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. Sal

    Anyone seeking or attempting to run for office should, at the very least, have a strong command of the English language. Come on people, this is America.

    January 31, 2012 at 12:52 am | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Sally

    Regardless of the percentage of other languages spoken by the people of San Luis according to the situation they find themselves in, San Luis is in Arizona which is an American State. While I feel that all people deserve the same recognition of their rights, our country needs the united front of one language. Our laws are written in English, our courts convened in English. People in court have the right to a lawyer who speaks their language and/or an interpreter. When you need an interpreter for the law giver you are getting into an area of unnecessary confusion. Our representatives and law givers need to speak and use the language of the United States, English. A two thousand year old saying, 'when in Rome, do as the Romans do', has a great deal of common sense behind it. If a person wishes to live in a county not their own, they should learn the ways, means, laws, and languages of that country. To expect the country to conform to their way of life is a bit much.

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

      You crazy Yankees, let the poor American lady run for office, what's the big deal?

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

      I don't get why it matters. If the people of San Luis want a city-council member (lol not even the MAYOR) who speaks English as poorly as your average txting 'tween, then let them do so. Isn't that what democracy is all about? When in Rome, do as the Romans do, but when you're in Pompei you do as they do...

      And she's not expecting the country to conform to her ways, she just wants to be more active in her small community that no one would have ever heard of if not for this non-issue.

      January 31, 2012 at 2:43 am | Report abuse |
  3. Name*TIM LEONARDO

    ironically the judge in this case was seriously misaligned. He violated her constitutional rights to run for public office, as the united states has no official language. Its merely assumed english is our official language because thats the language the founding fathers were fluent in. If one takes the time to research this nowhere in any documentation is english declared our "official" language therefore how does she have to be fluent in a butchered language comprised of many other languages ?

    January 31, 2012 at 1:03 am | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Pedro Ceballos

    This lady's attitude is very common among many "Latinos". Based on her family name I could probably guess successfully which is her Hispanic background or country of origin.

    January 31, 2012 at 1:22 am | Report abuse | Reply
  5. nnnnnn

    Very Hispanic/"Latino" character.

    January 31, 2012 at 1:32 am | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Ll72

    Why aren't high schools doing more to ensure people like her are bilingual before they graduate?? It's great to know a second language whoever you are, but teaching all students a good working knowledge of English in a predominantly English speaking country is just too easy. I'd feel the same if I were raising my kids in Mexico. If that was our home, even if I lived in an English speaking community, I'd take it for granted that my kids would would learn Spanish so they could be taken seriously no matter where they decided to live. No double standard, just common sense.

    January 31, 2012 at 1:46 am | Report abuse | Reply
  7. snookers

    The Judge made his decision based on current law.
    However, I wonder if this law is applied equally. Or only if their are political motives. A standardized English test for candidates should be administered to everybody in that neighborhood.
    I also wonder if their are other folks already in public office who are lacking in English but in political agreement with the Major. From the article, I deduce that if nobody has questioned her command of English and not taken her to Court, she could have run.
    The voters vote for their State legislators who in turn introduce/revise new/ existing laws. . If voters do not like the current law, there are vehicles to change the law by a majority vote. Providing it does not violate Federals laws.

    January 31, 2012 at 1:46 am | Report abuse | Reply
  8. a muslim from Pakistan

    I immigrated few years ago to USA from Pakistan. I found learning English opened the doors of opportunity for me. It did not prevent me from being discriminated but now my children speak American English and and can stand up for their rights.To all Sapnish speaking countrymen, you like or not very soon your children shall speak fluent English and gradually stop speaking spanish. I see no harm if my children dont speak Pakistani language. They can actually learn more about Islam and their culture online which is mostly in English.When we leave our country of origin, we are bound to gain something and loose something..contributions of Spanish speaking Americans are immense.Lets not discard a popular language like English which shall make your contribution more effective. The English,Pakistani language(urdu) and Spanish are taught to us by the same GOD

    January 31, 2012 at 2:08 am | Report abuse | Reply
  9. David Witcraft

    I believe the Civil Rights Act and the Voter's Rights Act of the 1960s will supercede any state or federal statutes from the turn of the century. When poll tests and taxes were eliminated for voters, they're eliminated for candidates too.

    January 31, 2012 at 2:22 am | Report abuse | Reply
    • steve harnack

      Damn right! That ruling will be overturned so fast the the judge's head will spin. Sounds like it's just a power grab by a few good ol' boys.

      January 31, 2012 at 2:50 am | Report abuse |
    • snookers

      I did not read in the article that she might appeal. It would be very interesting indeed though if she would appeal to a Federal Court providing they would accept it..
      So that Arizona law can be tested against a Federal Judge interpretation of the Civil Rights Act and the Voter's Rights Act of the 1960s. I hope a lawyer will step up to the plate(pro bono). The position she want to run for could even be a "non paid" one.

