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.
We need more le-mon pledge!
family guyyy!! lol..luv it
Graduated from an American high school, and CAN'T SPEAK ENGLISH??!! How in the world does that happen?! I can't believe anyone on here finds that acceptable!
How does that happen? Bilingual education programs. That's how. Stop allowing bilgingual education and force kids to learn English the same as previous immigrants. Force adults to learn English by not having EVERYTHING translated into Spanish. "We" have made it so Spanish speaking immigrants don't need to learn English in order to assimilate. Look around you. EVERYTHING is translated into Spanish everywhere you look.
It is called racial inequality. Does anybody remember the East LA high school walkouts of 1968? Anybody? I am not going to say that this person is not accountable for her own life, but if she had a whole educational system supposedly looking after her well being and trying to integrate her as a minority in a majority English speaking society, the who is relly at fault here? The racist state of Arizona, that's who. Educators of Arizona, fight for your kids! Don't let Arizona politicians stomp over them. If this woman is trying to speak for her community, good people of Arizona, you must support her.
This is a small town where 97% of the population are of Mexican descent, and the big majority blue collar worker with no more than a high school education. It is not really that surprising that her English is bad, she doesn't really use it.
MARYCONTRARY you are wrong. Let's force you to learn Spanish. Let's force your kids to learn Spanish. Let's force every English Only advocate, every moderate or radical, every American who does not speak Spanish, to learn Spanish? Do you see how insane and radical that sounds? So now tell me how it is not insane and radical to go along with your argument that we must "force" Hispanics and other minorities to learn English at the expense of their cultural heritage. You are insensitive and backwards in your statements.
This case is a real quandary. The electorate should have a free and unfettered right to be represented by the representative they have chosen. On the other hand, we place reasonable limits upon that choice such as age requirements and residency requirements. Is an English language competency requirement reasonable? I think it is. A representative must be able to transact the business of government and interact with other representatives to conduct the public's business. Since English, not Spanish is the language Americans speak no matter what is their family's national origin, it seems a reasonable requirement. San Luis Township conducts its business in English in accordance with state law. Accordingly a working command of English is essential.
I agree with many of the other posters here : people came to this country from France, Italy, Germany, Poland, Russia – yet there is no push for everyone to speak or understand those languages. I have no issue with people speaking Spanish if they so choose. But if you want to participate in government, for at least that one area at least, a person should have to speak English. I too have grown tired of just how much we English speaking people are all expected to know Spanish. If my ancestors came over here from Germany, and were forced to learn English, which they did, and wisely taught their children to, why should those coming here from Mexico expect it to be any different?
Mexicans are educationally lazy, yeah that can pick a bag of fruit or scrub the heck out of a toilet but put a book in their hands with no pictures and the truth comes out.
If we can have different races in office, why not languages? Ever heard of a translator?
And tell me Capt Dragon how smaller cities and towns are going to effectively govern and run their communities if they have to start providing translators in 5-10 different languages? Not only that, but where are they going to come up with the money to support all that extra cost in materials, translators, etc?
Hell, we have a hard enough time governing this country in one language!
Not on my tax dollar. Translator? Use the money to help kids learn English, this is the root cause.
But who would be required to pay for the translator? The taxpayers or the representative.
It is a requirement of the state that she be able to speak English. Your comment is stupid and idiotic to say the least.
I blame our education system. We go mout of our way to school foreigners in their language. English should be your first language in our schools. Foriegn language should remain an elective. Teachers need to teach in English!
This law should be changed. The voters should determine who they want to represent them. What if someone is deaf? Does that person not get to run for office in this city?
The voters of her state have decided Paul, they decided that you need to conduct meetings in English, the language or our country. If she wants to do it in Spanish, she needs to get the law changed. People like you are part of the problem, not the solution.
May be es hora for a new referemdum in Arizona (DryZone), to make otra vez spanish the official language, como ha sido during the last 100 years.
Clearly you're part of the problem. Learn the national language or go away
No, maybe we need to pass another law that says if you can't attempt to be a part of America you should go to a spanish speaking country where you feel more comfortable. Your just a drain on our society..
What has this country become when our politicians don't have a fundamental comand of the English language. I am not opposed to anyone speaking a second or thrid language since I grew up learning several myself but let's be reasonable for a change. How the hell did this individual manage to elavate herself through the ranks without learning to speak English properly. This country needs leaders that are articulate, level-headed and educated.
Didn't George W Bush become President? He couldn't speak English.
I am a Hispanic guy, and I think this woman has mental issues.either that or she is extrimly stupid.
She has got more guts and brains than you will ever have. You just proved it with your insensitive and moronic comment. Do you not understand that every right we have earned needs to be defended so that we don't end up like Nazi Germany or whatever other dictatorship that comes to mind. You are Hispanic? So what? I am white according to half the government forms that I fill. White, Hispanic, African-American, any and every American deserves the right to run for office and get involved in our democracy. For that you call her stupid and mentally insane? What kind of American are you? Not the brightest type.
Embarassing. Such laziness and stupidity. We gonna let someone who can't speak english on level with the typical american run a town?This is why nonamerican snobs trash us, now we have local politicians who can't speak english properly? Oh god, this lady should shut up and continue getting better; then come back and try again.
Listen, if you cannot pronounce the name of the high school that you graduated from then you should not be running for anything.
how and why? she's a citizen. since when are we deporting citizens?
She struggled to explain what high school she graduated from. That's sad. English is being taught as a second language in high schools in Arizona. They have nothing but contempt and disdain for the United States and now they want to hold public office to spread that message. It's sickening.
This blog – This Just In – will no longer be updated. Looking for the freshest news from CNN? Go to our ever-popular CNN.com homepage on your desktop or your mobile device, and join the party at @cnnbrk, the world's most-followed account for news.