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. babooph

    Too bad the judge never heard little Bush speak, prior to his....

    February 9, 2012 at 7:04 am | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Realitybites

    Maybe we should allow Mexico to annex this town? It obviously isn't representaive of the rest of the US. 98%????

    February 9, 2012 at 7:10 am | Report abuse | Reply
    • JimfromBHm

      This lady is a US citizen, and a resident of the jurisdiction where she wants to run for public office. Whether we think a person speaks English well enough to represent us is for the voters, not the Courts, to decide. Heck, if you go into the rural counties of my State, you need to know an entirely different dialect to communicate with many folks, but you would never get the state Supreme Court to keep a Caucasian off the ballot. This is discrimination, pure and simple, and I hope she challenges it in the Federal Courts.

      February 9, 2012 at 8:02 am | Report abuse |
  3. S. Santos

    This is an issue of respect. If you were born in the U.S., went to high school in the U.S. and you still lack knowledge of basic English, you do not deserve to represent the people of your city. She dishonors all those Mexican-Americans who have come before and have worked hard to learn English and have worked even harder to become public servants in America's communities. By right she should be allowed on the ballot but we the people, via our collective voices and our right to vote, need to prevent such people from taking office. I being a fourth generation Mexican-American, am quite tired of seeing this type of issue yet it is becoming more and more prevalent in our border regions. I have seen this type of issue first hand while growing up in an area just like San Luis, AZ. This is the United States of America, we speak English here. Show some respect and learn the language.

    February 9, 2012 at 7:17 am | Report abuse | Reply
    • CJ

      Actually its worse than that IMO.

      She was born in the US, then went back to Mexico where she lived till she was 17, then came back to the US so she could get an American diploma. She had been abusing the system from the day she was born.

      February 9, 2012 at 7:24 am | Report abuse |
    • Immigrant's Son

      Exactly. My family came here about 30 years ago, legally, on political asylum during a revolution. First thing everyone did was take free classes in English for refugees and made damn sure they knew the language. My mom went from cleaning houses to learning English and becoming a CPA. All of the kids that immigrated got college educations, and not by the government's dollar either, and pay taxes. It really bugs me to see people disrespect the US's system and language since it's really very accommodating to creating future citizens and tax payers.

      I think the scariest part is seeing an immigrant family speak English much more proficiently than most of my generation's youth...and I'm talking about multi-generational Americans.

      February 9, 2012 at 7:37 am | Report abuse |
    • reality hater

      Thank you for having the moxie to highlight this issue from a Mexican – American point of view, Kudos to you S. Santos !

      February 9, 2012 at 7:45 am | Report abuse |
  4. Dott

    It is about time that people who come here and call this nation home – start speaking our language. They use English only when absolutely necessary otherwise they speak Spanish amoung themselves. My ancestors had to learn the language in order to survive – no one had to learn theirs. The children were forced to use English even though they spoke German. Not so today. Some jobs are not available to Americans unless they speak Spanish. I resent that and hope one day that is a requirement for living in this country. English or go back to your country.

    February 9, 2012 at 7:20 am | Report abuse | Reply
  5. CraigM

    America is an English speaking country, if people do not want to learn English as their first language then they need to return to their countries of orgin. If you want to live in America then you should learn our language, our culoture, our history, and become an American first and foremost!!! If not......then why are you here???

    February 9, 2012 at 7:21 am | Report abuse | Reply
  6. CJ

    I hate it when the fed needs to stick it's noses in out lives but it's about time we set English as the National Language and created a federal competency standard for politicians.

    February 9, 2012 at 7:22 am | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Dott

    By chance can you posters understand what a sore subject this is? I feel many times as though I am in a foreign nation and not in America. It is insanely disrespectfully to speak any language other than English here. If we don't demand it soon it will cease being an English speaking nation. Learn it use it or leave the USA.

    February 9, 2012 at 7:24 am | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Carla

    My mother tongue is Spanish but in the USA I speak English outside my home, it is about time that English should be the official language.
    This woman is ab anchor baby , her Spanish also is poor.
    Enough of granting birth rights to illegal children.
    I came with a legal visa.

    February 9, 2012 at 7:28 am | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Steve

    One language: English. Having lived where some 50 different tribal languages are spoken, I saw the importance of everyone knowing one official language. Some might wish the French or Italians or Spaniards had left their language as dominant here, but it was England. It's a done deal. Nearly every one of us are descended from some nationality other than British. Love your native tongue, learn English.

    February 9, 2012 at 7:31 am | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Scott in Wisconsin

    Keep it up, Republicans, and the only Hispanic vote you'll get is from someone who really doesn't read English, votes, and things "R" stands for "rata" and chooses it as a joke.

    February 9, 2012 at 7:35 am | Report abuse | Reply
  11. A student

    You are looking at this wrong. English is the legal language of the country, like it or not. If ths woman is elected and cannot communicate in english, then she will not be able to work with english speakers. This effectively removes english speaking people from other positions in her office, and that is discrimination! Some will be angry when they understand the truth of this. Would she be elected by the Spanish majority if she only spoke english? No? Because they would be bias against an english only speaker... Come on, I had to learn american english to live and work here, so should spanish immigrants.

    February 9, 2012 at 7:38 am | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Lil Wayne

    dis meen I cant run fo office?

    February 9, 2012 at 7:39 am | Report abuse | Reply
    • wildone

      Wassup wit dat??

      February 9, 2012 at 7:43 am | Report abuse |
  13. Terry

    Brace yourself Arizona, English will soon be in the minority.

    February 9, 2012 at 7:40 am | Report abuse | Reply
    • reality hater

      It already is in this town 98%... Spanish speaking.

      February 9, 2012 at 7:47 am | Report abuse |
  14. wildone

    Arizona is not a part of Mexico no matter how many Mexicans infiltrate it or Mexican-Americans wish it to be so. It is part of the US, and the dominant language spoken here is English. If you don't want to speak the language of the majority of Americans, don't run for political office. Even in places like "Little Italy", "Little Germany" and "Little Ireland" people here spoke English as well as other languages. So if you want to live in "Little Mexico" you should too. Furthermore, how could somebody graduate from an American high school and still not be able to speak English??

    February 9, 2012 at 7:41 am | Report abuse | Reply
  15. GySgtG

    Good for AZ. she should have attended all 4 years of high school and she would be able to speak english

    February 9, 2012 at 7:43 am | Report abuse | Reply
    • reality hater

      Not so true – there are programs that move them through the ranks in Spanish ...ESOL programs in High School – English for speakers of other language- I live in Florida and have lived it first hand...... The tragedy is once Spanish speaking individuals form a community where this is an accepted form of first line communication , the snowball effect happens and down the road you start seeing middle class jobs requiring you to be bi – lingual – this is a form of discrimination that is accepted. You can be an American citizen and turned down for a job in America because you don't speak Spanish. forgive me for being so blunt – but how is this possible ??? I am happy to see this town did the right thing and stopped the perpetuation of this BS – Lets forget about the city business she would be unable to conduct and lets talk about how she would have communicated with the employees in her government office – oh they probably would have been replaced with individuals that were bi-lingual .......by 2030 SPANISH WILL BE THE MOST SPOKEN LANGUAGE IN THE UNITED STATES – its a fact – seen it on GLEE :) ( no I don't really believe sit com wanton story line facts from The idiot box however, it does point out the true fact...there must be a tipping point )

      February 9, 2012 at 8:05 am | Report abuse |
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