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. San

    I can't imagine US democracy sometime ?
    Good that I am in India , where more than 100 languages are spoken and people need not know top languages to put their name on Ballot.
    To represent human you need to be human and nothing more or less.

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

      If that's the way you do things in India, fine. That's NOT how it's done in the United States of America.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ignacio

      Good, she can come run for office in your country.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • mochica

      That's because India is a democracy and the United States truly is not.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bob

      "To represent human you need to be human and nothing more or less"

      Your point is absurd. Representation requires clear and concise communication to be effective and useful.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • newsie

      And that's why India is at the pinnacle of national achievement!

      January 30, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Moes a Dog

      ahh yes, India, things are going swimmingly there are they not?

      January 30, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Richard Carranza

    So is our economy down the hole cause our politicians don't know English 100%? Maybe its because they misspelled a word, or had other grammatical errors. Look I am Mexican-American and to me this is just another way to say "If you have an accent in your voice, you can't make it in America." Let the people decide who gets into office. If any test were to be done you should make our political officials take a Math/Economic test before they put their names on the ballot and we shall see how many don't make it. Maybe that would help our economy a lot more than this B.S., THINK PEOPLE THINK.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Al Sanchez

      I'M LATINO AND I DON'T THINK SHE SHOULD GET THE JOB!!! SHE DOESN'T UNDERSTAND THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE. I DON'T CARE IF "HER" PEOPLE CAN UNDERSTAND HER. SHE IS IN AMERICA AND SHE WANTS TO BE A POLITICIAN, THEN PLEASE LEARN THE ENGLISH!!!!! YOU DON'T HAVE TO ELIMINATE THE ACCENT JUST UNDERSTAND IT AND LEARN HOW TO SPEAK! NOW, WHAT'S WRONG WITH THAT? NOTHING!!

      AL SANCHEZ

      January 30, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • BooseyBoo

      “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.”

      How is she to effectively communicate with her elected peers and those citizens who are proficient in English and not in Spanish? Will the tax payers have to pay for an interpreter for her to do her job effectively?

      January 30, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • JHL

      Arizona is not part of the United States of Mexico. If she wants to represent US citizens then she should be able to be fluent in English. This is just another datum point that argues for English-only in schools. How she got through high school without becoming fluent enough to conduct an interview in English is a disgrace.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • JT

      No. Swing and a miss. This is not about "having an accent". This is about literally not being able to communicate in the language we speak in this country. Perhaps most of her potential voters are also unable to communicate in our national language. I believe that. However, the business of government is conducted in English. Legislation, contracts, and any other official business will be conducted in English. And if you cannot speak that language, you cannot function in that role. There is no other interpretation unless you abandon simple logic.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • newsie

      You need speaky english to runny government, savvy-savvy?

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

      Why do you have to classify yourself as a Mexican-American, you live here so why don't you just call yourself an American. If people would start to think of themselves as just Americans and leave off the hyphonated junk maybe, just maybe, this country would pull it's self back together. My ancestors came from Germany but I don't call myself a German-American, I don't hear of too many Irish-Americans or Dutch-Americans is it because they all embraced the American Culture and others choose not to do so?

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

      You should take note that the person teh originally brought up the question of her being able to speak english sufficiently was named Juan Carlos Escamilla.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Richard Carranza

      I don't know if you guys realize it, but most of our US High School graduates don't know proper English either. President Bush was a "C" student with a DUI on record and he ran the country...so your telling me someone with a medium understanding of English can't hold public office, REALLY. Test them in MATH which is the problem right now.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Richard Carranza

      @Wes well I am proud to be Mexican-American I was born here in the USA but my parents came from Mexico. I like my heritage and am proud to say it. Just cause you don't like to say your German, doesn't mean others will do the same. Freedom of Speech. Plus I wouldn't say I was German either FYI, lol.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:23 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Carl

    If you want to live in the United States of America, learn English. If you want to become a citizen of the United States of America, learn English. If you want to hold office in any level of government in the United States of America, learn English. Enough is enough. The citizens of the United States of America will not succomb to multinationalism. If you want to be part of this great country, you must become one of us. Period. End of discussion!

