City council hopeful: 'My English is good enough'
Alejandrina Cabrera answers questions about her ability to speak English in Yuma County Court.
January 30th, 2012
01:11 PM ET

City council hopeful: 'My English is good enough'

When a judge ruled that Alejandrina Cabrera’s name couldn’t be on the ballot for City Council in San Luis, Arizona, because she couldn’t speak English well enough, it was not only a blow to her, but to her fellow citizens, Cabrera told CNN.

“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 in an interview conducted in Spanish with CNN en Español.

A battle over Cabrera's run for office 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 that asked a court to determine whether Cabrera's skills qualified her under state law to run for the council seat.

The fight began as a purely political one, with opponents seeking to block her from running for office after she tried to recall Escamilla from office twice, according to The New York Times. But it has turned into a firestorm in a town where many constituents have the same grasp of English as Cabrera. Those questions, and the political fight they stirred, led to a court hearing to determine whether Cabrera spoke English well enough to be able to run for office. The ruling was that she did not.

The issues at the center of this debate: Just how much English must you understand to run for a political office? And what does it mean to be proficient?

According to a judge, you need to know more English than Cabrera was able to demonstrate.

But by Cabrera's account, she's fluent enough to serve her community, and she isn't running for national office.

“I think my English is good enough to hold public office in San Luis, Arizona,” she told CNN.

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

When she said her English is good enough for San Luis, she brings up a point that’s been a large part of the debate about her language skills.

In San Luis, 87% of residents speak a language other than English in their home and 98.7% are of Hispanic origin, according to 2010 U.S. Census data.  Most of the people there, by all accounts, speak in English and in Spanish. In the comfort of communal settings, they'll speak the way they're most comfortable.

Which may be why, when CNN en Español asked if she would conduct the interview in English, her lawyer instructed her to speak only in Spanish.

Instead of the confident, strong way she speaks in Spanish to the residents of San Luis, Cabrera speaks a bit more slowly, and perhaps with a bit less conviction, when she switches to English. That's something she admits, but she says that she can communicate at the level she needs to in English, given where she lives. She grades her English proficiency at a 5 on a scale from 1 to 10.

“It is true my English is not fluid, 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 a letter. I can read a book,” Cabrera said. “Right now I have a private tutor helping me improve my English.”

While she’s doing that, Cabrera still feels her language skills are where they need to be.

“From my point of view, it would be more helpful to have someone who speaks Spanish (in San Luis),” she said.

Escamilla, the mayor who began the fight over Cabrera’s skills, notes that many of the other council members are also Hispanic but they are truly bilingual.

“With all due respect for Ms. Cabrera, I think she is a good person, but her understanding in English is not good enough. She struggles to speak it, and she doesn’t understand it,” he said. “All our meetings are in English.”

During the court hearing on the issue, Yuma County Superior Court Judge John Nelson made the ruling after testimony from linguistics experts and Cabrera's own testimony, where she answered questions and read a few documents.

Cabrera, a U.S. citizen who graduated from the bilingual Kofa High School in Yuma, Arizona, was questioned in English on the stand about where she graduated, where she was born and what her name was. She was able to tell her lawyer her name and where she was born, but struggled with what school she had graduated from, according to the Yuma Sun.

Cabrera believes that ruling is stripping her of the her right to run for office. Escamilla believes the court is just enforcing the law.

In 2006, Arizona passed a law that made English the official language of the state. Earlier, 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 lawyers argued in court that her disqualification was unfair and may be unconstitutional, seeing as there is not an actual standard for a specific level of proficiency for a council candidate.

That’s something Escamilla disagrees with vehemently.

“We are not taking Alejandrina’s rights away - we are just following the state law,” he said.

Cabrera believes the mayor and others have taken the issue too far, that she is well-qualified to serve the community she lives in, and that the language testing she was given was at a much higher level than necessary.

“I am not applying for a job with President Obama,” she said. “All I want is to do my job as an activist helping my community.”

Glenn Gimbut, the city attorney for San Luis, says he believes the right decision was made for the people of San Luis.

“The votes of the people who might have voted for her would have been wasted, because they could have voted for someone better prepared to be an elected official,” Gimbut told CNN.

But one resident, Ana Maria Beal, said that someone with Cabrera’s background is exactly the kind of person she’d like to see represent her.

“She is someone who wants to work and worries for our people. That’s the type of person we need up there,” she said. “We don’t want someone who comes from Harvard.”

And that sentiment may be why Cabrera plans to appeal the decision, according to an interview with the Yuma Sun.

“I can't give details about the appeal, but the judge's decision was not just,” Cabrera told the newspaper. “He can't take away my constitutional rights, and if he takes away my rights, he takes away the rights of the community.”

