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. Randall

    I agree she should not be on the ballot because this is the local law. If the local don't like the law, they can change it.
    BUT, everyone seems to be missing the bigger issue. That is how the local educational system failed. How did this person graduate from Yuma high school and not be fluent in English? This is the language of the land. If the schools are supposed to prepare students for success, the minimum standard should be fluency in spoken and written English.

    February 9, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • jim

      exactly I had to pass English in high school

      February 9, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Report abuse |
    • Zigma99

      The law does not state what the standard is.
      Would you disallow a mute person (one who cannot speak) to not run for office?

      February 9, 2012 at 3:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Randall

      In reply to Zigma99,
      Yes, if the law says fluent in English and a mute person can not read or write English. If the law is flawed, change it.

      February 9, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Report abuse |
  2. jim

    if she's intelligent enough to hold a public office, then she should be able to improve her proficiency , also there is a statute mentioned saying she has to be proficient, so either change the law or have another politician who operates outside the law .....and we all know how much we like that

    February 9, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  3. AJ

    Why is it that the "learn english" issue is only an issue for people speaking spanish? I know a whole lot of asians (a boat load in fact) who were not born here who are very fluent in english. More so than people of "hispanic" descent who were born here.

    February 9, 2012 at 2:59 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • jim

      are they running for public office?

      February 9, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Report abuse |
  4. pasha

    I'm russian and live in new york.I wouldn't even agree with a russian person who barely speaks english running a predominantly russian neighborhood. Because then you're perpetuating the idea that a solid connection should only exist for other russians but anyone else with a language issue is discredited. I cant believe that this article got this many replies. Absolutely not. Ofcourse she shouldnt be in office.

    February 9, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Palacios11

    This ladies rights are being broken even if she can't speak full english you just need people to understand you.

    February 9, 2012 at 3:24 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • Palacios11

      Really no matter your race you should be able to run as long as you are an american citizen.

      February 9, 2012 at 3:28 pm | Report abuse |
  6. quote

    this individual is so ignorant they will tell you why they should not be on the ballet ask her her nationality if she claims anything other then American why would she be representing anything other then what she identifies with Mexican let her represent Mexico

    February 9, 2012 at 3:27 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Emily

    Make all City Council members across the country (North, South, East, West and Middle) take an English grammar/vocab test. We'll see how well they all do.

    February 9, 2012 at 3:30 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  8. thebeerdude

    Hey Papi, I no can understand why they no let this lady run for the councilwoman.

    February 9, 2012 at 3:39 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • saywah?

      Hey beerdude, you're embarrassing the rest of us white guys by acting like a racist 12-year-old in front of his racist buddies. There are plenty of white supremacist dinosaur websites available for you to mock other people to your shriveled heart's content. This isn't one of those sites.

      February 9, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • John

      Part of achieving ones goals is to do the necessary work. Want to hold political office in Arizona? Learn English, then try again. DO THE WORK!

      February 9, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • nomercy101

      I would let her run to the cleaners to pick up the counsilwomens clothes

      February 9, 2012 at 4:28 pm | Report abuse |
  9. John

    Whoah .... VERY dangerous road to go down ... Exactly who will decide whom it is that "speaks English well enough"? I'll make an argument that about 50% of GRADUATING high school seniors wouldn't meet MY standard for "speaking English well enough." 'Nuff said ...

    February 9, 2012 at 3:41 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • useful idiot

      I guess we can start with "someone that can answer a simple question, in English, like 'where did you go to high school'."

      February 9, 2012 at 3:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chubzilla

      Well seeing that the United States of America is an English speaking country, then not being able to speak proficiently should with hold someone from public office.

      February 9, 2012 at 4:39 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Randall

    This whole discussion truly misses the important issue here. The voting law can be changed if it needs to be. The tragedy here that at least one person was able to graduate from a US high school without good English language skills. One wonders how many others there are like her in Yuma and across the country. As an adult, she can and should put forth the effort to correct the problem. If she doesn't see it as a problem, then this is a bigger failure to educate. Changing the voting law and / or letting her on the ballot does not fix her problem.

    February 9, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Report abuse | Reply
    • saywah?

      Did you even read the article? She is quoted as saying that her English needs work and that she has an English tutor. I do, however, agree that it is shameful that American high schools are allowed to graduate students who cannot speak English well enough to make themselves understood.

      February 9, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • FisConSocDem

      I assume there is a provision for the Deaf who use sign language? What's the difference? Only English Speakers who are not Deaf ... where does this go?

      February 9, 2012 at 4:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • Joe

      FisConSocDem, are you trying to make not speaking English a disability? That's kind of absurd. The deaf have no choice in speaking sign language, those that only know Spanish have the ability to correct their inability.

      February 9, 2012 at 4:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bama guy

      There is a HUGE difference between a deaf perrson and a person who can't speak English. The deaf person has a disability and the non-english speaker hasn't made the effort to learn the language of the country of her birth. The high school she graduated from should revoke her diploma if she can't even get on the stand and tell the court the name of the school. I agree with the courts. Learn the language and then run again.

      February 9, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Report abuse |
  11. mvw

    By my count, a large majority of you all cannot communicate clearly in English and yet under this law you'd still be eligible to run for office.

    February 9, 2012 at 3:51 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Joe M.

    "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 couldn't even understand the question of what school she graduated from. I'd call that more than "a bit more slowly".

    February 9, 2012 at 3:56 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Joe M.

    "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."

    And how, may I ask, would she be able to enact legislation and interact with her colleagues? Should they be reuired to learn Spanish because her English is so poor? Ridiculous.

    February 9, 2012 at 3:58 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  14. John

    Part of achieving ones goals is to do the necessary work. Want to hold political office in Arizona? Learn English, then try again. DO THE WORK!

    February 9, 2012 at 3:59 pm | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Jeremy Zimmerman

    this woman is a citizen born here but a person who wants to become a citizen must know english and take a test. How did she get through high school???

    February 9, 2012 at 4:01 pm | Report abuse | Reply
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