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. sjk

    Just Press 1 !

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

      Does anyone else find it ironic that if you posted a strong response to this article in favor of the US citizen whose rights are being trampled by Arizona laws or if you posted a comment in Spanish, CNN censors took it off the blog faster that you can say Janet Breuer is a ....... Please show some more backbone this time CNN. Let both sides argue, fight, whatever, without handicaping those in favor of bilingualism or immigrant's rights.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Report abuse |
  2. us1776

    Christ, Reagan didn't even know his own name and he got to be president !!

    .

    January 30, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Pablo

    Que? De que se trata esto?

    January 30, 2012 at 4:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ivy League White Guy

      Pablo, hermano, esto se trata de racismo radical e inhumano con sabor a viejito republicano de Arizona. Los republicanos y minutemen de Arizona por fin le perdieron todo temor a dios y ya empezaron su guerra racial contra los Hispanos, mexicanos, y cualquier grupo que no sea viejito republicano radical.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:16 pm | Report abuse |
  4. AML

    We need to make English the official language in the US. I think we are the only country to not have one. I don't understand if she was born here why can't she have a better grasp of the language? In all other countries people have to learn the main language to live and work. I can understand if older immigrants may need to speak in their native tongue a lot of the time but there is no excuse for those who are born here or come here at a young age to not be fluent in English.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • derp

      Maybe she does not speak English very well because she lives where Spanish was the "official" language for centuries until we stole the state from Mexico.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • mongopoo

      Who did Mexico steal the land from?

      January 30, 2012 at 4:17 pm | Report abuse |
  5. wjmknight

    She was raised in America, graduated from an American high school and is unable to answer tehq uestion which school she gradauted from in English?

    This has nothing to do with being bilingual. The woman is an idiot if she can't answer such a simple question easily in English.

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

      "unable to answer tehq uestion which school she gradauted from in English?"

      And you are making fun of her English language skills?

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

      When a person is a citizen of a particular country, they should be fluent in the respective language. Ms. Cabrera is either neglectful of the English language of the US or is a complete idiot. Either way she shouldn't be running for a political office until she fluently speaks the language of her state and country.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:16 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Ted

    What people outside the Southwest don't understand is that it's not just 1st generation Latino immigrants that don't learn English. There are 3rd generation American citizens unable to speak English. Many Latinos are far more concerned with their kids keeping their Spanish than they are learning English. When they live in towns where 85% of the people speak Spanish at home, who really cares about speaking English at all. It's more important to keep their culture and language.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Report abuse |
  7. BoFo

    Not fluid in English? That says it all.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Painter2

      "...Cabrera said in an interview conducted in Spanish with CNN en Español."

      ....SO "that says it all." How??

      SHE did not say "fluid" – that was the CNN TRANSLATOR who made that error. Maybe some on here need to improve their English critical reading skills? Just sayin'...

      January 30, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Canuc_2009

    I'm in Canada where we have accommodated two official languages for decades (snide comments may now begin). Sometimes it is tough but we do just fine (most of the time), thank you.

    Watching this debate is most interesting ... what IF ... she was deaf (couldn't hear English); she was mute (couldn't speak English) or blind (couldn't read English)? Should that disqualify her from representing her fellow citizens?

    The great melting pot that is the USA perhaps needs some stirring. I imagine it would be interesting to look at places like New Orleans where a very local dialect of french predominates in many areas to see how they have accommodated linguistic diversity.

    I'm not taking shots here as I have unbounded respect for the USA. Great country, great people ...

    January 30, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • us1776

      The state of Louisiana is still based on French law not English law.

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

      I liked your comment. It was one of the few thought provoking ones.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Emmanuel

      Yes, being deaf & dumb should disqualify her from seeking public office for the simple, obvious reason that she couldn't communicate easily, normally and therefore effectively.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • mongopoo

      In one province, don't make it sound like the entire country speaks fluid French along with English.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • Peter

      I believe the Americans with Disabilities Act would protect the blind, deaf, and mute in your hypothetical. Those people would also know English, they just would be disabled when it came to communicating it certain ways.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Canuc_2009

      If you think a little deeper on this line of comment ... Stephen Hawking, perhaps the greatest theoretical physicist since Einstein who cannot speak (unaided) cannot write (or type unaided) and is unable move without his wheelchair would likely not be precluded from serving in an elected capacity. This situation smacks of populist political opportunism.

