Arizona woman off ballot after high court agrees her English isn't good enough
Alejandrina Cabrera answers questions about her ability to speak English in Arizona's Yuma County Superior Court.
February 8th, 2012
12:31 PM ET

Arizona woman off ballot after high court agrees her English isn't good enough

A woman trying to run for the San Luis, Arizona, City Council will not appear on the ballot after the Arizona Supreme Court upheld a ruling that her English was not good enough.

Alejandrina Cabrera has been locked in a political battle regarding her proficiency in the English language.  But her story is more than a local election dispute, with possibly widespread implications in a country that prides itself as a melting pot.

In the border town of San Luis, 87% of residents speak a language other than English in their homes, and 98.7% are of Hispanic origin, according to 2010 U.S. census data.  Most of the people there, by all accounts, speak both English and Spanish.

“I think my English is good enough to hold public office in San Luis, Arizona,” Cabrera told CNN en Español in an interview conducted in Spanish.

“I am not going to help (at the White House). I will be helping here.”

Last month, Yuma County Superior Court Judge John Nelson ruled the woman's name should be taken off the ballot after testimony from linguistics experts and Cabrera. A U.S. citizen born in Yuma, Arizona, Cabrera moved to Mexico and then returned to Yuma for the last three years of  school, graduating from Kofa High School.

Cabrera was able to tell her attorney her name and where she was born but struggled with what school she had graduated from, according to the Yuma Sun. After being asked the question three times, without being able to answer in English, the judge allowed Cabrera to leave the witness stand and issued his ruling, the paper reported. In his ruling, Nelson said he wanted to be clear he wasn't saying that Cabrera had an "intelligence" issue but felt she should be removed from the ballot because of her lack of proficiency in English.

Cabrera appealed the ruling to the Arizona Supreme Court, which upheld the lower court Tuesday. CNN has not been able to reach Cabrera, her attorneys and city officials for responses to the ruling.

“It is ordered that the trial court's judgment and orders filed January 27, 2012 are affirmed,” Supreme Court Chief Justice Rebecca White Berch said. “The City Clerk shall not include appellant's name on the March 13, 2012, City Council election ballot. A written decision of this court shall follow in due course.”

At present it's unclear what factored into the justices' decision, but Cabrera's story has caught the attention of people nationwide and sparked a debate about who is best able to represent the people of a certain community.

“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 after the judge's initial ruling.

As Cabrera's story attracted attention, much of the debate centered on two issues. First, some of CNN's readers said candidates for public office should be able to speak English well. But others argued that the people of San Luis could decide if Cabrera was qualified and choose whether or not to vote for her.

The dispute 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 asking a court to determine whether Cabrera's skills qualified her under state law to run for the council seat.

Cabrera admits she isn't the most fluent in English.

Instead of the confident, strong way she speaks in Spanish, Cabrera talks a bit more slowly, and perhaps with less conviction, when she switches to English. She says she can communicate at the level she needs to in English, given where she lives. She grades her English proficiency as a 5 on a scale from 1 to 10.

“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 letter. I can read a book,” Cabrera said. “Right now I have a private tutor helping me improve my English.”

In 2006, Arizona passed a law that made English the official language of the state. Nearly a century before, 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 attorneys argued in court that her disqualification was unfair and may be unconstitutional, saying there is no standard for a specific level of proficiency for a City Council candidate.

“Unbelievable,” John Minore, one of Cabrera's attorneys told the Yuma Sun after the high court ruling. “This is a fine example of judicial activism. Arizona now has a English standard to be on a ballot but doesn't tell you what that standard is. It's amazing that people in government who are in power can spend taxpayer money to keep people off the ballot. This is Hispanics keeping Hispanics off the ballot, compliments of the San Luis City Council.”

The court battle is part of a growing discussion about English in a country where people come from a variety of backgrounds. During a recent presidential debate, GOP candidates said that English should be the official U.S. language and should be the only one taught in school.

Bob Vandevoort of the advocacy group ProEnglish said that the country would be more cohesive if English were made the standard language in government.

"We are concerned as far as government goes; we don't want to see us become a multilanguage nation. We want to see a nation that has one language as far as government is concerned," he said, adding that what people speak at home is a different issue.

Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, said there should be more opportunities to ensure everyone has the resources to learn English. He said there are long lines to get into classes in several cities, with so many people trying to learn English.