While we’ll have to wait and see what happens with an appeal, one thing is sure: Cabrera’s case has sparked a national debate about whether English should be the official language of the country and also leaves open many questions about the democratic process.

Let us know what you think about Cabrera’s situation and her response to being taken off the ballot in the comments section below.

- Journalist Valeria Fernandez, CNN Español's Gabriela Frias, Fernando del Rincon and Gustavo Valdes contributed to this report.

soundoff (1,720 Responses)
  1. Sammi

    Eiche Wowa

    January 30, 2012 at 2:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Susan Joseph

      For the mayor to bring this to court suggests that he found her sufficiently appealing to the voters and capable to present him with a political threat. If she is so ill equipped, why not let that be a campaign issue? The legal parameters here are fuzzy and the impetuous for the challenge doesn't smell quite right. From what I read, she doesn't require a translator in order to communicate. So she seems to meet the legal standard. I find it frustrating to not be able to communicate with people who have been here for many years and still chosen not to learn English. This does not appear to be her stance and I applaud her. I do believe legal proceedings should be done in English but that's different from saying anyone who speaks less than optimal English should be excluded from the process. If that were the case, many native born Americans who have and are running for President would be excluded.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Chris R

    This is insanity. You people applauding this decision are saying that the government should decide who gets to run for office. That the government should decide who should represent us. I don't know about you but I think that's a job for the voters. If the *voters* don't want her because she can't speak English then that's. If they want to elect her then that's fine. However, not letting the voters have a choice? That's not fine. Some of you seem to be alright with that though.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • George

      "She was asked, on the witness stand at her hearing, where she went to high school. She was unable to answer. Her later explanation to the Times, did not help matters: "My brain, my mind was white. That was my first time in court." By "white", though, she meant "blank". Both words are blanco in Spanish. And a city council is a formal public setting; if she was terrified by a courtroom into speechlessness, it is hard to imagine success on the city council."

      January 30, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lue Blacknell

      I say if haley barbour (ex-governor of Miss.) can run & be a republican politician-ANYONE should be able to run. barbour sound like he has a mouthful of "mess" & w/that southern drawl-I would rather hear a toilet flush.

      January 30, 2012 at 5:31 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Derrick

    What happens if a Spanish only speaking candidate is summoned to testify before a grand jury, or the state capitol, or has to interface with FEMA or a corporation that wants to make an investment and create jobs in the community? A 5th grade command of the English language doesn't work, just as my remedial command of Spanish would not qualify me to run for an administration position in the municipal government of Cabo San Lucas, even though a large portion of the tax paying populus are English speaking Americans. What gives with some in the Hispanic community having absolutely no regard and no respect for the rule of law. It's really disheartening to know that there is an entire swath of the population that does not embrace America and it's cultural norms. Again, when I travel to another country, I don't sneak in, I follow the local visa entry requirements and laws and I certainly don't thumb my nose in the face of their customs and culture.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • qwerty


      January 30, 2012 at 2:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • scott

      Because translators are yet to be invented?

      January 30, 2012 at 2:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sam Smith

      Uhhh, you are making this an immigration issue which is really bogus. This is an education issue. This is a citizen who has graduated from an AMERICAN high school with an English curriculum. She should sue the state of Arizona largely. There are ebonics speakers from the hood in Compton who can't speak English any better. The hills of Appalachia, the swamps of Louisiana, the corn fields of Kansas all have high school graduates who are functionally illiterate. The LAW in this case is similar to POLL TAX laws, it was designed to disenfranchise Hispanic citizens, IMHHO

      January 30, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Report abuse |
  4. speaksEnglish

    Wow, just saw the comments by Jeremy and's an answer for them: LEARN NORTH AMERICAN HISTORY. Fact is, the French governed a big swath of the US as well. SO, if we're even thinking of having 2 official languages, French should be one of them, if you're going by history alone. Just because Spain had a colony in the south doesn't mean that Spanish should be the language of choice. The reason we have one language is simply BECAUSE the founders realized that everyone came from somewhere else. When you come here, you KNOW that Americans speak English.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sam Smith

      Actually, Dutch was the language which was considered by the Americans after the Revolutionary War. I think it was voted on and narrowly defeated... a total break from England was desired by some.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Report abuse |
  5. bobby

    try buying construction material in miami and not know spanish

    January 30, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Report abuse |
  6. AZMAN

    For those of you picking on Spanish speakers, try ordering off a menu in a country that speaks Swahili. Better yet, go and try to order electricity for your home, registration for your car in Swahili or Russian. The problem in this story isn't the Spanish language. The problem is that this lady was the VICTIM of an incompetent school system. She is paying for a sloppy job done by her American high school. This really speaks a lot for the Arizona educational system.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • CommonSense

