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. Ivy League White Guy

    Well, my English is good enough and with it I can tell you that you are an idiot and a bully. If you are a parent, someone should take away your children before they grow up to be bigots like you. Shame on you, bigot.

    January 31, 2012 at 5:25 pm | Report abuse |
  2. John

    This poor lady is very sincere in wanting to help the people in her community and isn't wanting to rip them off and abuse her power as so many other politicians today are doing. I'll guarantee you that she would be far more honest and her integrity is much better than any of the republican candidate of today. seriously?

    January 31, 2012 at 5:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Iamsoashamed

      right!!! living here in the sunny south and seing first hand the corruption from these no speeekeee your language types sums it all up down here, they come from a corrupt culture and they live one, either acclimate to the country who has taken you in, allowed you to prosper, or as many have chosen go back home, here is not for jus.

      January 31, 2012 at 7:57 pm | Report abuse |
  3. LSanchez

    Oh please!!! What a total waste of tax payer money! Who is to say that her english is not good enough! I have worked with people who speak eubonics, jersey, baston and new yok ....ghetto english!!! yet this has been perfectly acceptable forms of "english".... employers a constantly seeking people who speak spanish. This is a country that voted in a hic from TX who constantly slaughtered the english language...i don't recall anyone telling him he could run for office!!! A bilingual Texan Mexican & AMERICAN!!

    January 31, 2012 at 5:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • Scott4025

      Sanchez – I think you are missing the point. All of the other examples you listed are forms of English, though misguided and uneducated they may be, and not a completely different dialect. No one is questioning this woman's good intentions to do right for the town she is from, but the fact remains that all of the council meetings are conducted IN english and each person must be able to communicate without the aid of an interpreter. It's been the law since Arizona was inducted into statehood. She may mean well but her inefficiency in understanding and speaking English would hinder her effectiveness at this position. I don't see why she doesn't just work hard on her English and run at a later time – problem solved!!

      January 31, 2012 at 7:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • mike

      i agree, if your neighborhood is packed with a bunch of idiots why not have an idiot in office. worked for harlem.

      February 1, 2012 at 4:59 am | Report abuse |
    • marycontrary

      Companies are constantly seeking employees who speak Spanish because of the need to deal with all the workers that DON'T speak ENGLISH. I'm a hiring manager. I know what I'm talking about.

      February 1, 2012 at 11:16 am | Report abuse |
  4. Speckly

    There seem to be a lot of people responding who know nothing about the reality of life in the Southwest. This is not "your" America; America is more diverse than you can conceive of, and Spanish has been spoken there since before Jamestown or the Pilgrims. English was imposed at the point of a bayonet, after the unjust war of 1846-48, fought mostly by Southerners so they could expand slavery.
    There are 3 sad things here:
    1) The bigotry of some of these postings
    2) The quality of high school education not just in Arizona, but in the whole country
    3) The fact that the whole scandal was created by a Latino mayor to disqualify a Latina candidate in a town which is almost 100% Latino

    January 31, 2012 at 5:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Scott4025

      It's a bit melodramatic to say that English has only been imposed forcefully over time. America has had one the largest open-door policy for immigrants in recent history and welcomes people from nations from all over the world to enjoy the liberties our country affords. The price – learn it's nationally recognized language. Not rocket science and it's not put there to make things harder for immigrants, but to help them function better in American society.

      January 31, 2012 at 7:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ana Sofia

      Speckly, thank you thank you! Finally someone listing and understanding the 3 main points of this situation. Why is it that people always respond with offensive comments about other people? But you just hit it RIGHT! How proficient are the Mayor and Council members in this town?

      January 31, 2012 at 8:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • mike

      yes, spanish was spoken until sam houston destroyed your drunken army and ran you back across the river, where you should have stayed

      February 1, 2012 at 4:53 am | Report abuse |
    • Beverly

      First of all, it is illegal for southwestern states conquered during the Mexican American war to be deprived of the right to use Spanish as an official language. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo guaranteed residents living in the conquered territories the right to use Spanish as an official language to retain their property and participate in government. Of course, the United States and it's citizens have never been one to follow the law (the laws of this country only apply to immigrants unless the laws are fair to and help protect immigrants or Native Americans and then they are either not enforced or rescinded.)


      Also, the Irish were/are the true invasion. During the Potato Famine, the percentage of Irish immigrants exceeded the percentage of Latino immigrants and there are still a number of illegal Irish immigrants in the US today.

      As to stupidity...did you know that being bi or multilingual greatly enhances learning capacity and intelligence. Oh I guess I didn't really have to point that out–just read some of the above comments...

