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. sandan

    I have a real problem with people who want to reap the harvest that America has to offer them, yet don't want to speak our language. Many years ago, I met a gentleman from Mexico City that was here in San Antonio selling items from a storage unit that he had rented. In particular, he had loads of old German/Austrian books. Since my wife was born in Germany, I was interested but also asked him why he had so many German books. He told me that his father was born in Germany and as a youngster both German and Spanish were spoken routinely at home. Truly interesting was the fact that he went to Germany, on vacation, as a 15-year-old, at the outset of WWll. He was then conscripted into the "Hitler Jugend" and did not leave Germany until after the end of the war. He also told me that he had 5 children and all of his family spoke at least 4 languages and that one of his daughters spoke 7. Much like when he was a child, multi-languages were spoken routinely in his home, especially at the dinner table. Where there is will, there is a way.
    Not to brag, but as a young soldier in Germany, I fell in love wiith my wife of 57 years who spoke 3 languages. I decided to learn German, and with the use of an English/German, German/Eiglish dictionary, I learned 2,000 German words in about 6 weeks. Had this woman any love for her country, she should have learned English years ago!

    January 30, 2012 at 3:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • sj

      What language is that? Native American? Because that my friend is what is TRUE American, not the language of the occupier. Know your history before decrying what is "American".

      January 30, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nick

      She is trying to improve her English. Did you read the article? How many languages can you communicate in? Also, is the judge and English instructor? If the voters want to elect her, that's their business, not the judge's.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • spectre

      Don't forget the Vietnamese immigrants, they are another bunch (generally speaking) that can't be bothered to learn English and adopt our ways, so the latinos are not the only offenders, just the biggest group thereof.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:03 pm | Report abuse |
  2. socalgal

    English. English. English. Demanding English be spoken at all government levels isn't racist–it applies to anyone–not just the Hispanics–who by the way, are the only immigrants in US history to not assimilate and don't wish to do so. The mere fact that they continue to remain uneducated in their chosen new homeland only reinforces the fact they have an agenda not in the best interests of the US. Instead of us lowering our standards for them to participate, they need to up theirs.

    January 30, 2012 at 3:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • BD

      socalgal...awesome...I agree..."up theirs"

      January 30, 2012 at 3:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • Fredflintstone


      January 30, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • marycontrary

      It probably isn't so much that they don't wish to learn English. They simply don't HAVE to when everything is already translated into Spanish. Look around you. Everywhere you go, where you shop, where you play, government offices, etc...everything is translated into Spanish. WE are making it so the mexican immigrants don't need to worry about assimilating.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • githm


      January 30, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Report abuse |
  3. PVille

    Every group of immigrants that ever came to the U.S, the Irish, the German, the Poles.... They all learned English. So why should we give Latinos the privilege of not having to learn another language. This sounds racist but PLEASE LEARN ENGLISH IF YOU WANT TO LIVE IN THE U.S. It's only common courtesy. A citizen should be able to communicate with other citizens, and if most citizens don't speak Spanish, learn English!

    January 30, 2012 at 3:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • iamdeadlyserious

      While I agree with your general point, you might want to take the Irish off your list of immigrants that had to learn English...

      January 30, 2012 at 3:38 pm | Report abuse |
    • Budget Analyst

      Good point PVille

      i am deadlyserious...Back then, the Irish and Scots spoke Gaelic, not english. Three of my direct descendants came from Ellis Island. While they took pride in their national language, both my grandmothers and one grandfather were only allowed to speak English once in America.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Report abuse |
  4. iamdeadlyserious

    I really wish I could side with Cabrera. I do. But if you want to be a civil servant somewhere, you need to learn the national language. Not really a debate to be had here.

    January 30, 2012 at 3:36 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Duke2012

    oh my gosh.. this is AMERICA... wake up people... this is the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA... this type of stuff really annoyes me.. if you want to live here the first thing you should do is learn the language... i will not get into the politics of it all but, let me tell you if i went to another country they would not let me run for an elected position in their city.. i am SICK AND TIRED of people coming from other Countries and thinking they have a RIGHT to be in our government, rule our government and tell our government what WE SHOULD GIVE THEM.. good gosh.. wake up American's and take a stand for what is yours or you and I are going to wake up and we are not going to be American's anymore we are going to ruled by immigrants of other Countries that came here and we just bent over and let them take over... OK... i digress... sorry...

