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. wot

    Judging by the English skills being demonstrated by these "patriots" here I would guess they should be disqualified for office too!

    January 30, 2012 at 4:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • james

      Yep–

      January 30, 2012 at 4:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • charlie from the North

      Good point.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Joseph

      I hope you and the other enablers live long enough to see their children brutally devoured.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:17 pm | Report abuse |
  2. WDinDallas

    Anchor babies aren't real citizens. Deport them all.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Get Real

      So you're a Navajo? Cuz otherwise you're just an Anchor Baby too.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:02 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Eric

    On one hand, I think our government could be run more efficiently if it operated on a single language. On the other, all these people that say Spanish speakers should "go home to Mexico" should realize that Santa Fe, NM, was founded in 1609. Not every Spanish speaker is from Mexico, and most are not illegal aliens.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Me

      Well, now Eric, you're talking logically and factually so that won't get you far. My husband's first language was Spanish and he didn't learn English until the fourth grade. Where was he born? Tucson, AZ! Frankly, I have a hard time understanding many of my in-laws even though they're all citizens, too. It's the dialect.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:42 pm | Report abuse |
  4. P. Citizen

    Its great that they have bi-lingual schools. (I sure wouldn't want to have to pay for them though).

    HOWEVER, it should be a requirement that you CAN NOT GRADUATE WITHOUT ENGLISH PROFICIENCY.
    People can get BETTER PAYING JOBS with English proficiency.

    Unless you only want to do landscaping, housekeeping, fast food employment...
    Which many times is an equation for POVERTY.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:54 pm | Report abuse |
  5. gepids

    A judge and a professor decided that her language proficency was not sufficent to be a candidate, is this a slippery slope. Who decides the level of language proficency? Should all candidates be tested to ensure they have sufficent skills to perform thier jobs? Should they be tested for a Learning Disability? What if a candadate has long term memory issues, but they are undetected? He/she may not remember important information. What level is deemed sufficent to be a candidate? 3rd grade? 6th grade? College level?

    January 30, 2012 at 4:55 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Joshua

    "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," - And what then of ASL? Would a deaf citizen be unfit for office because they do not understand spoken English and require the services of an interpreter when conversing with someone who does not speak ASL? Perhaps the ACLU should sue on this one to uphold civil liberties of the hearing impaired rather than continuing their persecution of religions in America.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rob

      Those with disabilities are protected under the American Disabilities Act. They would also love to shed their disability and be able to speak and hear english. Furthermore, speaking spanish is not a disability. That is truly a choice.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:58 pm | Report abuse |
  7. CuriousG

    And she graduated from High School in Yuma, AZ? I have no doubt the people want to elect her; I have no doubt she may have good intentions but you want to live here and represent the people then learn English.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • james

      Give it a rest–

      January 30, 2012 at 4:59 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Rob

    So, do we teach our kids Chinese or Spanish? Sounds like Europeans may be speaking German within the next century. In other words, we need to pick a language and stick to it. We cannot expect our kids to learn 4 or 5 languages proficiently. English would be the most reasonable to make official at this point. Most Americans use it proficiently.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:57 pm | Report abuse |
  9. james

    Are the Judge and the Mayor stupid or what ??? Borders on racist also–

    January 30, 2012 at 4:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • ndlily

      It's a legitimate question. If you cannot understand what is being said around you ,you cannot participate in the conversation and cannot make a valid decision. Though I'll take it a step further. If you cannot speak English well, whether it is your first or second language, you have no business making decisions that affect a city, no matter who votes you in.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Really?

      Spoken like a true idiot! Since when is it racist to enforce laws in the USA?

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

    This is The U.S.A., founded by mostly English, and that has always been the dominant language here. I live in Texas, and learned Spanish in high school. It has serves me well over the years, living and working among many Spanish speaking individuals. But, I am not fluent (not "fluid", as Ms. Cabrera puts it) enough to keep up with those who speak Spanish as their first language, and would not feel qualified to try to keep up in a fast paced and important venue such as a council meeting. I don't see anything unjust about her situation, just that the facts: we still speak English in this country and so should anyone who wants to call the U.S.A. home.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:59 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Matt

    She could have helped her case by giving the interview in English, but instead did it in Spanish which shows that she either isn't fluent enough to do the interview in English or she just doesn't care about the English language and expects others to cater to her by providing an interpreter. Either way she shouldn't be in office.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:59 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Dennis

    In the United Sates we speak english.

    January 30, 2012 at 4:59 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Pat Anderson

    I believe the judge's decision was correct. She can't effectively carry out the duties of her office without being able to read, write, and speak English well (NOT 'GOOD'). The level of English language competency in this country is rapidly declining, even among the tv new folks. Anyway, the lady can effectively serve as an activist for her community, without being in elected office. I admire her greatly for wanting to serve her community. I wish her all the best.

    January 30, 2012 at 5:00 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Neil G

    How did George W Bush become president if speaking English properly is a requirement for public office?

    January 30, 2012 at 5:00 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Dontgothere

    She is blatantly discriminatory in her statements that she is there to serve "her" people, not ALL the people of SAN LUIS which is the responsibility of a council person. Some people are ridiculous no matter what language they speak.

    January 30, 2012 at 5:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • Joseph

      Thanks to Bush Sr., Clinton, Bush Jr. and Obama, within 10-15 years, the US will be consumed by violent conflict between Engish speakers and spanish speakers. It will be very bloody and I hope the enablers live to see their children devoured.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:14 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