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. Rob

    English please. If government embraces the practice of conducting business in other languages, tens of millions if not hundreds of million people will lose the ability to participate effectively because millions upon millions of Americans speak only english. A relatively small percentage of bl- or tri- lingual people (compared to english-only speakers) do not speak english. We need a National English Language and no one should be able to graduate from American High Schools without a proficiency in reading, writing, and communicating in English.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rob

      btw, the brain is less 'elastic' and acquiring languages is harder for adults. Language skills need to develop in youth. To expect an adult population in a country the size of the United States to acquire spanish speaking skills in order to cater to immigrants is unreasonable. Did we have to learn Italian when the Italians immigrated? Russian? German? French? No. So should we switch to spanish? No. Especially when business in the Western world has embraced English. We will slide even further backward if we give up English as our language.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • JMB

      1000% agreed.. Why do people have such a problem with this ? English is the official language.. period.. learn it or move on, its that simple. This woman was found, by a judge, that she could not speak English proficiently enough to be on the ballot. I have absolutely no issue with this & abiding by the rules and laws of this country. She should run for some office in Mexico or whatever Spanish speaking country she wants.. but not here.. Here its English.. enough said.. .

      January 30, 2012 at 4:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • changomango

      @JMB, unfortunately our country does not have an official language costing us countless billions of dollars to cater the needs of millions of immigrants, from bilingual education to court translators to ballots written in other languages.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Nevaheardofme

    You should go to the Yuma Sun home page they have a clip of the court proceedings containing her remarks and responses about her english proficiency...... Ms Cabrera has minimal english comprehension a complete catastrophe, probably not a good idea not to hold public office

    January 30, 2012 at 4:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • changomango

      Agreed!

      January 30, 2012 at 4:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Matt

      Why does that matter? If the people object they won't vote for her. If they feel she can get the job done then they will vote FOR her.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:37 pm | Report abuse |
  3. changomango

    I'm more worried about her competence! She's inarticulate, ignorant and anti-American! She's a pawn for the pro-illegal, anti-Amercian, racists raza crowd, THE MEXICANIZATION OF THE UNITED STATES CONTINUES, MORE TO COME!

    January 30, 2012 at 4:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • She is speaking English

      She's learning to speak better. Are learning any other language? Your satatment about her being ignorant and anti-american shows your prejudices. Just because someone can't speak a second language too well or has a "Hispanic" accent doesn't mean they are ignorant and anti-american. You watch too much television.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • changomango

      I speak four languages including Spanish. She graduated from high school yet she speaks English at a second grade level, how much more time does she need? I lived in Italy for 18 months and learned the language in a year. Do some research on this woman and you'd find her pro-illegal alien, anti-American leanings.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Polopoint

      Anti-American? where did you determine that, clown?

      January 30, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Report abuse |
  4. She is speaking English

    She is speaking English and will speak English at the council meetings. The question is how well does someone have to speak English before they can run for office. Look at all the "hicks" that get elected and they can't "speak no how". Let's not allow them to run for office either... This is becomming just another Arizona bigoted issue. Unfortunately Latinos are easily pitted against each other and until they learn to help each other, they will be easy pickin's for the bigots in this country

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

      "Hicks"? YOU ARE A RACIST! Latinos have never helped each other, look at the failed countries where they come from, I'm sure they could use a hick or two to lead them out of their unjust, poverty stricken, violent, corrupt societies. And it's the "Bruthas" who got no ingeesh skillz.

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

      She ISN'T speaking English. Her interview was conducted in Spanish.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Polopoint

      and the bigots come out, right Chango? Can you say that in four languages?

      January 30, 2012 at 4:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • changomango

      Yes I can put0–Chango, Monkey, Singe and Scimmia! If we're sooooo racist, why would she and you and millions of other Latinos/Africans/Asians want to live here?