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

    When we eventually become the majority in the U.S. as is destined to occur, we will NOT forget all this animosity people. We want to make this transition as smooth as possible, so please let's all get along:)

    -Latinos of America

    January 30, 2012 at 3:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tasa

      Yeah, ok. You ruined you rown countries, you couldn't organize a kegger, who are you kidding. Under achievers do not accomplish anything positive.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • Poge

      Gee how wonderful, then we can all move to Canada once you've turned the US into a backwater turd like Mexico.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Nellore Venkataraman

    This what will happen to the U.S., in future. As an american whose first language and mother tongue is not English, I want English should be made the legal and official language of U.S.A. English is the language of the world. If you speak English you can get by anywhere in the world–with Spanish not even in half of South America. In Brazil, Guyana, Suriname, people do not speak Spanish. By the by, I speak English very "fluidly" and Spanish moderately "fluidly".

    January 30, 2012 at 3:41 pm | Report abuse |
  8. ping rat

    No english should mean no green card, dept of immigration should not even consider an application from a non english speaker, mandatory prison terms for anyone employing someone who cannot speak the language its time to get tough girls.

    January 30, 2012 at 3:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • BD

      The ladies on this post are phenomenal...Jan Brewer is smiling right now and it's not necessarily because the Big "O" left with his tail between his legs...WOW! Great job to all of you English belivers...myself indlcuded...No speakee the language, no getee the dolla...

      January 30, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Tasa

    If she speaks English "good enough" why was theinterview in spanish?

    January 30, 2012 at 3:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • marycontrary

      Her attorney wouldn't let her answer in English. Nice eh?

      January 30, 2012 at 3:51 pm | Report abuse |
  10. GD

    I think that the most telling statement was from the resident who stated that Cabrera was just the right kind of person to represent her, because those are most of the citizens in San Luis. Her English is something she can work on. However, knowing that community, anyone can tell you that these are the kind of kids who graduate from high school in that community. That's why they want to represented by someone like them.

    January 30, 2012 at 3:42 pm | Report abuse |
  11. James PDX

    1st, does a country need an official language? I think it does. Communication is the key to so many things. Poor communication is a hindrance that can easily lead to misunderstandings. There is no good argument against sharing a common language. If there is to be an official language of the US, it's obvious that it needs to be English. Ms. Cabrera feels that because she will be representing a pocket of the US which is predominantly Hispanic, that it's Ok if she's only proficient in Spanish. But if we were to start making specials rules or exceptions based on the heritage of a community, we're moving toward segregating based on differences where the US is meant to be a place where we can instead be united by our commonalities. The last thing I want to see is a pocket of Russian immigrants being governed by Russians, Latinos by Latinos, or Africans by Africans. We're the United STATES of America. Not the united countries of america. One country – one language. If you want to live here and prosper, learn to communicate with ALL of the people who live here, not just the ones you feel are like you. Ms. Cabrera needs to continue her tutoring and then resubmit her name in the next election, at which time I'm sure she will make a fine representative for her community.

    January 30, 2012 at 3:42 pm | Report abuse |
  12. LaMoore

    "Cabrera, a U.S. citizen who graduated from the bilingual Kofa High School in Yuma, Arizona" there is where the problem is. They did not provide her with the appropriate English proficiency. This nation cannot afford to further divide by allowing a national language to shift from a single language. Arizona needs to improve the English proficiency of the bilingual schools if there is still a proficiency problem. If she is currently in office she should be given a grace period of 6 to 12 months or so to improve her language skills. If she is just beginning her political career she is working on her proficiency and can run once proficient.

    January 30, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Report abuse |
    • ping rat

      So if she has not reached an acceptable profieciency in english its the schools fault,

      January 30, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • ping rat

      So if she cant speak english its the schools fault?

      January 30, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • LaMoore

      Of Course PR how can a person be given a high school diploma if she has not achieved English proficiency... the school is a SNAFU school...

      January 30, 2012 at 3:51 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Jason S

    Illegals take the hint. MOVE OUT OF ARIZONA. They don't want you. Go to Texas, New Mexico, or California where they welcome you with open arms.

    January 30, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kia

      Hah, even calderon doesn't want them back in mexico.

      January 30, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Report abuse |
  14. lynn

    this is a joke.......try this in Mexico....or whereever you came from.......this is the United States...if you cannot speak proper English...and do not like our the way.......what is a bi -lingual school.???? in Florida and never heard of it........Good-Bye

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

    In my opinion it is disrespectful for people that come to this country and decide that they do not need to learn english or the norms, but take advantage of the freedoms we have. It shows laziness and disrespect in my opinion. Will someone enlighten me on why everytime something like this happens and the law is upheld there are those who claim racism the first chance they get? If the report is correct others on the council are fluent in english and spanish, so why should she be any different?

    January 30, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • ann west

      yes they are lazy. They should just kill everyone that doesn't speak their language like WHITES killed Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans, Native Americans and the list goes on

      January 30, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • ann west


      January 30, 2012 at 4:09 pm | Report abuse |
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