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. izandro

    If speaking English were a requirement, how did Bush and son get on the ballot?

    January 30, 2012 at 3:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • pete

      We are in the USA and you need to speak english. If you go to another country you cannot expect them to learn your language.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Stormsfury2131

      He speaks English...an dialect that's all too common these days, Idiotish.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Pamela

    Thirteen percent of the residents of speak English in an American state and city ("In San Luis, 87% of residents speak a language other than English. . ."), and Mrs. Cabrera is asking to represent them, I assume, as well as the Spanish-only speaking residents of San Luis. How can she possibly understand and communicate in English to those citizens who also have rights an issue such as whether a new housing development or new road builiding or improvement should be approved, if she cannot even state in English what school she attended? How revealing is it that Ms. Cabrera would only conduct the CNN interview in Spanish (albeit on advice from her attorney)?

    While I believe it is commendable Ms. Cabrera wishes to be involved in her community, she should take six months to a year to become fluent in English, meaning at least being able to convey basic information and concepts, and then return to a bid for public office, with emphasis on "public." Otherwise, may God continue to help us.

    January 30, 2012 at 3:51 pm | Report abuse |
  3. BCH

    The law is the law. It is an unfair stupid law that is intentially racist in origin. But, the law is the law.

    January 30, 2012 at 3:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • ALmoderate

      RACIST...Get off it man !!!! This is an English speaking country. We dont care if you speak 20 different languages as long as you can speak and understand the language of the nation. Mexico WILL NOT allow an English speaking national to be a representative of their country if they cant speak Spanish fluently. SOOOOO by your account the entire nation of Mexico is racist .... fool !

      I am so sick of everyone playing the racist card when they dont get thier way. Oh and before you go and sound dumb AGAIN, I am an English speaking Hispanic.

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

    I agree with The Woof: if Cabrera wants to advocate for "her" people, what happens when they need legal help? She won't be able to understand the law sufficiently to be of any use whatsoever. It will be the blind leading the blind. If she really wants to help her community, she will become an example by learning the English language, just like the Swedes, Italians, Germans, and other immigrants did.

    By the way, English is the international language of airports. Would you really want to accommodate everyone's language in that area? Would you want your pilot to have to talk to an airport controller who was speaking another language, and hope he was proficient enough to get it?

    We really need a law to make English the official language of the U.S. To not have one in place is allowing this growing sense of fragmentation.

    January 30, 2012 at 3:52 pm | Report abuse |
  5. kiki

    LEARN PROPER ENGLISH! a day might come when liberals will make Spanish the American language if we don't make a stand now.

    January 30, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • pete

      I agree..

      January 30, 2012 at 3:57 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Usaouweman

    I was born and raised in a foreign country. Of course so were my parents. When we came here we had to learn english in order to survive and get ahead in our lives. We accepted that as part of becoming an american. Why is that so hard a concept for the hispanics who come here. As an old phrase that I have heard many times in this country goes "When in Rome do as the Romans".

    January 30, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • jsf12

      Some people simply lack the ability to learn a second language. I tried long and hard and failed totally. If I were dropped into a non English speaking country, I would remain unable to communicate adequately for the rest of my life. My grandfather moved to the USA at age 13 and lived until 90 and never learned to speak English well.
      Not every job is open to every person. I cannot be a politician because I lack the people skills. Cabrera apparently cannot be a politician in Arizona because she lacks the ability (which I also lack) to learn a second language.
      If she someday proves me wrong by learning English, congratulations to her. But meanwhile, I don't see the reason to make an exception in that reasonable law.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Report abuse |
  7. CAAZ

    She will need to be able to read legal summaries, understand legal jargon as it's explained when city lawyers have matters to discuss and she will need to properly understand and interpret reports from the staff. She needs to understand citizens who speak at the podium who are not speaking Spanish. Some things in city life, even small towns, are very technical. She will need to understand how to read and interpret environmental impact reports and financial reports that are designed for city council consumption in English. She will sometimes need to understand what the city's HR reps or consultants are explaining with respect to labor negotiations or collective bargaining and that should not have to be done in Spanish. (Yes, yes I realize Arizona is a "right-to-work" state and that they don't have true collective bargaining but it's close and it's important to get it right. And you don't want someone coming back later with a lawsuit against the city claiming that what they said was not properly understood by the all the council members who voted on the matter. She is no doubt a fine woman, but even in rural AZ it's still the U.S. of A.

    January 30, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Report abuse |
  8. RedRooster

    98.7% Hispanic eh? 87% speak another language at home eh? Let's face it, if they all could vote, and if this country had a true democracy, that "other" language would be the official language, and all the nay sayers there would have to pack their bags. Something to think about.

    January 30, 2012 at 3:54 pm | Report abuse |
  9. bob_lawbla

    A prime example of why the English or ESL should be required for citizenship. But having this point of view makes me a racist in the eyes of most liberals. No entiendo en absoluto liberales.(Thanks to Google translate)

    January 30, 2012 at 3:54 pm | Report abuse |
  10. BCH

    Is a deaf person disqualified from running for office in Arizona?

    January 30, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • GrogInOhio

      Probably. We are talking Arizona... the new Mississippi when it comes to civil rights.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • Stormsfury2131

      No, because ASL (American Sign Language) is English and someone deaf can read English and comprehend it. Not the same as having a good grasp on the English language when a foreign language is your first language.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:10 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Bernard

    I kinda feel like she should have a fluent grasp on English. Spanish is my second language, and while I can read, write, speak and understand a lot, I don't think it would be responsible for me to run for office in a Spanish-speaking country.

    January 30, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Report abuse |
  12. gbw

    She is a U.S. citizen, why can't she run and let the community decide whether her language proficiency is important? If they think it is important, they will not vote for her. If she wins and then struggles to perform her duties, then they can decide if they want to vote for her again. She is a U.S. citizen, let her run!

    January 30, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Sam

    For all the people who claim she should not have been "let in" to the country did you actually read the article? She is a citizen of the US born in the US. Now, if you have an issue with her getting on the city council, you may very well have a good point – but please actually read the article. The laws you propose would have done nothing for this woman – she's an American by birth.

    January 30, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Mbpete

    The argument is the person's proficiency... can we have proficiency tests for all officials then?!?! Like knowing we do not have an embassy in Iran, what you can see from your front porch in Alaska, countries and their officials from around the world? Proficiency has never been a requirement for public office. I believe many people's votes are wasted, but I would rather have someone who understood the issues than being concerned about them not being able to speak English super well. Many English speaking people do not have a grasp on the issues but they're still allowed to run for office. As for English only... get over it. This is why American education is deteriorating and becoming more partisan. It's been proven that there are enormous intellectual benefits to speaking more than one language. Let's make America better not more ignorant. Vote for understanding of the issues.

    January 30, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Stormsfury2131

    This is such a hot button issue and really it's just common sense. If you're running for office, you need to be able to grasp and understand the language of the country you're holding office in. She doesn't have a good grasp of the English language, so she doesn't get onto the ballot. Period. She could work to improve her English Language skills, but she doesn't want to make the effort. Typical of modern America though, she'll sue because she didn't get her way and her feelings were hurt. Holy stars! We're a nation of wimpy, whiny, self important snots....native born and immigrants. Grow up!

    January 30, 2012 at 3:56 pm | Report abuse |
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