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. Repulpicans

    Unless we all learn Spanglish, then it would be fine .

    January 30, 2012 at 11:55 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Repulpicans

      yes

      January 31, 2012 at 12:06 am | Report abuse |
  2. Alden Thompson

    If I came before the council to submit a proposal I would expect that it could be submitted in written or spoken
    English.

    January 31, 2012 at 12:12 am | Report abuse | Reply
  3. fERIT

    well if she can't understand and answer the question 'which school did you graduate from?" she does not know english.

    January 31, 2012 at 12:12 am | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Americanpie

    Politics takes an understanding on both sides. I can see where her community feels she will help them, but in a
    discussion, argument, avalanche of legal complexity decked in nuance with a" fluid in English" politician or English speaking citizen – which will be par for the course -, she could do a disservice to both sides. She should see the big picture
    and step aside. If she is dedicated and sincere, she should learn better English and come back into the limelight.

    January 31, 2012 at 12:14 am | Report abuse | Reply
    • eville11

      It is pretty sad you can apply for jobs in management and get shot down because you don't qualify with a secondary language, and nobody screams racism... but in politics any weakness of your background or education is considered a equal rights issue.

      January 31, 2012 at 1:15 am | Report abuse |
    • eville11

      that would be "an" equal rights issue.. there goes my chance at city hall...darn it all...

      January 31, 2012 at 1:16 am | Report abuse |
    • No Babel here... please

      eville11, job skills in private business is not the issue. frankly, if a company requires you to be bilingual, then you'd better pull your socks up and get proficient. this is different. although much of this woman's community MAY be Spanish-speaking, there are English-only speakers in her constituency. Moreover, she needs to read English regulations, communicate with state government (also English speaking). I'm just hitting the tip of the 'burg here... there are a host of other reasons that office holders MUST have English proficiency. It's not racism. It's pure practicality.

      January 31, 2012 at 1:58 am | Report abuse |
    • joli94

      I totally agree with you Americanpie! Both my parents came from Mexico, and they both expressed a concern to HAVE to learn the English language AND to graduate from high school in order to be better off in America than they were. I went on to college without my parents having to tell me to, and got an associates in chemistry and several years later an associates in photography, and I can say I still haven't mastered the English language; I will leave that to the English majors lol. I think Ms. Cabrera needs to go back to school and be able to pass 2 years of English classes at a 2 year college at a minimum to serve in the position she wants to run for.

      January 31, 2012 at 2:00 am | Report abuse |
    • joli94

      The only other problem I can 4see 4 having to learn English 4 say a political postion is the way kids write 2day. They rite like they are txting!

      January 31, 2012 at 2:40 am | Report abuse |
  5. No Babel here... please

    although the US does not have a declared national language, I believe that office holders MUST possess the common language used in American governance – English. If you lack full proficiency, you can't serve. Sorry.

    January 31, 2012 at 12:20 am | Report abuse | Reply
    • Heather L

      I concur!!! Bravo for someone who has the balls to say it! It's not being racist! Guess what? Africans came here, learned English, Indians, and Spaniards, and even Asian cultures come here, and LEARN English. So why is the Latino community REFUSING TO DO SO??? Oh wait, nm, I know the answer, because we have catered to you, made everything in "For English press 1, for Spanish press 2..." well I am sorry, NO MORE. I don't care about you knowing the 35th President to the United States, (yes this is an actual question on the citizenship test..) and for the record; i don't care that Hispanics are here, but for Christ's sake, get a JOB (and many Hispanics work their tail off btw,) carry insurance on your vehicle, (truly is sad how many don't have a license let alone insurance..,) and write/converse in ENGLISH!

      January 31, 2012 at 1:04 am | Report abuse |
    • ralph

      Its hilarious how so many americans are angry when they see commercials, billboards, or when a business or corporation caters to hispanics in spanish...last time I checked a majority of the stockholders of these company's are white.. I dont think they would be happy if their companies lost profit by not offering services in spanish.. Hispanic people dont ask for special services.. Its fueled by the great american thirts... MONEY

      January 31, 2012 at 1:43 am | Report abuse |
    • Larry

      Better be careful. In today's mind state they will call you politically incorrect for making sense.

      January 31, 2012 at 2:26 am | Report abuse |
    • Jonathan W

      @Heather: In response to what you have said, actually the Latino community does recognize the importance of the English language. I do find your comment to be highly offensive and extremely unfounded; in the 2004 Pew/Kaiser Hispanic Survey a strong majority believed that is very important to change in order to blend in with larger society (69.1 percent). Also 73.4 percent of first and second generation Latinos believe it is very important of future generations of Hispanics living in the U.S. to speak Spanish. (For this comment, I will use Latino and Hispanic interchangeably although there is some difference between the two words) "So why is the Latino community REFUSING TO DO SO" Actually they aren't.

      January 31, 2012 at 5:50 am | Report abuse |
    • Jonathan W

      my mistake. I meant to put English and its 60%. And another point I want to make is that Africans didn't voluntarily come to America; White Americans enslaved them and shipped them to America. Indians (I assumed you meant Native Americans?) were already here. And "even Asian cultures"? You make it sound like Asians don't want to learn English and yes I am Asian so I do take offense to that. Please, stay educated, stay classy.

      January 31, 2012 at 5:56 am | Report abuse |
  6. Mercury Queaze

    Why not just let her go on the ballot and let the constituents decide if her English is good enough? If it is not, they will not vote for her- what is the big deal?

