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. J.

    I feel like no one is reading the article correctly. The 1910 law they cite is in reference to those running for STATE offices and Ms. Cabrera is running for San Luis CITY council. If the article is correct, this law would not seem to apply to this case regardless of her ability to speak English to the level of proficiency that her opponents/political rivals (via the judge) deem as sufficient.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Big George in Big D

      For crying out loud people – get a grip! Learn the language of the land! I would learn mexican if I moved there – heaven help. I get so tired of these whiney people. I don't care what position she is running for – if she works in the U.S, she needs a good command of the English language. Many of these people planly don't care.

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

      State laws have jurisdiction over city laws.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • J.

      You can't learn "mexican" since it's not a language. I know of native born, English speaking people who have very little understanding of the English language. They can't write well and their spoken grammar is horrible. They aren't disqualified because of their poor English skills but I'm guessing they wouldn't want to run for office anyway.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • SeriouslyBud

      He said he would learn MEXICAN, as though it were a language!!!!! I am wetting my pants laughing, he said he would learn @*$#& MEXICAN!!!!!!! Oh please, POST MORE GENIUS!!!!!!!

      January 30, 2012 at 3:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • AmusedReader

      Big George, there's no such language as "Mexican."

      January 30, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • ruben

      hey BIG GEORGE....you'd learn mexican?????......that's like saying "if I come to the US I need to learn american".... lol.... with all my respect for you...have a good day!!!!

      January 30, 2012 at 3:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • ruben

      hey BIG GEORGE.......speaking a second language is really valuable, specially in a country where 20%-25% of the population speaks that language....
      you need to analyze your ideas a bit more before posting them here

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

      So the CITY of San Luis is not in the State of Arizona? So, if this rule applied to the State of MN, then Minneapolis wouldn't count because it is a CITY???? Come on, I respect and give credit to all of the people that are trying to better themselves and their families for wanting to move to the United States. Heck, we have people here their entire lives and do not want to get off of UNEMPLOYMENT. To quote a legend, "The world needs ditch digger's, too"...

      January 30, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Report abuse |
  2. blah9999

    I'll laugh if we have a president that can only speak spanish someday

    January 30, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • Big George in Big D

      OMG – I hope I never see that day!

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

      Oh Big George in Big D, would you be OK if he spoke MEXICAN though???? AHHHH Hahahahahahahahahahahah!!!!!! You are a GENIUS!!!!!!

      January 30, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Report abuse |
  3. guest

    I have a problem with this law. It has nothing to do with race but under this law someone needing assistance like say a brain trauma patient or deaf or someone that is dumb (as in cant speak). Just saying where do you draw the line.

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

      Brain trauma victims don't run for office...

      And deaf and mute Americans still understand english.

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

      Maybe not everyone sould be allowed to run or should at least have enough self-awareness to realize that brain trauma may not be the best training for political life. On the other hand, maybe it is.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:13 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Homer

    Hidden in this story is the fact that this woman graduated from a U.S. high school that is supposed to be bilingual and came out unable to speak English fluently. Yes, she clearly got an education in civics and such things, but the part of her education that would have qualified her to do something beyond her own local community failed her completely. She keeps saying that she isn't applying to work in Washington...but if she's such a talented "activist," it's too bad she won't ever have that opportunity because the English side of her education failed her. To be fair, it's unfortunate that my education failed to prepare me to communicate with the Spanish-speaking citizens around me, but it all points up the difficulty of producing a bilingual education that is truly bilingual.

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

      She failed herself by not learning to speak English better. I am learning Spanish and at every opportunity I try to speak it to become more proficient. I have been welcomed by people of spanish descent in trying to communicate with them in their language. I even speak it to those whether ot not they speak Spanish.

      She took the easy way out and now expects everyone else to accommodate her.

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

      Excellent observation Homer.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Val

      You're right. All the bilingual education did was allow her to speak Spanish both at home and at school, and gave her absolutely no incentive to bother learning English. This is the consequence. She would be a better example to her community if she simply said: This is a great example of why learning English when you move to the U.S. is so important. Don't let your failure to learn English limit your opportunities as I have. Learn from my mistake.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • lauren

      Exactly Homer..she couldn't even pronounce the name of the high school she attended!

      January 30, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Report abuse |
  5. A Mantha

    Language qualifications didn't stop George W Bush

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

      +1

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

      President Bush had higher grades at Yale than did John Kerry. That's why Kerry did not release his college transcripts until after the election.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Joe Plummer

    Shouldn't we just let democracy handle issues like this???

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

      Yup

      January 30, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Jeff Grant

    Why wasn't this applied to George W. Bush?

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

      For the same reason Obama only speaks well when he is reading from a teleprompter.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:13 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Doug

    How was this even done in the first place? There is no official language in the US, and thus there is no compelling reason that a lack of skill in any specific language should be considered a qualifying factor. She was, based on current law as well as social custom, discriminated against because of her level of education and background. If the citizens of San Luis want to make English a requirement for office, they must make it a legal requirement, not some arbitrary and selectively applied way to discriminate.

    January 30, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Report abuse |
  9. maggie

    Well, her English must not be good enough if she couldn’t even conduct an interview in English. How in the world does she run a municipality?

    January 30, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Report abuse |
  10. sortakinda

    She may be more FLUID in English than she thinks, but she certainly isn't FLUENT in English. Wait–she's a politician, so she's beiing "quoted out of context," isn't she?

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

      A little further down the page there is an apparent US native who conflates "populous" with "populace," I submit she was close enough, especially given the standard demonstrated on this blog.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Report abuse |
  11. larry5

    There's one solution to her problem. Move to Mexico.

    January 30, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Report abuse |
  12. TheTraveler

    “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.

    That's fine. I'd prefer english speaking people voted anyway. Call me a bigot or a racist if you want, but if you're in the country long enough to run for a public office, you've had enough time to learn the language ...

    January 30, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Claudia, Houston, Tx

    The law of this land is written in English and it's my belief one should be proficient to read, write and speak English in order to hold any public office. I support Hispanics on a lot of issues they face in the U.S. and will continue to do so.

    January 30, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Report abuse |
  14. FairAndBalanced

    Does Cabrera meet citizenship requirements (i.e. natural citizen or legal resident eligible for office?)

    That's the only requirement. I couldn't care less about what the primary or native language of someone is. It's America. Let them run, and if an opposition candidate speaks better English, let the voters decide on the importance of it.

    Honestly, if knowing English better than Spanish was a requirement – how do we explain 8 years of Dubya? From all accounts his Spanish was better than his English.

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

      right on

      January 30, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Marcos Higuera

    Why am I not surprised that the Judge was a white Arizonian....We should round up all of Hispanic People, give them a test in English Proficiency and then those who fail it, put them in CONCENTRATION CAMPS until they learn English....This is the best solution right REPUBLICANS? GEORGE BUSH Couldn't speak English well, how the heck did we get him elected PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES?????

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

      Mr. Higura, that is a patently racist response, and has no place in this discussion. Troll!

      January 30, 2012 at 3:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Smith

      Proper English language says the word "People" should be not capitalized. People are capitalized. Got it?

      January 30, 2012 at 3:39 pm | Report abuse |
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