      No, it’s not an indictment of Arizona schools; it's an indictment of the namby-pamby rules that have been forced upon the schools. “English is too hard; you have to do some/all of the teaching in their native tongue, waa, waa, waa” - at taxpayer expense. She went to a bilingual school, sounds like if they had pushed English a little harder she wouldn't be in this situation.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Report abuse |
  7. M1sf1ts

    If I can't understand you, I am not voting for you.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Draconian

      Well, you do not speak Spanish, so do not vote for her.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Report abuse |
  8. arthur uzo

    The problem with America is that it is become too over the top. Can you speak Americanish oh sorry English

    January 30, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Jonathan

    This is stupid. There is no official language. Let the voters decide.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • Barbara

      Seriously? There is no OFFICIAL language in the US?! Do you realize what you typed?

      January 30, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • jonathan

      In Arizona the official state language is English actually. But yeah I think it's retarted either way considering the majority of people in Arizona speak either/or or both languages.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • English is not America's first language

      Not sure what Barbara is trying to point out, but... English is the de facto national language of the United States, with 82% of the population claiming it as a mother tongue, and some 96% claiming to speak it "well" or "very well." However, no official language exists at the federal level. There have been several proposals to make English the national language in amendments to immigration reform bills, but none of these bills has become law with the amendment intact. The situation is quite varied at the state and territorial levels, with some states mirroring the federal policy of adopting no official language in a de jure capacity, others adopting English alone, others officially adopting English as well as local languages, and still others adopting a policy of de facto bilingualism.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Report abuse |
    • Draconian

      Yes Barbara. There is NOT official language in the USA.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Report abuse |
  10. kiki

    this is ridiculous. America's first language is ENGLISH. Therefore, to represent America, you need to speak the language FLUENTLY. If there is a certain percentage of the audience that is also fluent in another language and the elected official also speaks that, than Bravo. However, these concessions are the types that are being made that suck tax dollars and that only encourage people to not learn the language that is fluently used. When I lived overseas, I learned to speak the language fluently of the country I lived in and did NOT expect to hear their state of the union, drivers liscene exam, etc. to be in English.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • scott

      America's first language was all the native american languages that existed. Then, when Europeans started coming over, it was most likely Italian (Columbus).

      January 30, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • AZMAN

      Kiki, while I agree with having an official government language in America, I must also say that English was NOT the first language of the Americas. Aside from numerous native languages, the first European language spoken inside of modern US borders was Spanish. German, Dutch, and French also competed with English for the common language of the land. If you want to get real technical we must include Russian in Alaska and the Polynesian languages of Hawaii. Its all relative. By the way, this is how you spell "liscene"......l i s c e n s e.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • English is not America's first language

      I guess you're forgetting the Indigenous people who were here first and were forced to give up their language and culture, just like the ones in Australia and other countries that were invaded by the Europeans? Also, the Europeans shipped all their criminals here and elsewhere from their penal colonies, so your so-called America was "founded" by criminals.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Report abuse |
  11. PG

    Not sure how you can be a US citizen, graduate from a US high school and NOT speak clear English. English is a required subject in all high schools, how can you pass English without speaking the language???

    No one is telling people to stop speaking another language, but if people want to be US citizens, it would be nice if they learned to speak fluent English.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • English is not America's first language

      No child left behind is a failure and there are cases of people pushed through the school system who can barely read, much less speak English.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Imported

      It's called "No Child Left Behind". It means that you will graduate regardless of the level of skills you learned (or did not learn) in school...

      January 30, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • CommonSense

      She went to a bilingual school, sounds like if they had pushed English a little harder she wouldn't be in this situation.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Mitch

    If she does not have a command of the language, then she should be ineligible. Time to stop crying racism or some other ism everytime and playing the victim when you do not qualify for a job.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Report abuse |
  13. bookgirl

    Good enough? There we go again, setting the bar as low as possible. If she wants to hold public office, she needs to be proficient in English AND communicate with her potential public in English. People need to know that not knowing English in this country puts them at a disadvantage. Instead of enabling these people, we should be giving them a real incentive to learn it. I, for one, am not learning Spanish just so I can communicate with these people. They may want the official language to be Spanish, but it's not happening. I don't know if they are stupid, or just lazy.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • English is not America's first language

      Isn't it the Republicans who want the bar set as low as possible? Santorum said Obama is a snob for wanting everyone to be prepared for college or a job when they graduate. Hypocritical of him, when he stole Pennsylvania money to home school his kids while living in Virginia.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Report abuse |
  14. drew

    “We don’t want someone who comes from Harvard.” what a hateful bigots.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Report abuse |
  15. ClassyCanada

    You think this is bad... You should visit Quebec!

    January 30, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Report abuse |
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