    January 31, 2012 at 12:24 am | Report abuse | Reply
  7. CaliMafia

    This is nothing more than a racisr attempt to continue to try to opress Latinos.

    And the word is FLUENT.

    "Learn better English", eh? Iimprove your grammar if you want to be FLUENT!!!!!!!!!!

    January 31, 2012 at 12:28 am | Report abuse | Reply
    • Legal Immigrant

      Why is it racist? That's what people would be saying if Juan Carlos Escamilla's name was John Charles Roman.,
      It is not racist at all! She should have been a better student in English. She can only function in a Hispanic community. She can't function in city government – plain and simple.

      January 31, 2012 at 12:41 am | Report abuse |
    • sickofracismcard

      I believe Americanpie was quoting Ms. Cabrera. Ms. Cabrera was quoted as saying "It is true I don't speak English fliud". So maybe your comment should be directed at yourself for reading and spelling. Truthfully I think people make mistakes even when they know how to spell so I will give you the benefit of the doubt. This is not oppression this is the law protecting the people. How can someone who only speaks spanish be better served by a community leader who can not speak or understand the common language of the country? That would be like someone who doesn't speak the main language of an area speaking only english and trying to communicate with the people they represent. By the way my grandparents immigrated here and took the time to learn english, making sure their children learned both languages. They believed they would be better off knowing both.

      January 31, 2012 at 12:53 am | Report abuse |
    • Norma

      SHE said "fluid" instead of "fluent", and that gives you and idea of how difficult would be for her to conduct any discussions at an official level. It's not going to help Latinos if their leader cannot speak on their behalf. The right way for her to get that job in the city council, it's by going to school and learn English at a normal level. In the meantime, she can help Latinos by educating them on how to fit in the mainstream in order to become a "real" American citizen. Usually, Latinos isolate themselves, and proudly refuse to give up their language and culture. Well, this is what you get as a result. When you emigrate to another country, you should know that is going to be very hard to adapt to so many challenges, and the main one is to learn the language and culture. I am a Latina too, and I also struggle with my English, but I went to a community college, learned English, got a job, went to a 4 year college and got my B.A.

      January 31, 2012 at 2:39 am | Report abuse |
    • joli94

      This isn't a case where a Latina is being oppressed get your head out of your butt! Lets face it, America was founded by white Europeans who spoke English. If you think your being oppressed because you have to speak English in America then move to Mexico!! It sounds to me that if you moved to Germany you would expect everyone around you to learn Spanish so they can understand you. HELLO!!

      January 31, 2012 at 3:06 am | Report abuse |
  8. AndyF

    So based on this, George W Bush should never have been allowed to run for president, Gov of Texas, even city council of a town with a population of 1.

    January 31, 2012 at 12:31 am | Report abuse | Reply
  9. jparke

    I thought deciding whether a candidate is qualified is the purpose of elections and voting.

    January 31, 2012 at 12:33 am | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Name*Victor

    The judge made the right decision. Even if the majority of the population is of Hispanic decent, they NOW LIVE in the U.S. And the official language is ENGLISH! PERIOD! If she or anyone wants to run for office THEY MUST BE TOTALLY PROFICIENT in that native language. In this case....ENGLISH! She & all other foreigners are here because THEY WANT to be. So LEARN OUR LANGUAGE! Learn it then go back & run again.

    January 31, 2012 at 12:35 am | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Sd1

    The people she wants to represent aren't even allowed to vote since they are mostly illegal. How embarrassing for her...........the fact she is a HS grad and can't speak English? Probably too stupid and arrogant to be embarrassed.

    January 31, 2012 at 12:38 am | Report abuse | Reply
    • retphxfire

      My guess, you aren't from a western or southwestern state. Do you realize that the first citizens of Arizona were what you would call Mexicans? They were living here at the time we became a state, many families long before any Europeons arrived to pillage. What do you say about immigrants from Europe, Asia or Africa who are citizens, but are more comfortable in their native language? Or is it they aren't Latino so they can't be illegal? Want to see an ignorant bigot, look in the mirror.

      January 31, 2012 at 12:59 am | Report abuse |
    • Ll72

      Retphxfire, the original inhabitants were not Spanish speaking either. They were native Americans with their own language until the Spaniards (just as European as the English!) conquered them and married into the group. To imply that the English speaking invaders are somehow less native than the Spanish speaking ones is ludicrous. English is the language of the American government, and she should be spending less time blaming others and more time hitting the books so she can properly represent her community.

      January 31, 2012 at 1:35 am | Report abuse |
  12. CNN Shameful

    You to have a proficient mastery of English to be a citizen. How on earth was she granted citizenship? A culture of fraud.

    January 31, 2012 at 12:42 am | Report abuse | Reply
    • eville11

      no you don't.

      January 31, 2012 at 1:11 am | Report abuse |
  13. Dms304

    Englih and Why should anyone have to press 1 to hear it in English. Did I say English.

    January 31, 2012 at 12:49 am | Report abuse | Reply
  14. just curious

    Isn't it up to the voters to decide if she's qualified?

    January 31, 2012 at 12:51 am | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Johnny

    I just find it funny that the name of the place where this happened is: SAN LUIS. Irony much?

    January 31, 2012 at 12:51 am | Report abuse | Reply
    • Ll72

      Not really. Is it ironic that folks who live in American towns called Berlin don't speak German? Or Venice don't speak Italian? We're a nation of immigrants tied together by language. And yes, you can still be proudly Hispanic and still have a good working knowledge of English.

      January 31, 2012 at 1:54 am | Report abuse |
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