      January 30, 2012 at 4:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • Matt

      @changomango, hicks means people living far out in the country...usually not much education. It has nothing to do with race. Please understand the English language before accusing people of being racist based on their use of a word in which you don't know the meaning.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:40 pm | Report abuse |
  5. SpeakEnglishPlease

    The problem we seem to have is that NO ONE wants to accept the fact that we do speak english in the US. My family has immigrated here also. My grandmother immigrated here from WW II Germany. She has not had a problem speaking the english language that she learned as a second language and she was an adult when she learned how to speak english. I work a 40 + hour week and I do get tired of hearing of how companies send jobs overseas or to Mexico and I do try to buy products made in America. The problem is that I'm getting tired of having to "cater" to the spanish speaking people. Do you think that all politicians understand spanish? I think not

    January 30, 2012 at 4:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • She is speaking English

      Read the article. She is learning English. She wants to particapate in the American Democratic process...What can be more American than that...Oh, unless she "just doesn't speak right" you know "wink, wink" she doesn't look and talk like "us".

      January 30, 2012 at 4:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • sdg

      SpeakEnglishPlease - you are a bigot and a fool – please leave our country that was founded on the hard work of immigrant workers. You don't belong here – take your hate and fear mongering elsewhere.
      You are particularly foolish – and sound very very uneducated – it would probably be a service if your right to vote (and reproduce) WERE ENDED.

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

    What I don't understand is how someone can graduate from a high school in the United States and not be able to speak English well enough to answer simple questions. I know we are graduating kids who can barely read but now ones who can't speak English? How did she learn anything in school? Were all of the lectures and tests in Spanish?

    What frustrates me about the language debate is that people who come here and don't learn it can't speak it with their children. Then those kids start school behind their peers and struggle for years to catch up. People say they come here to give their kids a better life but they aren't doing all they can to ensure they get it. It's not that hard. Kids under the age of five spend most of their time at home or in daycare. Turn on the English cartoons and Sesame Street instead of the Spanish ones and they'll pick it up more quickly than any adult will. I met a kindergarten teacher from Phoenix many years ago who had 25 kids in her class. Only one of them spoke English. Shame on their parents for setting them up for failure by not exposing them to English in any way they can.

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

      She attended a so-called "bilingual school," which means she was educated through the medium of Spanish. These schools do a very poor job of teaching children of immigrants the English skills they will need if they hope to make something of themselves here in the States. They'd do better to go to an English school with an ESL program.

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

      This is a demonstration of a very serious flaw in "bilingual" education. Some people can learn a second language with just instruction in it as a second language. Most people only learn a second language by immersion (and some can't learn a second language at all). I don't know what to do about that third group. But the fact that the second group is the majority tells us that teaching a little English in a Spanish speaking school (the real meaning of "bilingual") is the same formula for failure as the little Spanish taught in the English speaking schools my sons attended.
      My sons fortunately don't NEED to speak Spanish (because years of instruction in Spanish taught them barely more Spanish than Cabrera learned English) . Students taught in US public schools NEED to learn English. So non immersion methods should be abandoned.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • sdg

      red- you are a bigot and a fool – please leave our country that was founded on the hard work of immigrant workers. You don't belong here – take your hate and fear mongering elsewhere.
      The other two commentators should join you in abstaining from voting and reproducing as the three of you would have vastly inferior results in either endeavor.

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

    San Luis is an illegal immigrant town. Illegals use it as a hub to migrate incountry. She should NOT be allowed to run for office. The law is the law. Immigrants and especially natural born Hispanics need to learn english and stop using the language barrier as a crutch "no ablo english" Having lived in Yuma for 20+ years I can say nothing good comes out of San Luis. It's a crap town with lazy Hispanics in it. Not many of them even try to assimilate and would prefer WE learn Spanish. I see it very clearly....if your here illegally or helping those that are you should have your citizenship or your freedom taken from you. The law is the law and they break it everyday they are in our country illegally. Cabrera just wants to give the illegals living in San Luis more rights when they have NONE. Federal criminals should NOT be coddled. Cabrera needs to be investigated and I'll bet you'll find La Raza is paying her lawyer bills.