But Vargas argues a candidate doesn't necessarily need to have full English proficiency to run for office.

"I think it should be up to the voters to decide what kind of representative they want," he said. "I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to not be able, to not allow someone to present themselves to the voters as a candidate because of their language abilities."

It's unclear what Cabrera's next move may be, but there may still be one way for her to run for the San Luis City Council: as a write-in candidate.

Nevertheless, Cabrera's battle will surely advance the debate about language in America and politics.

Let us know what you think about the issue in the comments below. Do you think the right decision was made?

soundoff (2,004 Responses)
  1. Kim

    As an American citizen, I shouldn't have to speak Spanish to communicate with my leaders. What about the citizens of that community who don't speak Spanish? They shouldn't have to learn another language so someone who cannot effectively use the official language of the state (which is English by the way) run for political office!

    February 8, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Speak English

      Right on!

      February 8, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Deb

      AMEN, this is America and we speak English here. PERIOD!!!! What happens the in the next town and then the next town, NO WAY

      February 8, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ed

      ....The United States does not have an official language. The most widely used is English and Spanish is second but I'm sorry but we do not have an official language.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • OK

      You mean the 1950 people out of a population of 15,000?

      February 8, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jason B

      @Kim: Do you live in that town? 87% of residents speak another language and 98.7% are Hispanic. Get off your high horse. If the people in the community do not think she's fit to serve than they won't vote for her—that simple.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • octopus

      good decision.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Carmellia

    Not so, Songlian Chen, not so.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Speak English

    Maybe she should move back to Mexico.....

    February 8, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ed

      she was born in the US, maybe you missed that part.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • James

      She's an American citizen, and you should go back to Mongolia, there you can be the funny guy and have all the women u ever desire... pack up ur Pabts and beef jerky and get it done!

      February 8, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • AZ guy

      She was born in the US (Anchor Baby?) , then she moved back to Mexico, where she grew up and went to school, then she moved back when it was convenient.

      Budweiser and McDonald's pander to these people, Billboards down here are all in Spanish.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Speak English

      Maybe you should actually READ the article Ed.......you know, the part where she moved to Mexico and then back to AZ.....DB

      February 8, 2012 at 3:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ed

      .....while she was in school. She's been long out of school. It doesn't change the fact that she was born here and is a better representation of the local population than the Mayor seems to be.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Speak English

      What does when she moved matter? If she wants to speak Spanish then go back to Mexico.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:26 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Ydnar

    I wasn't aware that to run for office that speaking English or having being able to in a fluent manner (which can be a loose term) is a requirement to run for any office. I thought it was the US citizen, certain age, etc that dictated those requirements.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • banasy©

      In AZ, English is the official language of the state.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Think more next time

      In order to effectivily do the job you need proper communication skills. Something she clearly doesnt have.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • read the article please

      No, for many places it isn't. However, your list is a little low on the requirements, usually it is live in the region you want to represent (for whatever level, you can't represent a congressional district and live out of it, or a city council living outside the city for instance), and you have to follow any other laws or qualifications the state/city/county/etc has placed on that job besides the over all federal rules. In the state of AZ, the official language is listed as English, the US doesn't have an official language, but it also doesn't say states can't declare one, because of that, state and city business in AZ is to be conducted in English, thus the requirement that a person running for office in that state must speak English.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Aunt B

      Read the article:

      "In 2006, Arizona passed a law that made English the official language of the state. Nearly a century before, 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.

      "

      February 8, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kathy

      As English continues to be the official language of this country elected officials of this country should be proficient in the language. If she desires to become elected that badly then she should become proficient before she places her name on the ballot. If she prefers to speak Spanish, then she should attempt to become an elected official in Mexico as from my understanding that is the official language of that country.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Taysha

    Funny, I'm perfectly fluent in English AND Spanish, being a native Spanish speaker. Not really a hardship. If you can't be bothered to speak well the official language of the country you live in, I have doubts about your dedication to that country.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bilingual? I doubt it.

      1 – She was born here
      2 – She has lived in the US her entire life
      3 – There isn't an official language in the US

      February 8, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Taysha

      Te aseguro que puedo hablar ambos idiomas perfectamente.

      I wasn't born in this country and I can do it. What's her excuse?

      February 8, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • geek in the pink

      WOW! you should run for office!