      January 31, 2012 at 3:28 am | Report abuse |
    • snookers

      I wonder what would happen if she wins as a write in. Then her lawyer would have more ammunition to contest in Fed Court. Bet her lawyer is bilingual.

      January 31, 2012 at 4:10 am | Report abuse |
  10. Anonymous

    If we allow her to serve would this be a reverse discrimination to the majority people who only speaks English?

    January 31, 2012 at 2:34 am | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Great Loss

    She should hire "DORA THE EXPLORER"

    January 31, 2012 at 2:36 am | Report abuse | Reply
  12. AckNak

    San Luis is on the US/Mexican border and actually has three sides bordering Mexico. Requiring that citizens speak the Republicans English is like requiring people in Montreal Canada speak the Queen's English. I suspect that while San Luis is an All American city, it's history is as much Mexican as American. I think that it should be a requirement that city officials in San Luis speak fluent Spanish. I'm a white guy and I think it's more important that our elected representatives be able to truyly represent their community than speak any particular language.

    January 31, 2012 at 2:38 am | Report abuse | Reply
  13. rene c

    English is the language of the united states, Spanish is not. If someone wants to live here, speak English.

    January 31, 2012 at 2:41 am | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Connor

    The bottom line: I saw this story on CNN and I have to say this woman is NOT qualified to serve anywhere! She did not understand the questions she was asked and she cannot – in good conscience – say that she is proficient enough. She seems to be the type who thinks that broken English is "enough to get by" and therefore she should be able to get away with it. I come from immigrant parents who struggled to speak English and eventually learned it fluently enough to communicate very well. However, are they running for public office? No. Why? Because even they know that their English isn't good enough for such an important job as public office. Even if it's local, public office is something where you're going to represent the needs of your community. Her community can't possibly ONLY have Spanish speakers; how's she going to represent the English-only speakers who live in her community if she can't understand them or their needs? For goodness sake lady! Remove yourself from this ridiculous legal fight, go to school, learn English fluently, THEN run for office. Right now you are no help to anyone and you're turning this into a "discrimination" fight which it's never been.

    January 31, 2012 at 2:46 am | Report abuse | Reply
    • John Bannick

      She's an American.
      She has the right to run for public office and serve if elected.
      Anything less us un-American, and, frankly, bigoted.

      January 31, 2012 at 4:22 am | Report abuse |
    • Dervid

      I have to agree with John ... if she's an American, she can run ... simple (what if she were deaf and/or mute?)? Let the voters decide. I personally wouldn't let "these people" in the country, but since they are and are given citizenship (which no longer means anything, since they give it to everybody nowadays), live with it. Enjoy your diversity.

      January 31, 2012 at 4:42 am | Report abuse |
    • Chris

      John, Arizona also has a law which says that anyone running for public office MUST be proficient in English. As she did not meet said requirement to run for office, she is not qualified.

      January 31, 2012 at 7:39 am | Report abuse |
  15. Seriously

    Try and pull this stunt anywhere else in the world, in any other country! You'd be thrown out the door. English is the official language of the United States and has been for quite some time. Maybe it's time for this woman to take a little time, put in a little effort and learn to speak English. She might need it when deciphering contracts, laws, speaking with other politicians and U.S. CITIZENS!! And it's not irrational racism to assume that an american politician speak English. If you take that crazy approah then how about you speak whatever language you choose as an elected official.

    I think i'm gonna move to San Luis and once I'm elected, I'm only going to comunicate in Vietnamese or maybe German. Whatever works for me. It's not like I'll be working in the White House. Hope everyone can understand me. If not your probably a racist!!

    January 31, 2012 at 3:24 am | Report abuse | Reply
    • SixDegrees

      Well, no. The US does not have an official language. Not saying I agree with Ms. Cabrera, just that you're wrong.

      January 31, 2012 at 3:49 am | Report abuse |
    • Dervid

      Most countries have an official language, the U.S. unfortuately does not have one. Having said that, even if it did, she would still be able to run even without English, she would just have to hire a translator at her own cost (if legally allowed, pending no secret information) to work. But, the US doesn't, so let her run. Enjoy your racial diversity.

      January 31, 2012 at 4:44 am | Report abuse |
    • GoodPlan!

      6degrees. The US may not but AZ does...and she lives in AZ.

      January 31, 2012 at 7:25 am | Report abuse |
    • Ian

      You're wrong saying that English is the official language of the US. However, English *is* the official language of Arizona.

      Why must the federal government dictate the official language? Leave it to the states like it is now.

      January 31, 2012 at 7:35 am | Report abuse |
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