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

      Troy – – you are a bigot and a fool – please leave our country that was founded on the hard work of immigrant workers. You don't belong here – take your hate and fear mongering elsewhere.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Polopoint

      Hooray for you. Hope you feel better now, with all that superiority oozing.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Gabriel

      If what you say is true than the rest of city council has nothing to worry about. Let her run for office, if the city is full of illegals then they can't legally register to vote. What they're afraid of is having someone of a different opinion as part of the council. Now I do agree that her English needs to improve and greatly, but she should be allowed to represent a population that more than likely has the same level of proficiency as she does. Point. Set. Match.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:49 pm | Report abuse |
  8. r-hope

    I bet to differ with all those who want English to be the only language spoken in this country.
    Anyone with even a modest forecasting ability would start requiring that Chinese be taught from K1-K12. You laugh? Wait another 20 years and let me know if you will still be laughing

    January 30, 2012 at 4:23 pm | Report abuse |
  9. agreewithmary

    THIS INDIVIDUAL SHOULD BE ASHAMED TO SAY SHE GRADUATED FROM HIGH SCHOOL. IF THE HIGH SCHOOL WAS "REPUTABLE" SHE SHOULD NOT HAVE BEEN ABLE TO GRADUATE. THERE'S JUST TOO MUCH POLITICAL CORRECT-NESS IN THE USA. WE ( the Government) HAVE TO START DRAWING THE LINE SOMEWHERE. WHY NOT START WITH – ENGLISH IS THE OFFICIAL LANGUAGE? NEXT YOU KNOW – SHE WILL BE DEMANDING SHE BE ALLOWED TO BE "PRESIDENT" IS THERE NO END TO THIS NONSENSE ?

    January 30, 2012 at 4:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • sdg

      agreewithmary – you are a bigot and a fool – please leave our country that was founded on the hard work of immigrant workers. You don't belong here – take your hate and fear mongering elsewhere.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Polopoint

      You should be ashamed you can't carry on a polite conversation because you can't find the CAPS LOCK key.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • She is speaking English

      She is taking English classes on her own...read the article...
      Enough with the demonization...she is not "demanding to be President" (ridiculous). They are not drug runners, murderers, rapist, terrorist. But oh, did I mention that most of those people are Christian...What ever you do to the least of my brother.....(Matt.)

      January 30, 2012 at 5:24 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Onegood1

    por favor, aprender a usar condums

    January 30, 2012 at 4:23 pm | Report abuse |
  11. the_dude

    I would say we should just give california over to the illegals but then they would complain because it would be an even longer walk to the United States.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rob

      No! What next? Arizona, Nevada, Idaho, Oregon, and then on up to Canada? What happens when they want to migrate East, give it away too?

      January 30, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • Randy Pratts

      You Dummy! California is in the United States. Most people in this country don't even know their own geography. My God!

      January 30, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • sdg

      the_dude- you are a bigot and a fool – please leave our country that was founded on the hard work of immigrant workers. You don't belong here – take your hate and fear mongering elsewhere.

      You should also be horse-whipped for contaminating the honorific 'the dude' with your uneducated nonsense and – of course – not be allowed to vote or reproduce.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:39 pm | Report abuse |
  12. John Anthony Castro

    Quote from the U.S. Supreme Court: "To repeat: we hold that nothing in the Enabling Act apart, possibly, from the extent it may incorporate Arizona law by reference, prevents the usual application of Fifth Amendment protection." Alamo Land & Cattle Co., Inc. v. Arizona, 424 U.S. 295, 311 (1976).

    January 30, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Randy Pratts

    This is an outrage! This is a bi-lingual country, people should learn how to speak both Spanish and English. Only one state has an official language, New Mexico and it happens to be Español.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Fenris

    This is not an insult against others who have a poor grasp of English. This is a government official who cannot speak English. Big difference. Many of us posting have also come from immigrants from many nations. Guess what? We learned the language of our adopted country!

    January 30, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • sdg

      So what? What right does that give you to impose conditions on voting requirements in Arizona? The same question goes for the judge but he will be finding that out shortly when his ruling is rightfully overturned on appeal. Your reasoning ability shows you learned nothing in what limited education you've had – please refrain from voting and reproducing.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:42 pm | Report abuse |
  15. deb0155

    If you want to run for public office in the United States – learn English! Our national language is English! We just need our politicians to stop pandering to the special interest groups and seal the deal!