      February 8, 2012 at 3:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Taysha

      Um, geek? You missed the "I wasn't born in this country" bit, didn't you? Reading comprehension, tsk tsk.

      Politics give me hives.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:37 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Engrish Major

    Go back to china beee otch!

    February 8, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Report abuse |
  7. jacob0441

    Hispanic – 22,209 (94.2%)
    White alone – 873 (3.7%)
    Black alone – 353 (1.5%)
    American alone – 109 (0.5%)
    Two or more races – 20 (0.08%)
    Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander alone – 9 (0.04%)
    Tihis is the population of San Luis, in a city of just over 25,000, it would appear that she will represent the majority of this city. A US citizen who doesn't speak fluent english, but can read, write and understand, what's the issue???

    February 8, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Speak English

      English is the issue. If she wants to speak Spanish she can move back to Mexico.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Alexander

      Sounds like a place I would never want to live.

      February 9, 2012 at 12:25 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Shawn

    In full agreement. To work at a job – you must be fully capable of communicating with your co-workers (both speaking and understanding). Why is this even a story?

    February 8, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Speak English

      Because all the bleeding hearts start whining that it's not "fair"........

      February 8, 2012 at 3:35 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Rick

    I agree with the decision. If you're going to hold a public office in the United States then you should at least be proficient in English. This is not a matter of intelligence – I'm sure she's very intelligent. I lived in another country for a couple of years and I made it a point to learn their language as best I could – I didn't expect them to accommodate my spoken language. BTW – I am a democrat on the left.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Report abuse |
  10. THETERP

    There comes a time when ones ability to speak the English language fluently and clear/y should be consider and I believe this is one of them. As for passing English in high school, if any of you remember the Sport Illustrated article about athletes that graduate from college and can’t pass 9th grade reading and writing you’ll realize you don’t have to know anything to graduate. This goes on all over the country to make the school and teacher look good.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Report abuse |
  11. barbara

    How did she ever get a HIgh School degree?!

    February 8, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Speak English

      They got tired of trying to understand her broken English so they just passed her along.......

      February 8, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bruce

      The high school she went to had Spanish-speaking teachers.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tired of you

      @Speak English – sounds like that's what happened to you.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Speak English

      @Tired of you......Ha Ha! I bet you're the funniest kid on your short bus.......

      February 8, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tired of you

      @Speak English – You have me beat with sheer experience of being that person

      February 8, 2012 at 3:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • Speak English

      I know it must be painful for you to be a failure in this life......there's alway a bridge you can jump off.....

      February 8, 2012 at 3:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • Carmellia

      Shhhh. It is high school diploma, not degree. JFYI.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:30 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Engrish Major

    Maybe when Obama grants citizenship to all the illegals they can vote her as El Presidante! Then we would just be Mexico's fancy hat.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Matt

    Multiculturalism has failed. European leaders have said as much. A stronger country is one with common language, common customs, and common heritage. Although the US has been called the "melting pot" it really hasn't behaved that way, and has been a stronger country in the past because of it.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • OhFudge

      It's the melting pot, but we have to have a common language for us to be strong. We can't be strong with multiple languages. We've become weak because of this "lets print everything in everyone's language" BS. Really. My ancestors had to learn English, my mother is from Europe and English is her second language. She did what she had too. We baby to many people from other countries. We are destroying ourselves.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • melting pot works, not melting is the problem

      We were fine when the melting pot was melting, when people were americans, and we had american traditions, and we all spoke the same (or a similar) variant of the same language for buisness/government functions no matter what we spoke at home. The problem came when we got all the hyphens in our descriptions, stopped melting, started trying to create different traditions for each group, and allowed the powers that be to divide us so that we battle ourselves instead of working together to better ourselves.

      A country with the citizens united in one cause of bettering the nation is unstoppable, a country divided into small fractured groups is unsustainable.

      February 8, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Report abuse |
  14. OhFudge

    Did anyone see that the mayor of this town is the one who did this...and is Hispanic...so if a Hispanic tells another Hispanic that their English isn't clear enough to run for office, it's ok. LOL, WOW.

    February 8, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Report abuse |
  15. snowdogg

    "...returned to Yuma for the last three years of school, graduating from Kofa High School."

    So she didn't actually learn English in high school?

    February 8, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Report abuse |
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