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. shawn

    at least she is honest, her english is not fluid

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


      January 30, 2012 at 3:42 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Trek *20

    English as the country's official laguage for business would settle this problem.

    January 30, 2012 at 3:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Joe from Bflo

      Bood think this standard wasn't applied to George Bush!

      January 30, 2012 at 3:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Joe from Bflo

      Good think this standard wasn't applied to George Bush!!

      January 30, 2012 at 3:36 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Nick

    It doesn't matter what you or I think. If she meets the written requirements then she should be able to run for office.

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

      Not necessarily. The primary language of the United States is English and all laws are written in English. They aren't blocking her because she has an accent, they are blocking her because her lack of English comprehension skills. She rates herself as a 5 out of 10, but I bet it's more like a 3 out of 10 when you subtract points for the BS factor.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:39 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Aacon

    it is only being laid down as law that anyone running for any office has to be able to understand the language of the country they will serve at at least a high school graduate level,and I agree.They will be facing crooks who went to college,so I could be wrong to agree with my first sentence !

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

    I worked as a waitress in Germany through a school work program. I had to speak German. My German was just "proficient," so I could only take drink orders, not food orders. I kow what it's like to work in a country where English isn't the first language, and if I intended to move there, I would definitely improve my German FIRST. By the way, Spanish is as much a European language as English: it is NOT the native tongue of Mexico or any other "New World" country. The people who DO speak those native ("Indian") tongues are discriminated against in Mexico and treated like second-class citizens. Yet the same people who discriminate against those native languages in their own country come here and expect to be accommodated! It's very hypocritical. I honeymooned in Mexico, and there was very little accommodation, even for tourists!

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


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

      They were not running for office ...

      January 30, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Report abuse |
  7. LetsGetReal

    Just have a standard test ... if you can pass it you're good. If not ... learn English and try again ... common sense ...

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

      if watching young students has taught us anything about standardized tests, they will likely only memorize the answers, and not understand the questions – a much faster and efficient response to the hurdle than actually bothering to be fluent. Sadly, this is an experience that will be wasted: we need more bilingual americans, we are getting dumb enough as it is

      January 30, 2012 at 3:36 pm | Report abuse |
  8. h.

    Why dont we just give Arizona back to Mexico, kill 2 birds with one stone? I mean honestly you can't even say Arizona w/o speaking Spanish. WTH does Arizona mean in English? or Florida, California, Colorado, Texas, Nevada...English only? Start with state names!

    January 30, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Report abuse |
  9. jsf12

    The previously published transcript of the hearing gives one the impression she has effectively zero capacity to understand spoken English. That means she is unable to carry out the duties of the office. The state law is reasonable in its intent and she is clearly not eligible under that law.
    This biased CNN article (as usual) is full of quotes to give the reader the misimpression that Cabrera speaks English. The only detail that rings true is that on lawyer's advice Cabrera spoke only Spanish during the interview.

    January 30, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Durundal

    This is a tough call, There is a whiny redneck populist in me that wants to say this is america, so speak english: but honestly the citizens would likely be disserviced by doing so, as the culture is predominantly hispanic and should be allowed to take pride in their culture. My only legitimate complaint is that they might not be able to adequately interact with other governmental bodies and organizations if they are not fluent, which in the long run could be both costly and troublesome. Might be worth it to test the waters though, and experiment with the region and see how they turn out. Give the woman a shot – as long as she's keeping it clean and playing by the rules (the real ones, not political impedances), let the woman get her chance

    January 30, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • LetsGetReal

      It was be great if she becomes truly bi-lingual ...

      January 30, 2012 at 3:35 pm | Report abuse |
  11. DC Raider Fan

    I believe until Congress or the Executive Branch of government declares English the official language of the US, this will be a re-occuring problem in this country. Other countries around the world have laws in place that make it manditory to speak the language of that country, why are we in the US so behind the times. I get so frustrated calling any automated customer service line and having to choose (1) for English and (2) for Spanish, are you kidding me. This wrong on so many levels. If you come to this country legally or illegally then to stay in this country learn the ENGLISH language. I don;t feel that's asking too much!!! My 2 cents worth!!!

    January 30, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Geoz

    Even if she is illiterate, if the people want her in the office, she should hold the office. I hope they can write her in!

    January 30, 2012 at 3:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chris

      Why? Because she's hispanic? If she can't understand or comprehend the English language she's doing a dis-service to herself and the people.
      Think before you post.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:41 pm | Report abuse |
  13. ann west

    whytees don't speak native Australian, New Zealand, South African, or Native American dialects but their murderous tongues are wagging all over the place.

    January 30, 2012 at 3:34 pm | Report abuse |
  14. I copy/paste a lot

    So, here it is simply put:

    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.

    In 2006, Arizona passed a law that made English the official language of the state. It did not say ‘country or nation’, but the state of Arizona. Therefore the state has the right to govern the law passed by it.

    Cabrera graduated from the bilingual Kofa High School in Yuma, Arizona but was not taught to speak English well enough to meet the requirements to conduct the duties of the office without aid of an interpreter as ‘shall be a necessary qualification for all state officers and members of the state legislature,’ as a section of the act reads (2006).

    Cabrera should not be allowed on the ballot until she learns to speak English according to state requirements on the matter. It should be as simple as that. Good luck Cabrera and study hard. Kofa High should have their curriculum reconstructed so that it does not fail other students in the same way.

    It shouldn’t matter who ‘raised this concern’ about Cabrera since it is accurate.

    And lets not forget the ‘minority’ of citizens living in San Luis who do not speak Spanish – are we to take away their rights?

    January 30, 2012 at 3:34 pm | Report abuse |
  15. The Woof

    I love it learn to speak English says so many of the commentors, don't you mean learn to speak American? English is spokne in England just like Spanish is spoken in Spain, Mexican in Mexico. Our so called English is a mixture of British English, German, French,Spanish, Hebrew, American Indian, etc. So much for you not wanting multinationalism. Go to England and speak and if you don't hear words in "English" that you don't understand then just how good is your "English"? I agree with one commentor though because she would have to deal with a lot of situations that due to her lesser comprehension of the American language there would be a problem but then again how many of us read the freaking fine print on contracts that we sign much less understand it? You have people in Congress that don't even take the time to read a bill and it gets passed. The real thing that is holding her back is the law. Beacuse if 87- 98% of the town can understand her and communicate with her then as the commentors said hey that 2-13% had better learn whatever hybrid of the Spanish language she speaks!

    January 30, 2012 at 3:34 pm | Report abuse |
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