      February 1, 2012 at 1:19 pm | Report abuse |
  5. gahh

    It's America, speak english. If you want to speak spanish, go back to Mexico, and take all your spanish speaking buddies with you. You people want to take over America, and make Mexican the official language of the US.

    January 31, 2012 at 7:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ed Portan

      I agreed, she may have good intentions, but should wait until she learn better English and this should have been the same for Obama (wait to learn to be a better leader, good intentions are not good enough)

      January 31, 2012 at 11:46 pm | Report abuse |

      We are not going to back to Mexico. On the contrary, Hispanics will be the majority. Would you like for us to send you a "time to go back to redneck land" when this happens? Mexican is not a language. You should have paid more attention in school. Your comments are the same racist, ignorant comments that every redneck hater spews. Nothing original about what you had to say. We are so used to bigots like you telling us to go back to Mexico, that we are nothing but this and that, hateful comment this and hateful comment that. But nothing you or the likes of you say will stop us. This is our home, too, and we will fight for our rights.

      February 3, 2012 at 1:32 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Speckly

    It's not melodratic to say English has been imposed forcefully. Native Americans and Mexicans were CONQUERED. There were laws forcing them to learn English in schools. And when there weren't laws, social pressure would do. German was once widely spoken, taught in bilingual schools, and printed in newspapers in the US until World War I made it un-American to use German. And everyone who's worried about Mexicans "taking over" the US should know that in most of the country, the second generation is EMBARRASED to speak Spanish because of social pressure, and the thrird generation forgets it completely.
    The fact is, Cabrera already knows more of her second language than any "real" Americans will ever learn.

    January 31, 2012 at 8:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ivy League White Guy

      Although I don't agree with some of your generalizations, in my experience some of the insights you share about Hispanics in the US are true. The issue is that the American educational system promotes the dumbing of minorites. Hispanics in the 1960s fought hard to stop the discrimination, but even today, in places like Tucson, AZ, the racist elements of the white majority try to take away our language, our history, our culture. They already took away our land, now they want us to be less than them, trying to convince us that Spanish is a lesser language than English, that we are not qualified and depend on Affirmative Action to get an education, that we do not deserve to live in America because we are all illegal aliens. Let's show this bigots what we are made of. Let's start by voting to stop them from returning to the White House. Oh, one more thing, MIKE, you are a BIGOT.

      February 1, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Report abuse |
  7. T. Nel

    Having English as my second language, I believe I have an idea on this subject (although Spanish is not my native language). It seems that this is becoming an immigration subject 🙂 I strongly believe that the aspirant to the city council SHOULD be very proficient in English, as well as in Spanish. If she's so inclined to serve her fellow citizens or non-citizens, her bi-lingual skills are a must, if she wants to bridge the language gap (or break the language barrier). I would prefer that the person wishing to represent me speaks MY language but also English to convey my wishes, problems to the rest of the city council. How would she do that, if she can barely make a full sentence in English...?!

    January 31, 2012 at 10:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • marycontrary

      You nailed it. BILINGUAL skills is what this lady needs in order to serve in that capacity. She can only speak Spanish. She is not qualified to fill that position. Done.

      February 1, 2012 at 11:19 am | Report abuse |
    • Todd

      Key word...Bilingual. She doesn't speak, understand English which doesn't qualify as Bilingual.

      February 1, 2012 at 1:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ivy League White Guy

      MARYCONTRARY Please tell me where you work so I can file a discrimination lawsuit against you. How many minority candidates for a job have you discriminate against?

      February 1, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Report abuse |
  8. rbgntx

    I am curious why she tried to have the Mayor recalled twice because I believe that is at the root of this dispute more than her English skills. Frankly Mr. Escamilla, the mayor, is not completely on top of English judging from the quote of his in the Dallas paper regarding this story. He expressed concern he might be opening a "box of Pandora" in filing the case.

    January 31, 2012 at 10:50 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Gravy Boater

    I thought this was a free country. Can't we vote for whoever we want to?

    February 1, 2012 at 1:34 am | Report abuse |
  10. Ivy League White Guy

    FYI This is America...we speak, read, and write in several languages and promote intellectual growth and diversity! Don't like it? Go hide in a cave with the Taliban.

    February 1, 2012 at 2:41 pm | Report abuse |
  11. TKO

    The most unbelievable thing I find about this woman is the fact that she has spent numerous YEARS living in the USA, and she can't put together a coherent sentence in spoken English. How is this possible? Why the complete lack of motivation to learn the language that we speak…or is it just pure laziness?

