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. Manuel the watier

    Funny, what she actually said was "una col se ha quedado atascado en mi eliminación de residuos" which isn't Spanish for 'My English is good enough' as far as I know

    January 30, 2012 at 3:19 pm | Report abuse |
  2. newsie

    castigat ridendo mores
    can I has the Latin vote now?

    January 30, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • simbaloco


      January 30, 2012 at 3:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • simbaloco

      I mean, this not English... y tampoco espan-ol (o castellano, lo que uds. prefieran)

      January 30, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Speak English

    If she had proper grasp of the English language she would have known to use "Fluent" not "Fluid"

    “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.”

    January 30, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • sneb

      I'm pretty sure fluid is the word she was looking for. As in she can speak english, but it doesn't flow smoothly, i.e. fluid

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

      It appears from the article that this is a translation of what she said in an interview in Spanish, so blame the translator. Perhaps you should take an English class to improve your reading comprehension. Otherwise, we may have to disqualify you from holding elected office.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • NFH

      Re-read the article. What you're quoting is a translation from her interview, which was conducted in Spanish. Even so, if she had in fact said 'fluid' in English, she would have been correct. She wasn't talking about fluency, she was talking about fluidity, which is the ease and naturalness with which one speaks a language. On a related note, good job pointing out your own deficiencies in the English language.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:37 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Newt

    She can put her name on the ballot for Major in the moon!! 🙂

    January 30, 2012 at 3:21 pm | Report abuse |
  5. mousedreams

    I'm gonna sneak into Mexico and try to pull this ... end up in jail within an hour. SHE CANNOT POSSIBLY HAVE A VALID GREEN CARD or actually have gone to school in the US, RIGHT?!?!?!?

    January 30, 2012 at 3:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • dave

      she is just proof of how great American teachers are

      January 30, 2012 at 3:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kay

      She's a citizen, for crying out loud. She doesn't need a green card. And she went to a bilingual school in Yuma. Too bad *your* English reading schools are so poor.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kay

      And my typing skills 🙂

      January 30, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Report abuse |
  6. ann west

    have you people ever heard southern trash try to talk?

    January 30, 2012 at 3:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • dave

      What ax me again

      January 30, 2012 at 3:28 pm | Report abuse |
  7. David B.

    Not only should you have to speak English well to be in political office, you should have to pass a political test. I am sick of this country voting in people who just happen to be the most popular.

    January 30, 2012 at 3:24 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Norse1990

    What if this candidate was deaf or blind? What if this candidate spoke English but had a severe speech impediment? Should a judge rule on these types of conditions as well? Or perhaps, maybe, we should allow the voters to be allowed to decide if her English (or lack there of) prevent her from successfully fulfilling the duties of the office.

    January 30, 2012 at 3:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • jsf12

      Under the existing laws, those conditions would place an extra burden on the surrounding portions of government that we as a society have chosen to place. That hypothetical official's communication handicap might be every bit as expensive to accommodate as a non English speaker, but the law says the government must accommodate the handicap and not the lack of English fluency.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Veronika

    If Cabrera is really as determined to serve her community as she claims, why not pour that determination into improving her English proficiency? Then she can run in a future election. She claims that she is being discriminated against, however, she is also discrediting the other candidates who have a skillset which she does not. Communication is a key part of the job of a politician, no matter how big or small the office. If she is unable to effectively communicate, she won't be able to do her job as effectively as someone who can, no matter how good her intentions are.

    If she overturns this ruling, imagine the trickle effect it will have nationally. There will be more frequent claims by others of discrimination. It's a job with a salary. If you don't meet the requirements outlined by law, you shouldn't be able to get the job. Period.

    January 30, 2012 at 3:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ravenn Klaw

      "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."
      If communication is what is important, why cater to 13% of the population? Just saying.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Engrish Major


    January 30, 2012 at 3:25 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Dakota2000

    If she learned English (with a private tutor instead of paying her lawyers) she could get elected and then try to change this unjust law. Her approach seems ineffective.

    January 30, 2012 at 3:25 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Barbara Hallbourg

    Arizona has designated English as its official language. A proficiency therefor is a requirement. Period. No debate. The judge is absolutely correct. She needs to wait till she has the required proficiency, then run for office. No Problem!

    January 30, 2012 at 3:27 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Dennis

    No where in this article does it say that Cabrera was an immigrant.
    "Imported" notes that as an immigrant he was required to be proficient in English to obtain a visa.
    It seems safe to assume that either she must be a native born citizen, or that the requirements for public office are somewhat higher than those for a visa?

    I guess this must be one of those activist judges that the tea partiers are forever on about.

    January 30, 2012 at 3:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • dave

      did your read the article - it is a state law

      January 30, 2012 at 3:30 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Pedro McNorights

    We have been silently invaded from the south as per the plan set into motion over a hundred and fifty years ago. Living in Texas I can testify the damage that illegal immigration has wreaked on out nation and those American that live in parts of the country that do not see the destruction of our way of life need not comment or call opponents of Mexican culture racists. Being American is not a race, it is our Birthright and there vile criminal from below the Rio Grande have successfully returned this once great nation to a third world country. Toss that non english speaking hussy back across the river as this is an english speaking country. ALL other immigrants absorb our culture and abide by the notion that a single language is the backbone of successful governing in a civilized world.

    January 30, 2012 at 3:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kay

      Written by someone who obviously slept through all his Texas history classes.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Report abuse |
  15. TH

    The last time I've checked. The United States of America does not have an official language!

    January 30, 2012 at 3:28 pm | Report abuse |
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