    January 30, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • Al Sanchez

      YOU SAID IT!!

      January 30, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Richard Carranza

      Learn to read, she said she knows English. To be honest she probably know more English that people who graduate from our High School, and she also has a Private English tutor. Who is to determine that what she knows is not sufficient. So get off your HIGH AN GLORIOUS BUBBLE and go read some history books. Maybe then you can realize that America was founded by Immigrants and most did not know English. Also read what states were taken from Mexico. LOL do you live in a bubble some where in IDAHO.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • JT

      No, Richard. You are making things up. She barely speaks the language. That is the issue at hand. You must disengage your emotional reactor and activate your critical thinker. The woman barely speaks English, and the business of government is conducted in English. Therefore she is incapable of serving in office.

      If you were less concerned with your persecution complex and more concerned with factual information, you would already have come to this conclusion yourself. It is after all the only possible conclusion.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • newsie

      Kinda gives you the idea of the quality of public education in Arizona, if you can graduate high school and not speaky english

      January 30, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Carl

      @ Richard Carranza: as a 2nd-generation American of Italian and Irish descent, I am well familiar with how our country has grown from the LEGAL inflow of immigrants. My (Italian) grandparents PROUDLY learned English to become citizens of this country. Kindly explain why we shouldn't expect the same from current legal immigrants? Our history is filled with the names of people who immigrated to our country, learned our language, adopted our values, and were able to contribute wonderful things in support of their newly adopted country. Perhaps you should learn our history in a bit more depth before further revealing your ignorance.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Richard Carranza

      Ignorance is thinking your better than someone because you speak better than them. Ignorance is thinking shes less qualified because our school system failed her. Look all I am saying let her be on the ballot and let the people decide. Isn't that how its done here?

      January 30, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Carl

      No, that's NOT how it's done here. That's the point of the judge's finding. Why is that so difficult for you to understand? Why is it that (some) people who immigrate to our country refuse to follow our laws? Why is it that (some) people who wish to be citizens cannot be bothered to learn our language? We did not become the greatest nation on the planet by dividing our people, our communities, our governments into separate languages, ethnicities, values. We became the greatest nation on the planet through the "melting pot", where the best of all of our individuality is combined until the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. If you believe in our country, if you believe in our future, learn the language. If you want limit yourself by not learning English, that is your choice, but don't expect to be as successful as an English-speaking citizen.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:35 pm | Report abuse |
  4. m.corrigan

    bad enough we get asked on the phone 1for english 2for spanish. We are the United States of America. We Speak English. If you don't know the language you should not be representing english speaking americans. Our country needs to start worrying about our rights, not everyone elses. Pray for our country – we need change

    January 30, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Gary

    The voters may be happy with her limited command of the English language but that doesn't mean she would represent them well. As an elected official, you may have to communicate with other local, state, and federal agencies so if she has to take a trip to Phoenix to lobby for something for San Luis, how does she do that effectively?. Contracts with the city are written in English. How can she review them to ensure they are proper? Unless she commands English well enough to lead in government, it will cost the ciy the expense of an interpeter everytime business must be conducted in English.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Angie

    W couldn't speak decent English and he was President ! Twice no less.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • Al Sanchez

      YEAH. SO WHAT'S YOUR POINT? STILL DOESN'T LET HER OFF!

      January 30, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • newsie

      LOL, you gotta point there! I understand his spanish sucked too!

      January 30, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • bubble_boy

      And, what about Kommander Ahnald Schwarzenegger? He was back twice.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • newsie

      Actually, Herr Gropenfuher Schwarzenegger's English is pretty good, just heavily accented.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:27 pm | Report abuse |
  7. To_san

    You state for yourself that to put your name on a ballot in India you need to know top languages. The United States has never been recognized as a multi language country like India or China. Therefore, English is the top langauge. In order to represent humans you need to be able to be fluent in the language that allows for communication.

