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. Ricardo Santiago

    She should use this as motivation! I don't see anything wrong with the ruling. I bet Arnold would of never become governor of California if we had high standards as Arizona.

    February 8, 2012 at 11:16 pm | Report abuse |
  2. English is the countries language

    The bigger question is who can someone with such limited English proficiency graduate highschool in the U.S. ? Isn't that the foremost issue ?

    February 8, 2012 at 11:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • webfox

      Seriously? "English is the 'countries' language"? Do you even speak your own language? You're making a mockery of your own point.

      February 8, 2012 at 11:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Allen J. Duffis

      You have hit the nail on the proverbial head! It’s amazing how many here appear to have missed this important point.

      Allen J. Duffis – Editor – The Conservative Independent – http://www.conserveind.com

      February 8, 2012 at 11:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Walnutt

      It is COUNTRY'S, jackazz. Let Texas and Arizona eat each other. Who needs em?

      February 9, 2012 at 12:20 am | Report abuse |
    • RReid

      Our country doesn't have an official language. This ruling makes no sense at all. Her is my source. http://www.strictlyspanish.com/whitepaper2.htm

      February 9, 2012 at 12:29 am | Report abuse |
  3. M Sorenson

    HOW THE HELL CAN YOU BE BORN IN AMERICA, GRADUATE FROM AN AMERICAN HIGH SCHOOL AND NOT SPEAK ENGLISH!!!???
    THIS IS WHAT'S WRONG WITH THIS COUNTRY. TOO MANY FOREIGNERS. SEND THEM BACK TO WHERE THEY BELONG.

    February 8, 2012 at 11:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • nio

      If she was born in this country, where should she be sent back to exactly? Maybe you could bone up on your reading comprehension and logical reasoning skills.

      February 8, 2012 at 11:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • ItsAMirage

      If you had read a little slower, you might read the part where she went to Mexico, then came back to the US. Also, she was born in Arizona making her a US Citizen.......so where are you going to send her back to?! Oh I get it, she MUST BE FROM ILLEGAL ALIENS RIGHT?!!

      February 9, 2012 at 12:28 am | Report abuse |
  4. JC

    Here are just a few politicians with questionable English-speaking ability:

    George W. Bush
    Henry Kissinger
    Sarah Palin

    February 8, 2012 at 11:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Allen J. Duffis

      You make light of a serious and important isue. I can only asume this is due to either your misunderstanding of the issue, or a general lack of intelligence. If it is the latter, please don't vote. In your case to do so would be an act of – terrorism.

      Allen J. Duffos – Editor – The Conservative Independent – http://www.conserveind.com

      February 8, 2012 at 11:44 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Allen J. Duffis

    Let's be reasonable folks. My father was born in Colombia South America, and came to the U.S.A. in 1927 – just in time for the Depression. He like all immigrants at the time understood that to become citizens they had to gain an acceptable degree of proficiency in the language of the land – English. In time he did so and became successful.

    Now we have this new breed of immigrant entering the U.S. who has decided that they should be allowed to partake of the advantages of America – in their native language. All of you who agree with them know that you are – wrong!

    In my father's native country, Colombia, in Mexico, in fact, in all of Latin and Central America – to take part in those countries political system, one must apply for citizenship and – be able to speak the native language.

    Why must 'we' in America be moved counter to that general rule?

    Allen (Alcides) Jacobo Duffis

    February 8, 2012 at 11:37 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Allen J. Duffis

    Let's be reasonable folks. My father was born in Colombia South America, and came to the U.S.A. in 1927 – just in time for the Depression. He like all immigrants at the time understood that to become citizens they had to gain an acceptable degree of proficiency in the language of the land – English. In time he did so and became successful.

    Now we have this new breed of immigrant entering the U.S. who has decided that they should be allowed to partake of the advantages of America – in their native language. All of you who agree with them know that you are – wrong!

    In my father's native country, Colombia, in Mexico, in fact, in all of Latin and Central America – to take part in those countries political system, one must apply for citizenship and – be able to speak the native language.

    Why must 'we' in America be moved counter to that general rule?

    Allen (Alcides) Jacobo Duffis – Editor – The Conservative Independent – http://www.conserveind.com

    February 8, 2012 at 11:40 pm | Report abuse |
  7. lovethedifferentcommentsystemsCNN

    LOLOLOLOLOL

    February 8, 2012 at 11:43 pm | Report abuse |
  8. webfox

    There's a lot to be considered here. If this person were hearing impaired and unable to speak English, but white, this wouldn't have hit the court. She'd get a translator. The real question is what qualifications the translators have to have, because the one interpreting for her can change her opinion based on what they're telling her, and how they're telling it.

    If she can't speaka da inglish, so what? I've read the posts on here, and neither can most of you.

    February 8, 2012 at 11:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sildenafil

      You're comparing a PHYSICALLY IMPAIRED PERSON with an adult who was too lazy to learn English in high school? Unless the deaf person drove a needle thru their ears to be "special", there is NO comparison!

      She is LAZY and you are making excuses for her!

      February 9, 2012 at 3:21 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Alan

    I love Spanish. Hablo español con fluidez. But this is the US, even if its Arizona.

    Frankly, I expect Obama's minions to swoop down on this ruling and eventually everyone else in the city government will have to conduct meetings in Spanish for Ms. Cabrera's sake.

    February 9, 2012 at 12:01 am | Report abuse |
  10. pogojo

    She chose to only know the language of the poorest nation, she should not have a seat if she cannot communicate properly with the language most used in the united states

    February 9, 2012 at 12:06 am | Report abuse |
  11. tcaudilllg

    It's obvious that she is not trying to learn the language because she wants to resist the oppression she is faced with. Let's hope the federal courts get to this case sooner, rather than later.

    As for that judge, he should be faced with a civil rights suit.

    February 9, 2012 at 12:10 am | Report abuse |
  12. midas

    We elected George Bush Jr and he spoke English poorly.

    February 9, 2012 at 12:10 am | Report abuse |
  13. Walnutt

    What's with Arizona? Racist at the core? Insane in the membrane?

    February 9, 2012 at 12:13 am | Report abuse |
    • Beefburger

      How are language skills racist? Are you drinking the liberal kool-aid with the Jim Jones twist?

      February 9, 2012 at 12:37 am | Report abuse |
  14. Jason

    You can't really administer law without being able to understand the language it was written in. This has nothing to do with cultural superiority.

    February 9, 2012 at 12:25 am | Report abuse |
  15. Aly

    This is just another way racist Arizona is keeping minorities feel inferior. First, the Chicano studies and now this? It is up to the people to decide who they want to represent their city. I feel like this is one of those literacy tests state governments would use to keep African Americans from their rights.

    February 9, 2012 at 12:26 am | Report abuse |
    • Relictus

      Every immigrant minority in America learned English ... why is this woman special? Why doesn't she learn the language like my ancestors did? It is an insult that she has lived her life in this country and never developed a good command of the language.

      February 9, 2012 at 12:30 am | Report abuse |
    • Daniel

      Aly, I don't live in AZ, and I have stopped visiting the state because of the pervasive, intolerant atmosphere.If the state feels the citizens should all speak English then the state should prohibit political candidates from airing radio and television ads in Spanish in an attempt to suck in the all important Hispanic vote.

      February 9, 2012 at 3:06 am | Report abuse |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56