    I still do not understand how or why the Hispanics think that they do not have to speak English! If anyone of us were to move to a Latin country – we would have to learn Spanish! And, yet to think, the Hispanics come here to this country and expect us to speak Spanish! Don't get me wrong – I think it is wonderful to be multilingual – but to think that the language of a country should be changed just because of one special interest group is ridiculous. In that case, my family is from Greece, Italy, Lithuania, and Ireland! Why don't we make Greek or Italian the national language?!

    We have our spinless and pandering politicians to thank for this mess! I think a few nasty phone calls and emails should be sent to our politicians – maybe than they would have the guts to really stand up for this country!

    I don't even recognize my own country anymore! It's such a shame that the United States just lies on its back like a dog pandering to every other special itnerest group or country instead of defending its citizens!

    January 30, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Alexa

      There is no national lnguage of the United States, there never has been.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • Polopoint

      Why? this is a free country. and English is not the national language. So seal your deal with that!

      and, by the way, there were Spanish speakers in that part of the country long before you and your ilk showed up.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • Amused

      Perhaps you have forgotten where all of America's citizens originally CAME FROM! Hmm? ... Think about it!

      January 30, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rob

      The last time I checked, the USA has NO official language. Get your facts right before you make an idiot out of yourself.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • sdg

      deb – you are a bigot and a fool – please leave our great country that was founded on the hard work of immigrants. You obviously don't belong here with your fear and hate mongering.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • Vumba

      Well let's re-elect the clowns over and over. Term limits will resolve a lot of the rot that has put a stench on the U.S., in the last 25 years. Don't let politicians get away with this crap.. The problem is when that politician builds a new white elephant in his district, and brings in jobs, people melt and vote for the bum again. Do you really, really, think politicians care about me and you? Re-election is all they care about. Name a good politician in the last 25 years...You can't. I mean a politician that didn't pander to the peasant...You honestly can't do it. Complain all you want but it's the wolves that get in because the sheep don't join together.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Matt

      English is the defacto language of the US. However, that does not mean she has to be an English major to run for office. Also, if the people object to her level of fluidity in the English language they will not vote for her.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Luke

      What you need to do, it's to grab a HISTORY book and read about all these States and who was living there before we took over, I bet you that most of their ancestors where living there before we did. Don't trow all Hispanic people in the same bag, you are talking like a redneck who doesn't have any idea of the subject. And let me tell you something, many inmigrants, not just Hispanics, refused to speak English (Italians, Russians,Chinese, Indians...etc) when they first come/came to our country, only their children started to. I am amazed that you actually took your time to read the whole article, did you undertand what was about? Maybe yoy will be a more fit candidate to run for City Council in San Luis, you look to have the same understanding of English as her.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • Gabriel

      It's people like you deb0155 that make the United States unrecognizable. When was English ever made the "national" language as you put it? Yes, Arizona has the right to make English their official language, but... be careful how you deal with your details in your comment. Cabrera DOES speak English... but it is deemed to not be proficient... more than likely she speaks at the same level as the people she so desperately wants to REPRESENT.. Is that not the very essence and definition of representation? BY THE WAY, NO ONE, NOT ONE HISPANIC WANTS YOU TO LEARN SPANISH TO SPEAK TO US! We very much understand that we need to learn a level of English to succeed in this country and that is what many of us who are educated do... Get off of your high and holy deb... We are a country made of immigrants don't ever forget that... and when one travels abroad why is it that we expect everyone else to speak English when we visit Spain or Italy or Germany? We are lucky that those countries have English as part of their required education. You are only showing the arrogance of an American society that thinks the rest of the world should cater to your language needs.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • Linda123

      You are an ignorant fool. Sounding high and mighty on your horse over the internet does not make you a big person... it makes you a coward. Your ignorance hurts my brain.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Eddie

      Check, if you can, the English language skills of the users who commented on this post. 30% – 50% aren't high school level. They will argue with you about it too, just like this Arizona woman. We wouldn't want them to be "overeducated," now would we. C'mon. Most of us said to H with our language years ago. Let's not put on airs.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:53 pm | Report abuse |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55