanding in you. This comment is racist, please allow me to say so and stop deleting my comments. And here I go again in Spanish:

      January 30, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ivy League White Guy

      Este comentario es racista y de mal gusto. Que pena que CNN no tenga gente que hable, lea y comprenda el idioma espanol y que ademas tenga algo de perspectiva etica y deje que las personas que somos bilingues nos expresemos en espanol. Que desilusion CNN, pense que ustedes eran mejores que la cadena radical FOX.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rolling Eyes

      I like Taco Bell.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rolling Eyes

      Yo quiero Taco Bell.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ivy League White Guy

      ROLLING RACIST EYES I love Taco Bell, too. What's your point? This is not the food network. If you want to post a comment on how to deep fry oppossums and other such roadkill, you are in the wrong blog, redneck.

      January 31, 2012 at 1:18 pm | Report abuse |
  13. cashmeremafia

    Funny nobody (esp Republicans) seems to say this is legislating from the bench – shouldn't the PEOPLE decide what is in their best interests?

    January 30, 2012 at 1:47 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • 12312sf124sdf51a

      In certain situations, NO. Most people are not qualified to make the necessary judgment call on certain issues. That's why "we the people" have a government; so they can do our business. Now, we can elect those people to do our business, as they represent the masses, but know that there are certain things we cannot do, like insist on a government official who cannot even speak to the VAST MAJORITY of the people of this nation. Want to be a part of the government? LEARN THE LANGUAGE!!!

      January 30, 2012 at 1:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Becausetheyredthearticle!

      Possibly you did not read the article or possibly the issues is comprehension, but the article clearly states that there is a law on the books that says, "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,". The judge is acting based on that law and his interpretation of the law (which you can take issue with certainly. He is not "legislating".

      January 30, 2012 at 2:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • AZMAN

      It does appear that the judge was interpreting the actual words of the law. The problem is not the judge, its the high school that failed to provide a proper education to the lady. It's diploma was a joke. Now she is paying for it.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • Thomas

      ", "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,". "

      The tricky part is that she is not running for a state office or for the state legislature. She is running for a city position.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Stan

      @12312sf124sdf51a, Even most elected officials are not qualified to make the necessary judgment call on certain issues... That is how we end up with idiotic legislation like SOPA.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Mountaincore

    That's the problem. Obammy would hire her. Typical government – rewarding poor performance.

    January 30, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Epluribusunum

      Thank you Mountaincore. The point of what all the immigrants(especially from haiti) are following the track of obummer. At least the currency in this nation is not yet printed in another language, does not really matter with the communist's federal deficite. The street & highway signs are also still posted in english.

      January 31, 2012 at 12:37 am | Report abuse |
    • Ivy League White Guy

      EPLURIBUSUNUM Sounds like the currency IS PRINTED IN ANOTHER LANGUAGE...LATIN. See, that's why you need to pay attention in school and strive to go to college, my ignorant brother.

      January 31, 2012 at 1:48 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Bill

    Wow. Went to U.S. high school but can't speak English. I think an investigation into the high school is in order.

    January 30, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Mary

      You are so right Bill. What is going on here. In California our kids have to pass a hugh test to get out of High School. Maybe she did not even go to High School, and that is why she had such a hard time talk about it. Or even understanding the question.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • githm

      I totally agree Bill. English is being taught as a second language in American high schools at the taxpayers expense. It's sickening. She struggled to explain what high school she graduated from. I hope this story gets into the right hands and blows the lid off of the levels of corruption that already insist that state. They have nothing but contempt and disdain for this country.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Report abuse |
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