    I had a friend move here from Germany, and when she arrived, she had zero English skills. In less than one year, she was very functional with the language…in two years, she was damn near fluent. What's the difference between these two women? Is my German friend smarter or more intelligent than Ms Cabrera? Of course not. My friend had the motivation and the desire to assimilate into the American way of life. My friend wanted to be able to function in American society without any barriers. Where is Ms Cabrera's pride as an American citizen, and her desire to assimilate? I don't see it.

    February 1, 2012 at 3:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • Speckly

      How do deduce a lack of pride in being an American citizen from somebody not wanting to assimilate? What you really want is for her to be exactly like yourself. She's from a predominantly Mexican-American city, and has already "assimilated" to the local culture. Not everywhere in the US speaks English, you know.

      February 1, 2012 at 6:17 pm | Report abuse |

      The whole "my German friend" and that "lazy Mexican" comparison did not help your cause, TKO. Your German friend is coming from another continent to a country that is not her own. The woman you label as lazy is a US citizen in a region of the country that is historically Spanish dominant. Please think before you start making comments that make you sound like a bigot.

      February 1, 2012 at 7:47 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Joe

    @the ghost of cesar chavez
    Its worth pointing out that Chavez had a working understanding of English and was truly bilingual. What don't these people understand? Ms Cabrera is an American citizen by birth, yet shes spent most of her life in Mexico because of the lower cost of living (anchor baby much?) she returned to the US to graduate from a bilingual high school, because obviously the American school was better than the ones in Mexico. And now shes mad because she cant speak english and is barred from the ballot? Maybe she should of worried about her english proficiency when she was speaking spanish in high school and making no effort to assimiilate to our culture. She cant speak the language she cant run for office, whats so difficult here? Its really frustrating how these ingreatful Mexicans continue to try to warp our nation. Yes, America is a melting pot, but that only works when the immigrants melt (i.e. learn the language, assimilate into the culture).

    February 1, 2012 at 5:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Speckly

      How are they being ungrateful? How are they "warping" our nation? Please describe your idea of what our nation is and stands for in more detail.

      February 1, 2012 at 6:10 pm | Report abuse |

      So "ungratefull Mexicans" are trying to "warp our nation"? Dios mio. To begin with, Mexicans don't have to be grateful to the likes of you. Secondly, whether you like it or not, we did not leave when you invaded Mexico in 1867 and we are not going to leave now, so get use to the idea of hearing a lot of Spanish and being bombarded with a lot of Mexican culture. As far as we are concerned, this is our country to, yes a country that we share with whites, blacks, and many other Americans, but that's great as long as one group doesn't start pulling the English Only – Love or Leave It racist nonsense. You also make several generalizations that are very offensive. You state that American schools are better than Mexican schools. Really? What data do you have to support that? Do you hold a PhD in Education? Have you conducted international studies and done research to validate your racist put downs? You also talk about America being a melting pot, but you sound like that metaphor only applies when English as a dominant language and white values come out as the dominant flavor. Sorry to burst your English Only bubble, but NO. We have a strong culture and language and we don't have to submit to you or anybody. English is a useful tool and it helps both cultures meet in the middle, but it is about time that you start learning Spanish and start treating us with respect. One more thing: There is no way a Republican is winning the elections. Hispanics won't allow it.

      February 1, 2012 at 7:43 pm | Report abuse |

      To quote Joe "Cesar Chavez had a working understanding of English and was truly bilingual." Oh boy, the arrogance and superiority complex of some people is beginning to annoy us very much. Look Joe, get over yourself and your romance with the white race and understand that we do not to be validated by you or told who is a "good" or "intelligent" Mexican and who is not. This lady is a US citizen, she has the right to run for office. Arizona is a racist state for trying to violate her rights.

      February 1, 2012 at 7:52 pm | Report abuse |
  13. what upsets me

    yeah if shes been here for some time she should be able to speak english. what i dont understand is that the influx of spanish speaking individuals are in the us and either refuse to learn it or try but quit and want us to learn it? ive hd that happen in my own city and learning new things is great, it opens your mind, etc im all for it but wouldnt you think this would be expected if an english speaking person who came into a spanish speaking country to run for a political office should speak their language? at least somewhat enough they can do things in office? granted its not fair what she is going through but as with any other opportunity that is given or shown to anyone, you need to be one is going to come to your level if you dont have the "credentials" someone else needs from you.