      Cheers!

      January 30, 2012 at 4:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • jsf12

      I have great respect for people from the English speaking portions of Canada who have real fluency in French, as I have for people from other countries that have real fluency in some second language they were never immersed in. It is an impressive skill, and one I totally lack. It is a skill that people in the USA generally lack.
      But the USA "melting pot" gets its strength from the all the cultural and religious differences (and our relative tolerant of such) not from language differences. A law requiring government officials be able to communicate in English is reasonable for a state to pass, and having such a law, it is mandatory for the courts to apply that law instead of the personal opinions of the individuals involved.
      BTW, I made the mistake of going to a French speaking Club Med several decades ago, where most of the other guests were English speaking Canadians. The rude French employees consistently pretended to not understand a word spoken by the Canadians and when speaking to the Canadians, they spoke super fast and mumbled trying to prove that Canadians can't understand French. But those Canadian guests never had any trouble understanding the fast mumbled French even when the French staff spoke so badly they couldn't understand each other.
      Impressed as I am with all those in other parts of the world who are truly fluent in a second (or more) language. It isn't the right plan for the USA. English is and should be the language you need to be effective in the USA.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • jsf12

      BTW, the several obvious language errors in my long post here were browser glitches from moving and rephrasing things. My English is much better than that. With my browser, this forum seems to mess up edits made while typing a post. Everything looks perfect before I press POST, but what is actually posted randomly reverts a few of the edits I made while typing. (Doesn't happen in other forums, but I still suspect it is somehow a browser problem).

      January 30, 2012 at 5:45 pm | Report abuse |
  9. denmike

    What about if she sat out this election, worked with her tutor to become more proficient in english and ran in the next election? Problem solved.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Report abuse |
  10. perilousskies

    Obviously she can speak enough english for people to understand her intentions to run for office. Whatever racists....try something else. If she is old enough, a citizen with no criminal record, she can run. Let the people she is trying to represent speak for themselves.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:09 pm | Report abuse |
  11. marycontrary

    The most disturbing aspect of this story is that this woman graduated from high school and does not understand English. She can't even understand the question, 'from what school did you graduate?'. These bilingual programs only serve to make it easier on the non-English speaking kids to get through their classes by allowing them to continue their education in Spanish. If there was no bilingual program they would be FORCED to learn English the way immigrants had been forced to learn in years past.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:10 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Chad

    It has cost the federal, state and local governments and private industry considerably to print in two languages, English and Spanish. We shouldn't be required to be officially responsible to carry any other foreign language just because another culture moves into our country legally or illegally and demands that their language becomes official! Who's next? How many languages would we have to carry? English is our language. We need to keep it that way. If people want to immigrate to the U.S. then they need to get legal, get a passport and/or visa, obey our laws, and obtain their U.S citizenship and live in America legally, then learn to read, write and speak English.

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

    I think the court ruling is just, fair and right. America is an English speaking country and it is only natural to expect American public office seekers to be proficient in the language. I believe it's that simple.

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

    Everyone should be able to run for office, if they meet residency and age requirements and are eligible to vote. That should be the end of the discussion. If people in an area want someone to represent them who doesn't speak much English, it's their call and they can accept the consequences.

    This sounds like the old literacy tests that were used to suppress the vote among minorities and the poor.

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

    As for this Law that seems to suggest the state has the right to vet the pool of citizens who can run for office is almost Orwellian at its base. One group, threatened by the perceived loss of power, exercises social, economic and political muscle against the Other to retain privilege by restructuring law for political and social advantage. The result is an attack on a specific group or type of person to achieve a sense of psychological superiority.
    It is clear that Mr. Juan Carlos Escamilla felt he could not politically handle Ms. Cabrera, and so he reverted to less civil tactics. Arizona is now the clearly the state that holds the lowest position for cognitive ability in America.

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