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. Onecharrúa

    (This lady reminds me some female characters in the Mexican soaps shown in Canada's hispanic cable TV [which I do not watch]).
    How is the quality of her Spanish? Just good enough to deal with the poorly educated illegal immigrants seeking her help?
    What kind of help can she provide them before any authority if her English is not good enough?

    February 8, 2012 at 10:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bubba™

      This is what happens when you cater to certain groups. She probably pressed #2 every time she used the phone. But notice; there is no option #3,4,5 or6 for any other language.

      February 8, 2012 at 11:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bubba™

      I like to watch the tele- mundo, can't understand a word but the coochie mommies the have show their T&A and shake their booty too. ;-) ;-)

      February 8, 2012 at 11:40 pm | Report abuse |
  2. douglas

    I'm not sure why so many people are confused about what "melting pot" really means. It doesn't mean that everyone comes here and lives as they do in their country and ignore the US. It means, at least to some extent, YOU MUST MELT.

    Everyone uses that term melting pot as if it means immigrants can come and do as they want. They forget what the word "melt" means. If only a little, you must melt for Christs sake. Everyone is expected to understand the language of a country you're in. But as I see it, some immigrants have no respect for the US. They just seem to want their land back. At least this is the message that I see.

    February 8, 2012 at 11:01 pm | Report abuse |
  3. able009

    The problem is even more complex than apparent in this article. The problem is that the teachers in the public schools in the border and in the inner cities can only helf-speak english. They at best speak with good grammar but most of them have an abhorrent accent. I am a spanish speaking immigrant myself (naturalized) and I have a child , I don't want him to have an accent because that will stiffle his potential in the productive society. I hope the American public repudiates this false push towards multiculturalism because some of us that do not fit the stereotype are having to carry the burden of the people that should have stayed in Mexico if they love it so much. Interestingly enough this affirmative action line of thought is making it harder for the productive hispanics. Think for a moment about this: you have a mexican and a norther european, both graduated with the same GPA from Harvard. Whose degree is worth more in the private sector? Affirmative action is ensuring the demise of the Hispanic peoples to secure the second tier in American society. English should be the official language and he who does not like it should leave and affirmative action should also be revisited.

    February 8, 2012 at 11:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • caffeinette

      You make a fair point. "Be proud of your culture and your ancestors, but you've come to forge your own destiny."

      February 8, 2012 at 11:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jim W

      You have got to be kidding me. "An abhorrent accent"? My perfect Yankee accent was modified when I went to a Norwegian-heritage college, and I somehow managed to remain an American.

      February 8, 2012 at 11:21 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Pete the union organizer

    She should probably improve her English, however, she is a US citizen. If she wants to run, she should be able to. If someone running against her wants to point out that she doesn't have a good grasp of the English language and that they may get in the way of her being a good elected official, they can.

    February 8, 2012 at 11:03 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Marlon kevin CIE

    Well, all i can say is that she needs to keep learning english because majority speaks in english. The land also is owned by USA. Maybe in the future she can run again and deliver more fluent english. Even though she can read and understand but she will not be able to deliver speeches in public people will have hard time understanding her.

    February 8, 2012 at 11:04 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Baby J

    I don’t think the privilege to vote is a matter of language. I think the important requirement is to be a legal citizen of a country. Anyway she is running for a City Council in local place where the majority of the citizens’ origin is foreign. You think they should choose someone that can speak English well but from another city? I do not think so. As long as she is a legal citizen and she has the true will to help the people, nothing matters. By the way, I’m neither a local citizen of San Luis nor a citizen of the States. But what I want to say is that if the government faces away from those people, then they are losing the hope of millions of citizens in the whole state.

    February 8, 2012 at 11:04 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Ezra Papasin

    “I am not going to help (at the White House). I will be helping here.” What does it mean? Anyway, isn't San Luis a part of America? Is it going to independent and use other language? Speaking English is an important and necessary part of ability that city council needed. However there many people tries to be a city council. However it is depend on citizen's vote in Democracy.

    February 8, 2012 at 11:07 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Dreadful

    I agree that having good English is quite necessary when running for office, but I also believe that the court's decision was unreasonable. The judge shouldn't have banned her like that.
    In order for someone to represent this group of people effectively, you would need to be able speak Spanish fluently because that is the language the vast majority of people use in that area. The people in the community should have been able to decide. Taking her off the ballot not only takes away her freedom but also the freedom of the voters.

    February 8, 2012 at 11:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • state university student

      Yes, the majority of the people in the town are foreigners who are bilingual. She wants to help who? If someone who doesn't speak Spanish and needing her help, how will they be able to communicate with her? Do they need to hire a translator to translate their confidential information to the Mayor? Maybe she needs to help herself with an improvement in language skills. The current mayor of the town is the one who took her to court. He is a Spanish speaking man who is fluent in English. No one said she can't run again, all she has to do is improving her language skill.

      February 9, 2012 at 12:12 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Steve

    If you choose to run for public office than you need to have the ability to read, write, and comprehend English. Not just some of the time, but all the time. Isn't government already inefficient as it is? Why would you want someone in office that has to pick up a dictionary to figure out the correct pronunciation between through, though, and tough. Yes she may be able to communicate with her voters on their level but how well will she be able to communicate those needs to City Council?

    February 8, 2012 at 11:09 pm | Report abuse |
  10. pretty boy(dex)

    well, if thats the rules, then respect the rules.. i think she need to accept the decision that she's off the ballot. in fact there is always next time..

    February 8, 2012 at 11:11 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Bubba™

    To bad she can't get elected. She could bring some coochie-mommy to the city council. I like the tele-mundo. Can't understand a word they say, but the women show their T&A and shake that booty too. ;-)

    February 8, 2012 at 11:11 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Pete the union organizer

    Nein, Sie können nicht an der Wahl laufen!

    February 8, 2012 at 11:12 pm | Report abuse |
  13. douglas

    The United States is not great because it is made up of different cultures...

    ...it is great because different cultures come here and WORK TOGETHER to make the US better.

    So I have no respect for someone who comes here and doesn't contribute because they ignore the rest of us who's great-great-great grandparents came here and learned the language. I don't understand why some people don't get this. That many people are not against other cultures...they're against someone coming here and trying to make the United States Mexico. It isn't.

    February 8, 2012 at 11:12 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Mr.C

    To be a city council you need proper English to speak to people. That’s why she needs to learn more English to approach to people and to get ballot. Since she cannot speak English, she even cannot speech in front of people. She will get nothing but humiliation.

    February 8, 2012 at 11:13 pm | Report abuse |
  15. HJJazzNY

    No fair...none of the GOP presidential candidates seem to understand or speak the language of the people. Look at Perry, Bachmann, Paul...what the heck kind of sense were they making? Even ol Mr999 had to sing in order to be halfway understood. Language, is cultural, it's regional, it's relative. And Arizona is the pits!

    February 8, 2012 at 11:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • state university student

      Get over it. The GOP or your beloved Pres or the Democrats are all the same. They only vote for what benefits them, the poor, and the very rich. So if you belong to one of these group, you are in good hands and you should love them all. They speak the same language and that is to take as much from the middle class as possible so then can help the poor who can't help themselves.

      February 9, 2012 at 12:15 pm | Report abuse |
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