    February 1, 2012 at 5:49 pm | Report abuse |

      You sound moderate in tone and this helps you get your point across. Yes, as Hispanic-American, I can understand how a member of a racial/cultural majority who is willing to coexist with a racial/cultural minority would feel "upset" that members of that minority would not make the effort to assimilate and learn the language of the majority. But try to see it from our point of view. We are not a minority because we choose to be one. We are a minority because two racist white presidents (that would be Presidents Polk and Roosevelt ) invaded Mexico and fought Spain. As a result of these two wars, Hispanics became minorities in their own lands (not in Puerto Rico, that is another issue). So know, the white majority attacks our culture (Arizona is doing away with Mexican-Amerian studies in its high schools), bashes on our language (Newt has expressed that Spanish is the language of the ghetto), and tries to attack our communities through racial profiling (see example of 4 Conneticut cops arrested for harrassing minorities), deportations, and underperforming schools. To be fair, yes, new immigrants should learn English, but when a community's majority is Spanish speaking, then the argument that a Spanish speaking US citizen can not participate in the democratic process and run for office is invalid. Arizona does not have the right to erase our language and keep our people from learning about the history of our community in the US or from participating in the democratic process of our communities. So, in summary, I can see why you are upset, but please see why we are upset. We are tired of bigotry.

      February 1, 2012 at 7:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Speckly

      Many if not most immigrants are trying hard to learn English and meet Anglos more than halfway, but it's difficult. Many communities offer no English classes, or use them as bait to join a church, or only offer one level so that people can never advance beyond the basics. And high schools don't always help Latino kids learn English–in fact, they're so obsessed with the idea that students without perfect English will drag down the all-important test scores that they'll claim these students have discipline problems and send them to detention, or try any trick to not include them in the group being tested.
      The failure lies much more with the education system than with immigrants supposedly not wanting to learn English. They come for a better life for themselves and their kids, and if they can't learn English, they sure want their kids to.
      Oh and to repeat, Cabrera is not an immigrant.

      February 1, 2012 at 8:32 pm | Report abuse |
  14. ORKim

    I can appreciate that Ms. Cabrera's life history likely makes her an ideal candidate to represent her community and admire that she is actively involved in her local democratic process (which is more than can be said for a majority of Americans). However; I work in local government. My Board is often involved in analyzing legal documents, state legal statutes and a multitude of federal regulatory requirements. Most of them are produced by attorney's or highly educated technical specialists. This is not the same as reading the evening newspaper. The board must then debate and discuss their positions on the related issues and develop policy that guides the operation of our organization. All of this is recorded in the "public record" and is available to anyone anywhere in the nation. There is no way that a government can effectively operate unless there is consistency in the language in which it conducts its business, unless the entire country is bi-lingual. As that is not the situation in this case, it seems like the judge made a prudent decision to assure that the candidates for a government position are qualified to effectively carry out the business of the community. To me, this isn't about race, or ethnicity or country of origin. This about having a candidate with the necessary prerequisite skills to accomplish a task. There's a lot of folks who seem to have lost sight of that.

    February 1, 2012 at 9:47 pm | Report abuse |

      ORKim You arguments sound reasonable and you sound moderate and respectful of minorities rights. Nevertheless, if she is a US citizen, it should be up to voters to decide if they trust this individual to rise to the challenge and take on the responsibility of representing their interests. This is a matter of race because of the circumstances that surround the conflict. Arizona has become a very radical state and it seems some local Republican officials are waging a political war against the Hispanic minority. Did you know that neither Cesar Chavez nor Daisy Bates, both Civil Rights Leaders of the 50's and 60's, went beyond the 8th grade? What if the next law Arizona passes is that you must have finished high school or college or have a certain degree of assets to be eligible to run for office? You and I both know that in reality the state does not have to pass such a law because it would be very unlikely that a person fitting this description could be elected, but my what I am trying to point out is that the system is very good at marginilizing minorities and blocking them from participating in the democratic process, whether because the state does a poor job at educating its citizens or because it passes laws that discriminate against them for one reason or another. I have read your arguments, but no argument can justify discrimination. Shame on Arizona.

      February 3, 2012 at 1:05 pm | Report abuse |

      I disagree with you. Your arguments seem valid and your tone conciliatory, but the bottom line is that pragmatism can not justify discrimination. You express that race does not have anything to do with this issue. This is happening in Arizona. Of course racism is an issue here. I understand that the politician blocking this young woman from running for office is Hispanic. This fact does not escape me, but it is a culture promoted by racist republican radicals that is looking to further marginalize minorities and discriminate against them, stripping them of their political rights. Cesar Chavez and Daisy Bates, both great Civil Rights leaders, did not go beyond an 8th grade education. Would a Republican politician have tried to strip away their rights in Arizona if they were alive today? Absolutely. Shame on Arizona.

      February 3, 2012 at 1:10 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Jyru

    A little maaybe?

    February 1, 2012 at 10:13 pm | Report abuse |
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