    I guess we could just go back to drawing pictures on rocks to communicate but we have a hard enough time doing anything in the country when everyone speaks the same language.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • San

      Does person who can't speak or hear can stand for election ?
      Now Hellen Keller will be turning in her grave.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • newsie

      Actually, san said "you need not know" the top languages. Looks like you have some trouble with english as well!

      January 30, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Report abuse |
  8. ajones35

    I agree that it would be to the benefit of individuals who come from a different country to learn English...simply because it will be easier for them to function here and it is respectful to do so when you are in a foreign country. I too lived in a foreign country for quite some time and felt that it was my responsibility to learn the language of that country. However, Cabrera appears to be sincere and is working on her English and I applaud her efforts to rise to a place of leadership in a country where her first language is not spoken as the official language,....that takes a tremendous amount of courage. I think the voters should be able to decide in this case and her English will only get better and better if she is elected.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • JHL

      Let her ecome fluent first and then run. I wouldn't want her learning on my dime and at my expense if she was my representative.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Report abuse |
  9. mochica

    This is ludicrous. Are we a democracy or what? If the people in this town want to vote for her, let them, whether she speaks English well or not. Dictators like Franco in Spain and Mussolini in Italy forced people to speak only one language (Castilian and Tuscan, respectively). This is America, you should be able to speak whatever you want. Let's encourage learning and maybe we could all speak 4 or 5 languages, just as people do in the rest of the world. We should not be less educated than the people of other countries.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Angela73

      Most of the stupidity on these posts astound me and lets me know I need to home school my future children. The U.S. is not a "democracy", it is a republic!

      January 30, 2012 at 3:57 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Mark

    The United States of America has no official language. Period. If the people of San Luis want to elect her for office, then that's their choice and we should let them choose whoever they want as their leader, that's what democracy is all about. If the other leaders in Arizona don't know how to speak spanish, then they need to hire a translator. I will sympathize with the "english side" the day Americans make English their only and official language. Until then, stop complaining, find a translator, and let democracy reign our nation. It's embarrassing to read stories like this about our country on the news, really... but then again, it's Arizona, the same state that thinks that a wall worth millions of dollars can solve most of their immigration problems, so I'm not surprised at all.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Carl

      Gee Mark, your government education is showing. English IS the official language of the government of the United States of America, hence the ruling by a judge that her level of English wasn't sufficient to run for public office. I am not alone in my insistence that our citizens must learn our language, our history, and our values. No more of this BS that our country can be overrun by Mexicans, Chinese, Phillipinos, Germans or whatever nationality and then we're expected to convert to their nationality! If you want to be an American, learn English and join us instead of expecting us to become you. We didn't move to your country...you moved to ours. We welcome those who immigrate here LEGALLY, and who want to become Americans. Others? Tough doo doo. Suck it up and learn English.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Richard Carranza

      TY Mark. This is exactly my point, let the people decide, or are you guys afraid.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:19 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Michael

    fluent not fluid – That is why you can't be on the ballot.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Mike

    Of course she should speak English. Let her run for office on the condition that she agrees to English tutoring first.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • JHL

      Let her learn Enlish first. Then she can run.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Report abuse |
  13. harbharb

    She ought to be able to communicate well in both languages to represent the people. But if the people vote for her, then they'll get what they deserve–problems resulting from her inability to properly communicate with representatives from other area governments, state government, federal government and all of the other outsiders that politicians deal with daily as they conduct the people's business.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Francisco Cruz

    If you want to run for public office and you happend to be in the U.S. then you should learn to speak English! I live in Puerto Rico and beacuse im able to speak both English and Spansh has open many doors for me! you need to adapt to the situation around you, not the other way around.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:59 pm | Report abuse |
  15. MJTaylor

    Sarah Palin and Rick Perry's command of the English language are suspect and look what they were allowed to do.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:59 pm | Report abuse |
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